How Kimmel Center CEO Anne Ewers separates the rich from their money
If there’s one place where a newcomer to Philadelphia can get a frightening dose of reality, it’s the airport. Last winter, when Kimmel Center CEO Anne Ewers was flying in from Salt Lake City for a final job interview with Kimmel trustees, her plane was — here’s a shocker — late. “She ran out of the airport, and there was a giant cab line,” recounts Kimmel board president and Liberty Property Trust CEO Bill Hankowsky. “So she systematically taps each person on the shoulder and explains, ‘I have a really important interview.’” So, um, she asked to jump the cab line of bitter, cold, been-circling-the-airport-for-hours Philadelphians? “They all agreed,” says Hankowsky triumphantly.
Clearly, the brave and poised Ewers, who is 55, is going to have no problem hitting up, say, Brian Roberts for a few million dollars. And asking people for money — whether it’s wealthy individuals, or organizations such as the William Penn Foundation and the McNeil family’s Barra Foundation — is what Ewers has been doing all day, and pretty much every night, since she arrived in Philadelphia in July, because the Kimmel Center is in acute need of $60 million to plump up its endowment and eliminate construction debt by December 31st of this year.
“A deadline is a good thing,” says Ewers, who was the director of the Utah Symphony & Opera for the past 16 years. “A deadline motivates givers.” It’s true: Call it The Lesson of The Gross Clinic, but it turns out that Philadelphians like a sense of urgency and importance in their philanthropy. Even the people who hired Ewers — Kimmel trustees — are responding to the cash crunch. “We’re asking the board to do $12 million to $15 million this year,” Ewers explains rather breezily.
It’s that matter-of-fact directness that’s the key to Ewers’s fund-raising ability. Of course, you have to be really, really good at schmoozing to get people to hand over their millions. But you also have to be real, and have a cause people can get behind, which is why Philly’s museums were able to raise $68 million for The Gross Clinic, but no one had a landmark fund-raising campaign for the Rocky statue. Ewers is exceptional at selling the Kimmel even to the Kimmel. “I think the board is prepared to pony up, quite candidly,” says Kimmel trustee and insurance executive Samuel Savitz. “She handles herself in an exceptional manner. … She has charmed the board.”
Ewers’s savviest move during her series of Kimmel interviews wasn’t talking her way through a cab line, though. It came when a New York-based friend attended last year’s Academy Ball in Philly and spirited away the venerable Academy Ball book, which lists every major Orchestra donor and supporter. In detail, with photos. Said friend shipped the book overnight to Ewers, who studied it en route to her meeting with Kimmel trustee Paul Tufano.
“So I had the famous book,” says Ewers, with a laugh, “and Paul Tufano came out and saw me with it. He said, ‘Oh my God, where did you get that book?’”
“FRED SHABEL had invited me to go to see Genesis,” Ewers says during a recent afternoon meeting with Kimmel staff, planning that week’s fund-raising salvos as methodically as one might, say, plot an IPO. There she was in the box for the rock concert with Shabel, the Comcast-Spectacor exec, and his wife Irene, says Ewers. “And the suite was full of younger couples, people we could get involved with the [Kimmel] gala.” Ewers, who is single, is still figuring out the Philly players; she takes notes every night on whom she’s met, then does research on their finances, their interests, even their musical likes and dislikes, so that she can have prospects join her in the Kimmel President’s Box.
“I think there’s major buckage there,” she speculates to Rose McManus, a Kimmel development executive, of a certain bubbly blond Rittenhouse Square socialite with whom Ewers enjoyed ’80s-tastic beats in Shabel’s box. The two agree to invite said socialite to work on next year’s Kimmel gala, and to sit in Ewers’s box for a performance of someone cool, like K.D. Lang, and to go to dinner with Ewers. …
Which is how the magic of fund-raising works. Specifically, for Ewers, it boils down to four crucial steps:
Step one: Create a buzz. With the Kimmel, this wasn’t as hard as you might think. It seems everyone in philanthropic circles was ready for a new face, and after some newspaper stories stressing the urgency of the Kimmel’s financial plight, and a few cocktail parties with Kimmel trustees, Ewers was ready to …
Step two: Meet everyone. Everyone with money, that is. Since July, Ewers has spent her days, and nights, breaking bread with new friends such as jeweler Craig Drake and Brian Tierney, gleaning ideas for donors from the PMA’s Anne d’Harnoncourt (“Ray Perelman brought us together at lunch yesterday — I loved it,” says Ewers of meeting d’Harnoncourt), and attending parties thrown for her, like one given last fall by Ann Weaver Hart, the president of Temple. These help her to …
Step three: Arrange key meetings. Armed with research about the individuals and foundations she’s approaching, Ewers e-mails her well-connected trustees to have them set up some face time. And then …
Step four: Move in for the “Ask.”
