by Sherry Graham

Some ideas to get you started on the road to bringing funds into your organization.

I doubt that anyone ever founded or joined a community handbell ensemble in order to be able to spend more time having bake sales and car washes and attempting to sell candy bars or giftwrap to friends and acquaintances. We’re in this group so we can play! So, ideally, we fund our efforts by playing. We charge performance fees and sell tickets. We make recordings, and sell those. In this ideal situation, the money we make by playing meets and even exceeds our expenses. Hooray! We’re doing what we love, and the money rolls in! We can buy more bells, buy more costumes, buy more bells, buy prettier table covers, buy more bells, replace those ratty-looking mallets, buy more bells, and perhaps even buy a truck to haul them all around in!

However…

Let’s rewind to the early days of our community group. Nobody ever heard of us, let alone yearned to feature us in their Artists Series. Maybe we’ve just had our first organizational meeting, at which we made a list of our start-up expenses as compared with our cash on hand (none). Let’s say that we’re starting out on borrowed bells and that we don’t have to pay for rehearsal or storage space. That’s great, but we will still have some expenses. We need a way to meet them.

Borrowing start-up money from one or more group members may seem an attractive option, but it’s risky. For example, what if the group is never able to repay the loan? What if a rift occurs between the lender and the rest of the members? Rumors fly: Did Veronica pass the audition because they owe her two hundred bucks? If we have to borrow from group members, we’ll keep the amounts low, and we’ll have a plan for repaying them. In any case, we need a fundraising project, right away.

There are several fundraising methods available to non-profit groups. We can sell such items as candy bars and giftwrap assortments to our friends and associates. We, as a group, can perform work for another organization (taking tickets at a sports event, selling refreshments at a concert venue) for a flat fee or a percentage of what we sell. Or we can organize our own event, such as a car wash or a bake sale. Maybe we can get our families and friends to help us do our project. After researching the opportunities available in our area, we’ll choose the one (or more) that seems most attractive to most members of our group. (If we choose a project such as a car wash or bake sale, we must remember that location isn’t quite everything; publicity is everything else!)

Official status as a non-profit organization is a help when we seek contributions from private donors. Continuing to assume that we’re a non-profit group, a member who isn’t busy lining up a fundraiser should get busy researching grants for which we can apply. In this case, it can actually help that nobody ever heard of us! Local government arts councils often have funds set aside especially for new groups who can submit a convincing application. They can probably also help us learn to deal with the application process: should we be applying for help with operating expenses, or help in buying equipment? Grants may also be available from corporations and foundations operating in our area. They want to support the arts, and that’s us!

So far, then, we’re borrowing what we sensibly can, we’re getting ready to do the first of what will probably be many fundraisers, and we’re hoping for grant money. What else can we do?

All around us, musicians are playing for pay. As soon as our group is able to play at a wedding or a company’s holiday party, we’ll begin advertising. Individuals and corporations readily spend money for musical entertainment at all sorts of events, from a fancy anniversary party to the opening of a new supermarket. (Trust me. There we were, right across from the Imported Cheeses.) We don’t have to limit ourselves to venues where our whole group will fit. A small ensemble made up of our members can earn us some money while publicizing the whole group. Music that’s just fine for these events can be easy enough that it doesn’t need much rehearsal time.

At the beginning, our concerts will probably be free. (We’ll also play free, if necessary, in order to participate in civic events, which will yield excellent publicity.) After giving the audience a good show at our free concert and explaining to them that we’re a new group, we’ll ask for a donation to help us with expenses: “You’ll see a basket by the door as you go out, and we really appreciate your help!” This audience will talk to their friends and acquaintances. Our next audience will be bigger. Finally, somewhere down the line, we’ll sense that the time has come to start selling tickets. After some research into the ticket prices of other groups performing in our area, we can set a price that’s in line with our expenses and still fair to our loyal fans, who now want to bring their friends and relatives!

After a season of operation, we’ll need to sit down and evaluate the fundraising we’ve done. Was it enough? What worked, and what didn’t? Why didn’t it? What was particularly enjoyable or unpleasant? Also, how much money do we need now? Are we in debt? If we’re borrowing space or equipment, is that situation working for us, and can we expect it to continue? If we’ve given only a couple of concerts, it’s too soon to know if our audience is growing satisfactorily. Did we really show them a good time, so that they’ll want to hear us again and speak well of us to others? If our audiences were tiny (and all members of our immediate families), did we give them a good show anyway? What was wrong with our publicity? Apart from concerts, how many paying performances did we have? Do we need more, or not so many? Perhaps we’ll modify our plans, and then move on to the next season.

Only time can bring us to the ideal world, where our group meets all its financial needs by doing the thing we came together to do: playing handbells. Until that happens, if it ever does, some fundraising work is a small price to pay for getting to share our pleasure in these beautiful instruments with as great an audience as possible.