In 1996 (the Columbus Gay Men’s Chorus’ sixth year) I became the “Fundraising Chair” on the CGMC board. In 1997 we decided to investigate the possibility of grant writing. After a year of no success, we applied to the Nationwide Insurance Foundation, and they offered some blunt feedback: Your volunteers pay dues, which makes you a club, and we don’t fund clubs.
This got me thinking – could we change “dues” to “music fees?” or “vocal instruction class tuition?” No, that’s just a shell game. Finally I called our then treasurer and asked, “could we get rid of member dues?” His reply was “sure, what do you want to cut?” We proceeded to discuss all the ramifications and came up with some core conclusions:
- Doing the Right Thing: If we are a true non-profit organization and want to be treated as such, maybe we should act like one. The more we considered it, the more eliminating member dues seemed like the “right thing to do” (or the right organization to be.)
- Eliminating dues would give CGMC a better platform from which to ask for grant monies.
- Eliminating dues would allow the organization to treat all volunteers and singing members and potential donors and contributors, not “club members.”
- We could approach singing members to become contributors in an amount that was significant to them (volunteers could give based on their ability to give, rather than a mandatory $145 a year.)
Ultimately we decided that in our new “dues-free” budget we could count on some grant money for the first time, plus we thought that at least half of the singing members would become voluntary financial contributors. In 1998 the CGMC annual budget was about $150,000.00 with approx. $14,000.00 coming from dues. To be sure, dumping almost ten percent from our budget in a leap of faith was a scary thing! But we did it.
Here’s what actually happened: The Nationwide Foundation reconsidered us, and gave CGMC a grant for $2,500.00. We announced to our singing members that dues were no more – and proceeded to treat members as any other personal financial contributor. Our singing members gave over $17,000.00 that year, far more than when they were required to pay.
Sure over time, giving by singing members has become an increasingly smaller percentage of CGMC’s budget – and that’s as it should be I think. By focusing on corporate, foundation and public support, as a “non-dues, non-club” performing arts organization, grant monies have blossomed from these additional funders: Ohio Arts Council, Greater Columbus Arts Council, Columbus Foundation – all general operating support, and PNC Bank – project support. Over the past five year, CGMC has yielded more than $251,500.00 (including $70,000 this fiscal year) from these four funders alone, with our total operating budget now exceeding $350,000 in 2013-2014.
My advice? Don’t be afraid to consider coming out of the “club” closet. If your chorus were a for-profit company, your singing members would be your stockholders. Treat your members as “stockholders” and ask them to invest in this organization that they care so deeply about. And then watch what happens!
Maybe doing in dues is “The Right Thing To Do.”