An Unexpected Journey to Executive Director
November 5th, 2013
Kathleen Fargnoli didn't anticipate that her love for singing would lead her to putting together a board or applying for 501(c)(3) status. But that's exactly what happened when she ended up as the volunteer executive director of the Palisades Community Chorus in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
How did you become interested in choral music?
I am from a family of nine kids and we all took piano lessons and we all sang. I sang in high school choirs and in a community chorus at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. Then I was music ministry coordinator while in graduate school at Marquette. When I was having my children, I stopped singing for a time. After having my second boy, I realized that I needed singing in my life, so I started cantoring at my church here in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, and I joined the Palisades Community Chorus in 1992. With singing back in my life, things were so much better. It was a much needed escape and refuge for me. You don’t realize how much a part of your life it is until you are not singing.
Were you a music major in college?
No, I studied molecular biology. It’s a lot easier to do biology and do singing on the side, rather than being a voice major and doing biology on the side! I worked for the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, MD, for many years doing AIDS research.
Tell us about how you became executive director of the Palisades Community Chorus.
Aren't we all just bamboozled into these things? Donna Parris, an opera singer, formed the chorus in 1992 and directed it until 2000 when she left to pursue other opera opportunities in Philadelphia. We hired our present director, Dr. Jack Schmidt, that year.
After Donna left, another wonderful woman was keeping things going and I was just showing up to sing. Then I helped her out with a few things, and a few years later she wanted to retire. All of a sudden I was in charge. It was not a paid position. I was never hired or voted in. It just happened—as it happens to many.
How has Chorus America been helpful to you?
When I became executive director, I realized that I knew nothing about running a chorus. Clearly, we needed money to hire experienced orchestra people so that we could do the difficult repertoire that our director wanted. And I didn’t know how to get that money.
In 2004 I attended Chorus America's Chorus Management Institute, and discovered that we needed to become a nonprofit organization in order to raise money. I also found out that we needed articles of incorporation. I had no idea what those were! There was a lot of talk then about the composition of boards. Many groups had all-singer boards, which is great in the beginning, but can present problems as choruses become a little more established. We had no board at the time, but when we put the board together, I got three singers and two non-singers. I also put that requirement in the articles of incorporation.
When I got home, I asked a friend to help me fill out the paperwork to become a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. We submitted that in November of 2005 and were granted nonprofit status in July of 2006. That was a big day for me.
Did that make a big difference for the chorus?
Absolutely. If you don't have nonprofit status, funders don’t even look at you. That first year a couple of banks and a foundation gave us grants, and now a number of other arts philanthropic ventures support us. Every year I have managed to add a couple of local foundations. That’s what we learned from Chorus America: check your local foundations first, because they will tend to love you the most.
What else have you learned that has helped your chorus thrive?
This year at the Chorus America conference in Seattle, I learned about ways to recruit new singers to the chorus. For years we talked about the great music, the U.S. premieres we were doing, etc., but that’s not what gets people to come. The advice was to make joining less daunting—it’s just a once a week rehearsal, there are people to help you with the music, here is our concert schedule for the year, you’re off for the summer, etc. Yes, it is a commitment but it is not overwhelming. Once singers are in the chorus, it becomes about the music and that is what keeps them there.
I also learned some things about how to assess your concerts through audience surveys. Those giving grants don’t want to hear, “Oh, they just loved us!” We survey audience members both at the concert and online through Google Docs. Some prefer the paper and pencil version and some prefer the online version.
Among your chorus's accomplishments, what are you proudest of?
For our winter concert we performed Jan Dismas Zelenka’s “Te Deum Laudamus (ZWV 146).” It was the U.S. premiere of the piece. We were able to borrow the music scores from a choir in the Czech Republic. One of our board members called up the local NPR affiliate radio station. They interviewed our director and aired parts of the interview the whole week up until noon the day of the concert. It was astounding. My phone was ringing off the wall from people who had no idea who we were. So many people came who heard about it on NPR. There was no way we could ever afford to pay for the exposure we got on public radio.
People loved the Zelenka. When you are singing for all those people, knowing that this is the first time they are hearing that music, that is such a wonderful feeling.
But I guess what I am proudest of is getting the 501(c)(3) status for the chorus. Without that, we could not have performed any of the wonderful music in our repertoire. The 501(c)(3) process was out of my comfort zone and skill set, the road never taken, and definitely tested my capacity. But it has opened doors for the chorus that could not otherwise have been opened.