Doing in Dues

Posted on: January 17th, 2014 by Rob McLean GALA Articles 1 Comment

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:

  1. 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.)
  2. Eliminating dues would give CGMC a better platform from which to ask for grant monies.
  3. Eliminating dues would allow the organization to treat all volunteers and singing members and potential donors and contributors, not “club members.”
  4. 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.”

 

Rob McLean

Rob McLean currently serves as president of the board for the Columbus Gay Men’s Chorus.

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  • Craig Coogan

    Each organization and each community should make dues decisions based on the unique needs of their choruses and their communities. There’s not really a one-size fits all determination. What works in Columbus may not work elsewhere where there isn’t a corporate giving environment. Singers in other communities may also be used to a tradition of paying a fee to be a member. Membership has its privileges…and it’s responsibilities.

    It also matters what you consider (and communicate) dues are for. Most CPA’s I’ve worked with over 20+ years of being associated with LGBT Choruses define dues as ‘earned income’ and not ‘contributed income.’ The distinction is such that in most cases – members get value for what their dues are for – the most direct is the license fee for the music they’re working on. When members understand that dues are covering costs they get individual value out of, the resistance to them goes away.

    In the Choruses I have worked with – from very small to very large – the dues line is a relatively small percentage of overall budget. But it’s an important part of the budget. Members have also been generous supporters of these Choruses above the dues – as they recognized that dues held a specific role in the funding process. Having a balanced approach to budgeting to me means having many diverse streams of revenue, and dues is one of them. This is the first time I’ve heard a funder didn’t appreciate this structure.

    I’m glad it’s worked in Columbus. Bravo! It may not work elsewhere.