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Planet Guitar: Doing the Charity Thing

BY RONNY NORTH

Every year I try to do as many charity events as I reasonably can in my schedule. I firmly believe that it’s a great thing to be able to help great causes with your music if you can.

Some of the charities I have been playing for I’ve been doing for more than a decade. Some of my big charity events every year are the Special Olympics (I’ve done their event for the last 15 years) and various events for the US vets and troops. I have done events that are very lavish with many big stars on hand and the more common bare-bones affairs. Each has their pluses and minuses but both are equally important.

When doing charity events, there are a few things I have found over the years to consider. Let’s go over a few,

 

Rule #1 

Be Genuine

I will only perform at events for causes I truly believe in and understand. This is a big one and it ties directly into the next two rules.

One of the ways in which charity gigs are not that different from any other kind is that word gets around. In the “real”, non-charity world, people talk. Bookers and agents and talent buyers know each other and if you are doing gigs and doing well—which means bringing in people and making money for the people booking you—then it is not unusual to get the attention of a booker or buyer for another venue or festival. (That’s less true now than it was in the past. Today there are so many more bands and artists than there are good gigs that some agents etc just stick with the people/artists/bands they already have a relationship with and breaking through can be difficult, but it still happens.)

The charity world is like that but a little different. It’s more like when you do one charity event, word gets out to organizers of other events for other causes that you are someone who may be open to donating your time. Ask pretty much anyone who has ever done a charity gig and they will likely tell you that in the days/weeks/months after, they got calls from organizers of events for other charities noting they saw you at Charity A’s event and would you consider doing a show for Charity B.

Like most people who do regular charity gigs, I get quite a few more requests than I can accommodate. So I only do events for groups whose cause I know and understand and am trying to support. I do the Special Olympics events and the vet/troops events because those are causes I really believe in. More on this in Rule #3.

 

Rule #2

Be Smart

I also look into the organization if its someone I haven’t performed for before. Over the years there have only been a couple of times when I have had, let’s say, some “shady” dealings with certain charities and when I caught wind of the improprieties, I immediately terminated my relationship them.

There are many worthwhile causes these days. But, falling under the general heading of Sometimes People Just Suck, there is no shortage of “charities” that are either flat out phony or that exist more to pay salaries to the people who run the charity than to actually fund any cause.

As a general rule, no more than 35% of a charity’s revenue should go to administrative and fundraising costs. Those are exactly what they sound like. Administrative can include everything from salaries to renting office space and fundraising costs refer to how much the charity spends to bring in a dollar in new donations.

There has been a concerted effort in the past few years on the part of many charities to get out from under that 35% general rule and if you look online for what is an acceptable level of expense you’ll see whole sites dedicated to what they call the “Overhead Myth.”

Regardless, if the charity is a non-profit, they have to publish that info and you have every right to ask how much of each dollar they collect goes into programs and services for whoever—or whatever—the charity is supposed to be raising money for.

Or, if you are not comfortable asking that question, the info—like everything, pretty much—is online. Check out CharityNavigator.org where you can enter the name of the charity and get a score and a rating based on how the charity spends money and how open and accountable they are.

Bottom line. For better or worse, when you do charity gigs, YOU are associated with that charity and if it comes out later that they were ripping people off or only spending 10 cents of every dollar collected on programs while the other 90 cents were spent on lavish fundraising events and salaries, then it can reflect poorly on you, too. Do your homework on the charities you work with.

 

Rule #3

Be There For the Right Reason

What I have also found out as a happy accident is that charity events can be great networking opportunities and I have met many great people in the industry playing for charities.

But… And this is important. If you are doing the event because  you see it as a marketing opportunity and you don’t really have a connection or belief in what the charity is about, that is going to come through in 1000 tiny ways.

I mentioned earlier that I had done huge events with bunches of big stars there. And I can tell you for sure that charities putting on events like that don’t have a big problem booking acts for the big events. But if you are only “available” for the big ones and are not willing to spend a Sunday morning in a hot parking lot somewhere playing for a few dozen people because that event is part of what makes the big event possible… Well, let’s just say that the people involved in good charities are not dumb. And if you are only there because you think there is something in it for you in terms of other gigs or career advancement, they are gonna know. And you may find yourself getting nothing out of it while the artist who did those Sunday mornings get the attention and opportunities going forward.

If you are Kim and Kanye, you can get away with it because the charity is looking to your fame to bring more people in and by extension raise more money, But for the rest of the world, it just makes you look like a dick.

The bottom line is if you do charity gigs for the right reasons and you really believe in making a difference they are definitely worth your time.  They are also a great way to make a positive deposit in the Bank of Karma.

But this is why I really do charity gigs: I can’t even explain how gratifying it is to perform at these events when you meet the people after you get off stage and you see how much it means to them and that it gets their mind off whatever their issues are for a little while, Best of all, you’re helping a great cause with your music. It doesn’t get much better than that.

About the author

Ronny North

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