How To Do What We Do

From time to time, an email arrives in my inbox from a jazz group in another part of the country interested in starting a school program such as the AJW in their area, and asking for advice.  Like this one:

“I would really appreciate any advice that you have about starting a
program that focuses on jazz performances in the schools.  I have some
questions including the following:  How did you initially get started with
the program?  … Do you have any tips for an organization that wants to start performances in the schools?”

Absolutely!  Lots of tips!  (and let’s not get into the story of the dyslexic bar patron who misinterpreted the message on the “TIPS” jar)

Trouble is, some ideas may not hold true for your area, because every community is different in terms of what support there is for arts and education.  But I’ve never been shy about giving advice: good, bad, or ugly.

No matter where you live, I am firmly convinced that there are five things you MUST do.  Here they are:

1.  Join your local musicians union, if you have not already, and make sure you hire from within the local.  Why?  Because you’re a professional, because you want to work around kids, and because some funding may be available to you for educational outreach through your local.  Also, it’s more reassuring to school administrators and teachers, many of whom belong to their respective unions, to realize that you are also members of a group where professional standards are upheld.

2.  Incorporate as a nonprofit.  Without a 501(c)(3) designation, your group is dead in the water.  This means planning ahead, because it can take the IRS four to six months or more to view your application and decide on your nonprofit status.  There are lots of filing requirements and legal requirements for starting and maintaining a nonprofit, and many people look at that and get scared off, maybe opting for applying for funding under the auspices of another nonprofit’s legal status.  Don’t.  Do it yourself–it’s not that hard if you go step by step.  There’s a lot of help out there on the web, but you’ll probably need the in-person assistance of an attorney and an accountant at some point.  Find it, pro bono if possible.

3.  Diversify your sources of funding.  This is crucial.  There is absolutely no way the AJW would have survived and expanded through seventeen years if we were relying on a small handful of donors.  Many times, a minor donor turns into a major one over time.  Particularly when you’re dealing with state and local government funding, the amounts can swing wildly from year to year.  So build that funding base just as soon as you can, as varied as you can.  Chase those small donors–we still do.  The “Grand Slam” donor is like the Loch Ness Monster–maybe out there somewhere, but never sighted.

4.  Grow organically.  Start small and build.  Getting from fourteen to one hundred twenty annual performances has taken us seventeen years.   If you had pulled me aside that first year and told me the amount of administrative work that this organization would eventually take, there’s no way I would have taken it on.  I’m a performer, not an administrator, right?  But since it has grown gradually over a period of years, I didn’t even notice the water in the pot was getting warmer.  Ribbit.

Also, part of this is to have a flexible mission statement.  Be prepared to change it if you need to.  Our mission statement wasn’t solidified until the third year.  It took that long to figure out what we hoped to do and how to position ourselves for our target audience.

5.  Build a strong Board of Directors.  Often, a fledgling organization populates their board with fellow musicians or family members.  Nothing could be more detrimental than having a small, incestuous group steering your effort.  You need a board made up of people who can help you get funding, since that is their primary function.  Don’t be afraid to ask people you don’t know personally.  Unless you’re well-connected, you will probably have to do that.  Good types for your board: an attorney (one is best; they are like Siamese fighting fish), arts administrators, philanthropists, a webmaster (also like Siamese fighting fish), heads of corporate giving for large corporations.  Does this list sound far-fetched?  We have or have had all these types of people on our board.  It takes time to assemble, but it’s well worth it.

There’s a lot more involved, of course: content, project structure, aligning a curriculum with state standards, hiring & firing, scripting a kid-friendly show…notice how we haven’t played a note yet?  But you gotta start somewhere.

And a-one, and a-two, and-a…

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