I started writing this for my personal blog. The one that no one reads or knows about, where it feels safe. Maggie talked me into putting it here instead. Which is less safe, but since this is really about what it feels to try to keep CASH Music standing…well…here goes:
When we talk about CASH Music we talk a lot about what we’re trying to do, and less about the day to day of what we do and who we are. I guess in a lot of ways it’s nicer to write phrases like “sustainability for musicians” than “here’s why this is really hard.”
A little background for the uninitiated: CASH Music is a small nonprofit in Portland, OR. We work with musicians to find career sustainability through education and free, open-source tools to help things like selling, promoting, and distributing music. Open-source means we build all of our code in the public eye, and we shape it by building real projects for working musicians — we believe strongly that musicians and artists need technology they can own and rely on without cuts taken out, new fees, or new closed networks built on their backs.
But there I go talking mission over details again.
I mean it when I say we’re a small nonprofit. We’re two people. Maggie Vail and I are the only full-time staff, with Tracy Soo-Ming helping on a very part-time basis. We have an amazing board, occasional volunteer help, a growing membership of hundreds of musicians, plus a few thousand beta testers.
For all those people, the day-to-day stuff all comes down to Maggie and myself. We’ve learned to compartmentalize and embrace a fragmented and occasionally jagged line forward. In the last year we’ve managed to launch the beta of our hosted service, add new platform features like mass mailing and multiple currencies, redesign the admin app, build membership and community, and put on the first of what will hopefully be many in-person summits anchoring our evolving educational efforts.
Those are the public-facing things. To get them done we need to navigate the administrative pitfalls of a growing nonprofit. There are everyday things like tech support, bug fixes, planning and messaging, etc. We were denied our 501(c)(3) application. Rather than walk away we chose to get ready to apply again, which involved moving the nonprofit itself from Rhode Island to Oregon, reworking mission and organizational structures, and sorting our now-changed tax status and responsibilities for the past five years.
All that stuff is fine. The thing that really wears on us is fundraising.
Money and I have never really gotten along. It’s not that we don’t like each other — I feel an appreciation for the things it can do and it’s an inanimate object so I doubt it feels much at all for me. But there’s something about fundraising for a young nonprofit that absolutely crushes your soul and makes you wonder if you can go on. In one part, it’s the fact that in our world we’re often six to eight weeks away from our final paychecks — needing to figure out next steps or walk away. That weight takes a toll.
But I think it’s actually something in the scale versus the pace of the organization that really makes me lose sleep. The first few years no one got paid. I lived off side jobs and built it up with all the rest of my time. Kristin and others we worked with would kick in and keep servers on. It was terrible, but when things are terrible and small it’s easy to maintain. “How are things?” “Terrible.” “Oh right. Well then, carry on!”
As CASH has grown so have our administrative efforts and the need for fundraising. It was around two years ago that this dream job became a full-time job, and even with modest salaries there’s an ever-present shadow of new fundraising efforts over everything we do.
(Disclosure: my take-home pay every month is around $3800. People ask, and I assume others wonder. Both Maggie and I have turned down offers for a lot more but it’s hard to walk away from a dream job. also we don’t own CASH Music. Nonprofits basically own themselves, so we’re employees. There’s no “yay we got acquired” or other startup-style payday in our future. We like it that way.)
The part about no one owning CASH is significant to this particular narrative. With no ownership, no one can invest in or buy a stake in the organization. So in fundraising we can’t raise investment, we can’t offer a tax write-off, many grants are closed to us, and we have to stick closely to 501(c)(3) rules in order to re-apply. We need to find people who genuinely care about our mission of artist sustainability and figure out ways to bring them value.
Our first real break came a couple years back when MailChimp sponsored our efforts to integrate with their service. They did so in a way that allowed us to move forward, with no strings attached and no exclusivity. We could model the platform as planned, allowing other services to integrate on even footing. That relationship has grown to include their Mandrill mass mailing product, and they’ve graciously sponsored our platform and summit events. That set a precedent and we’ve since gotten similar no-strings support from Mozilla and Google — furthering open development and outreach to artists as well as sponsorship of the platform and summits.
We’re working on other sponsorship-style fundraising efforts, but they’re generally long engagements and they take a lot of work. So we’ll be doing a public fundraiser before the year is out, maybe another Kickstarter, and we’re working on offering some kind of voluntary membership program. (We won’t ever gate off functionality in the platform, even hosted, so it’ll be something modest with a bundle of value-add offerings like a AAA membership for working musicians.) Basically there’s a plan and we’re piecing it all together slowly.
I’m writing all this for a couple reasons. First to get it out of my head. You can imagine the obsessive buildup as you work your dream job, trying to bring a long-term change that’s needed, knowing that it could end any moment. I’ve been across the country visiting family this week, working slowly towards new element structures in the platform. The work is sorely needed, and all the while there’s been summit planning and fundraising forcing their way into my head — in between bringing our girls to meet new cousins or see the ocean that used to be our back yard.
The other reason I’m writing is to open up our process. Some folks ask why certain features aren’t ready, or why our roadmap moves around so much. The answer is triage. We’re constantly finding the most important thing and addressing it. One day it’s a summit, the next it’s bug fixes or UI changes, the next features, but all too often it’s fundraising.
I realize that CASH, as an organization, is in the midst of growing pains. We’re closer than ever to lifting the “beta” tag from the hosted version of the platform and updating installers for a huge leap forward of the downloaded version. When we can we’ll hire a fundraiser, I’ll play more of a management role, and we’ll push forward on education with Maggie helming the summits and our online curriculum. It’s exciting, and there are changes on the horizon, but for now I just want to get the platform polished and out of beta. So if you’re sitting on an end-of year marketing budget and want to do some good in the world please reach out. I’m always available, my number is (401) 864-2118, and I’ll talk about any idea that pushes fundraising and administration out of my head in favor of building.
So there’s my long catharsis about fundraising and growing a nonprofit from the ground up. It was helpful to type even if it’s a bit of a boring read. I hope it shed some light on things for anyone who might be interested. Next week we do our second summit date and immediately following we’ll have more code sprints, more announcements, and more features rolling out.
Now I’m hopping on a plane back home to Portland with a clear head, ready to raise less corn and more hell. There are exciting times ahead.