Interview: Sydney Thornbury

The chief executive of the Conservatoire tells Annette Rawstrone how she introduced an unashamedly 'pro-profit' approach to the south London music charity

Sydney Thornbury says her approach is 'unashamedly pro-profit'
Sydney Thornbury says her approach is 'unashamedly pro-profit'

Sydney Thornbury begins the interview by launching into talk of business models, being an entrepreneur and her unashamed love of profit.

She had to draw heavily on these things to rescue the Conservatoire, an independent music charity in Blackheath, south-east London. The charity was showing a loss of £535,000 when she took over as chief executive in January 2012, but it expects to break even by August this year.

Thornbury hopes her story will inspire other arts organisations to think differently about how they operate. "We are a charity, but we now run ourselves like a business," she says. "Officially, charities can only use the word 'surplus', but I am unashamedly pro-profit. Profit is great because you can do the fantastic society-changing things that you want to do."

Thornbury, an American who grew up in Los Angeles, says her artist parents and her grandparents, who ran a chemical corporation, laid the foundations for her dual interest in business and the arts.

But her passion for fresh thinking in charities was tested severely when, shortly after her appointment, she clashed with the board. Thornbury says there was a fear of risk-taking and a lack of willingness to embrace her ideas. "It was as if the Titanic was sinking and the board wanted to rearrange the deckchairs," she says.

Thornbury prevailed and, by the end of her first year, all the original trustees had left. "There had never been a rethink of the business model," she says. "I've since found out that it's not uncommon to walk into a charity, especially a community-based one, and find that it isn't run so well."

Thornbury found that the Conservatoire's music lessons were not covering their costs, and the charity wasn't using its buildings to their full potential. "We were sitting in a place that could make money, yet people were saying 'we just need someone to give us £1m'," she says.

"It was driving me crazy."

With the support of a new board, headed by Lord Andrew Mawson, a social entrepreneur and the founder of the Community Action Network, a social enterprise plan was put together to save the Conservatoire, redevelop the buildings and make the charity self-sustaining.

A key part of the business plan involved forming a strategic partnership with the adult education provider City Lit to put on art and design courses in the Conservatoire's Victorian studios and give the organisation a reliable income. A fundraising campaign was also launched, with Thornbury introducing an American 'pyramid' model to raise the £175,000 of bridge funding needed to give the organisation time to create a more sustainable business model. The local community got behind the campaign and local children even donated their pocket money, Thornbury says: "We smashed the fundraising target and raised £220,000 in six weeks."

She believes that the fundraising campaign repositioned the charity in the hearts and minds of local people. "We plough the profits into social impact work across the community," says Thornbury. "People like it when you tell them that when they take a violin lesson here, they're not just paying for the lesson - they're helping to bring music experiences and education to children in Lewisham and Greenwich."

The Conservatoire works with about 3,000 local children, 7 per cent of whose places are subsidised. The plan is to work with 10,000 children by 2016, with 35 per cent of that work subsidised. It also plans to host concerts and events in its Grade II listed building, and open a cafe.

Thornbury has drawn on both US and UK charity models to save the Conservatoire. There is little expectation of government subsidy in the US, which she thinks forces charities there to adopt a more entrepreneurial approach. The other side of this, however, is that it can lead to arts organisations becoming risk-averse. "Government subsidy needs to be part of the funding mix, but it should be used intelligently," she says. "I don't believe that all the statutory money out there is being used as effectively as it should."

Thornbury thinks it's right that the large arts organisations, such as the Royal Opera House and the National Theatre, get the most state subsidy, but she would like to see them paying into a national pot for smaller arts organisations from any surplus they make. She believes now is the time for arts organisations to work together and be creative.

"Innovation happens when you have problems to solve and times are tough," Thornbury says. "I don't like the cuts in statutory funding and I do believe the government has to support the arts - but I believe this era might turn out to be one of the most fruitful, creative periods we've had."

2012: Chief executive, Conservatoire
1999: Founder and executive director, WebPlay
1992: Project manager, education business partnership, Westminster City
1992: Youth theatre manager, Tricycle Theatre, London
1991: Freelance drama tutor in Los Angeles
1989: Owner and operator, Expresso Bongo coffee house in Philadelphia

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