The We Are All Music Foundation supports organizations like Jazz House Kids, which works to bring music into educational settings.
The We Are All Music Foundation supports organizations like Jazz House Kids, which works to bring music into educational settings.

David Zusman co-founded the We Are All Music Foundation in 2019, serves on its board, and has been working with 25 other volunteers to get the new grantmaking entity in Montclair, New Jersey, off the ground. The foundation supports music nonprofits dedicated to three social causes: health and wellness, education and underserved communities.

The organization got its start during a tough time for nonprofits devoted to music, with venues shuttered, in-person classes and events canceled, and entire revenue streams locked down during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, fundraisers faced a challenging landscape in which service providers and social justice groups took the spotlight, for good reason.

And yet, many groups we spoke with soldiered on during the difficult year, and are beginning to look ahead to a brighter future, thanks to the generosity of loyal donors and institutional funders that stepped up. One of the messages that has resonated during this time is that, as Zusman puts it, music is a critical societal need, not an extra.

“We are a central voice for nonprofits nationwide using music to empower social change,” says Zusman. “Music is underappreciated as an avenue to achieve progress on social issues. Music is regarded as ‘nice to have.’ Instead, it should be regarded as an all-essential ingredient that really influences social causes.”

In fall 2020, We Are All Music made its first round of grants to just eight music-focused charities out of 287 that applied. A second round of grants is planned for early 2022. Zusman and his fellow volunteers want to make the foundation’s grants large, repeated and transformative for a slowly growing number of recipient music groups that are, as Zusman says, “the best in class.”

One of the first groups to get a grant from We Are All Music is a charity called Hip Hop Public Health, which uses popular music and other tools to promote healthy behaviors among communities of color. Recently, for example, the group released a series of music videos urging viewers to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

We Are All Music has big plans to measure the impact its grantees make with an eye toward persuading big companies and other donors to step up and support music as a way to achieve socially desirable results. “Corporations have been underinvested in music causes,” Zusman says. “Generally, the music industry has not done a great job of measuring impact and being quantitative. We aim to change that.”

Surprisingly resilient

Raising money for a new music organization amid a global pandemic comes with challenges, Zusman acknowledges. Even well-established music charities, like other performing arts groups, have faced a sharp drop in revenue over the past 14 months due to canceled performances and shuttered venues. But as COVID cases and deaths decline in the United States and nonprofits start planning for live audiences again, multiple fundraising experts say they’ve been pleasantly surprised that American music groups fared as well as they have during the health crisis.

Many music charities reported big increases in donations last year from loyal donors. The Music Center in Los Angeles, one of the country’s largest performing-arts venues and home to the Walt Disney Concert Hall, announced a $25 million gift for new programming, including free summer concerts, from Tina and Jerry Moss in October. “We were sensitive to the fact that all arts organizations don’t have this sort of support,” says Valentine Gelman, the center’s senior vice president of advancement. “This speaks to the power of the arts.”

COVID-related aid from the Paycheck Protection Program and other government funds has also been a lifeline for numerous music organizations, although such public aid has often been hard to tap. The Music Hall in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, lost 90% of its earned income last year, prompting the organization to let all part-time workers go, and by September, it also laid off 40% of its full-time staff. To cope, the Music Hall turned to state and federal agencies.

The Music Hall applied for a Shuttered Venues Operators Grant, part of a $16.1 billion program included in the coronavirus recovery plan passed by Congress in December. While the grants were designed to help arts organizations that could no longer earn money from concerts and other performances, the Music Hall was one of many to be frustrated when applications were delayed due to technical problems with the government portal administering the program. On June 15, the National Independent Venue Association reported that less than 1% of applicants had received any funds from the program.

Grantmakers step up

Fortunately, foundations moved surprisingly quickly in making emergency COVID-related grants, and relaxing their pre-pandemic restrictions and requirements during the health crisis. At Chamber Music Pittsburgh, which had an annual budget of $350,000 before the pandemic, giving was up substantially in its most recent fiscal year, which ended July 31, 2020. Foundation grants nearly doubled to $140,000, up from $71,500 in fiscal year 2019.

“The reason is the messaging we provided early in the pandemic, that we truly needed patrons to help us get to the other side,” says Kristen Linfante, the chamber music group’s executive director.

Another local organization, the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh, saw a healthy increase in fundraising returns in 2020. At the end of its fiscal year on June 30, the choir had raised close to $900,000, including a large in-kind gift, up from about $650,000 in a typical year. A month ago, the choir hired a new director of annual giving. “Like everybody else, we want to concentrate on growing individual giving, says Mary Ann Lipinski, the choir’s executive director.

But the choir had other difficulties, having to cancel five revenue-generating concerts while its staff shrunk by a third, Lipinski says. Like other music organizations, she says, the choir has dropped direct-mail solicitations in favor of cheaper online appeals for donors, and during the pandemic, it also took a more cautious approach with its individual supporters.

“We wanted to be sensitive to people’s lives being turned upside down,” says Lipinski. “It felt like we had to be more low-key in fundraising. We took advantage of [government aid] and elevated grantmaking by foundations. We looked more to our institutional givers in this period than to individuals.”

Some big music charities struggling

In a twist on traditional fundraising trends, in which larger, more sophisticated organizations usually have an edge, some of the country’s biggest music-focused nonprofits seem to be struggling more than their smaller counterparts. New York’s Metropolitan Opera, for instance, is challenged by a $150 million pandemic-related loss in revenue, about half of the opera’s $300 million annual budget, which includes some $200 million in labor costs.

As it prepares to reopen, the Metropolitan Opera is seeking pay cuts from about 2,500 union employees, while also working to assure audiences that its indoor venues are safe. The allegations of nine men about years of sexual abuse by longtime Metropolitan conductor James Levine, who was finally dismissed from his job before dying in March, have not helped the storied organization’s image.

Meanwhile, some smaller music-focused groups we spoke with have been basking in the glow of pandemic-related goodwill from individual supporters. At the Capitol Center for the Arts in Concord, New Hampshire, which stages numerous concerts, “I sat at my desk, looking at the calendar of performances that just vanished,” says Katie Collins, director of development. “We started calling our top donors and asking them how they are holding up. That led to some pretty amazing gifts in March and June 2020.” When the fiscal year closed the following month, on July 31, Collins says, the donors’ gifts made the organization’s shortfall about $25,000 on a fundraising goal of at least $600,000, a smaller drop than it otherwise would have been.

Many of the Capitol Center’s top donors had extra funds they couldn’t spend on travel and other discretionary items in the pandemic, Collins notes. “We were nervous about making asks, but once we started talking to donors, it became clear they wanted to support us. In a small area like this, donors really know you. They told us they miss us.”

Collins and her colleagues started putting donors’ notes and cards on a bulletin board in the fundraising office. The donors’ words, Collins says, “are thoughtful and encouraging; it shows their incredibly deep care about people who work here. It’s not just about the performances. This only happens in smaller communities.”