“I’VE HAD TWO incredible meetings in the last week,” Ewers says happily in October. “The first one was strictly a get-acquainted meeting,” she explains, with the head of a foundation, “and I was not to mention money. So we did all the niceties, and then the individual said, ‘Okay, let’s get to the bottom line.’ The people who had instructed me about the meeting were in the room,” she adds, “but I thought, okay, let’s get to it.” Ewers told him exactly how much she thought his foundation should proffer, and what that money would accomplish.
“I think it’s different things for different people, but I’m always very direct and very transparent, and I don’t play games,” Ewers explains of the Ask. “You have to ask yourself: What does this person need?” So when potential donors, say, rehash old mistakes that the Kimmel might have made financially, she hears them. If they’re education-minded, she can speak to Kimmel programs that reach thousands of school kids each year, or if they’re passionate about music, she can speak to the Kimmel’s variety of programming. And most crucial of all: “Just listen, listen, listen. So you can support and respond.”
“I also don’t give up,” she says. This confidence generally works, as it did with the foundation head. “Watching his face go from pleasant listening to his eyes lighting up, and seeing this moment of transformation, and him saying, ‘I will take this to my board,’ was incredible,” Ewers says. With philanthropic individuals, she’ll talk — and listen — about their musical tastes, their families, their concerns and dreams for the city. (She adds that she’s never before been in a place where people are so eager to share the flaws of their hometown.) “I believe that finding the right fit with the donor takes far more creativity than anything onstage, or at least as much creativity,” Ewers says.
She’d know. Born in a small town outside Chicago, Ewers started out in the 1980s as a successful director at the Boston Lyric Opera; soon, though, it became apparent that she was also incredibly good at raising money. When the opera was shut down for lack of funds, Ewers managed to talk, implore and excite the board of trustees into saving the organization by basically locking them in a room until they coughed up the needed dough — and, weirdly, found she loved doing it. Which is not to say that Ewers is disingenuous — in fact, she’s incredibly, seriously enthusiastic about opera, classical music, and the performing arts. Take the time she convinced her Utah trustees to raise more than $900,000 to produce a new opera based on The Grapes of Wrath. (Now if that’s not a fun evening, what is?)
It seems the ridiculously rich of Philadelphia are loving Ewers’s refined ballsiness and slender good looks. When Drake took her to Brasserie Perrier in October, he was left enchanted. “She’s friendly, she’s focused, she’s fabulous,” says Drake, a bit breathlessly. Donors are responding to her directness — “I asked for $2 million within 10 minutes of meeting him,” she says of one exec — especially the anonymous billionaire who has promised to match the first $24 million she raises. (The billionaire wants to be anonymous, but the place is called the Kimmel Center.)
Ewers is positive there’s more money out there beyond what the Perelmans and Lenfests offer. “There are so many people with the willingness and the wherewithal who haven’t been asked,” she shrugs, adding that she’s just met with a well-known Main Line media mogul who gave her a list of dozens of people who have “major buckage” but aren’t yet a presence on the philanthropy scene: Think younger, newer money that might well love to see its name engraved on the wall of the Kimmel lobby. “We get X amount of money from a very small handful of donors,” she explains. “That’s risky. If anyone has a turn of health, or if their heirs are not interested in the same philanthropic interests, that’s risky.” (The Kimmel isn’t about to shut down if her target isn’t met, but Ewers explains that if its bonds aren’t paid by December 31st, there’ll be some $1 million in debt service fees.
So for Ewers, the parties and cocktails just keep flowing — that’s where the money is. She bought a house in Society Hill last spring, but hasn’t had much time to do anything but work since she’s been in Philly. On rare free moments on weekends, she hangs out with the cute guys from Star Construction who are renovating her house. “We get falafel for lunch,” she says.
With that, Ewers, elegant in a pink suit and Ferragamo heels, heads off to confront an entity even scarier than a billionaire donor or an airport cab line. She’s about to face the gauntlet of the admissions committee at the Union League. She was, of course, accepted.