Growing up as a pre-millennial (I’m not sure what they call my generation these days) in the record companies’ final days of splurging on million dollar music videos before the industry’s slow denouement in the face of the internet, I watched a lot of music videos. Because I have always been a fan of adult contemporary hits, a lot of the videos I watched were on VH1, then known as MTV’s less-cool cousin. Amidst this constant ingestion of popular culture, I clearly remember seeing celebrity-filled ad after celebrity-filled ad imploring me to fight budget cuts in schools as part of something called the “Save the Music Campaign.” VH1 initiated the campaign in response to education budget cuts that swept education departments. Honestly, as a pre-teen this issue didn’t concern me much—my school still had a music education program and I could play you a pretty mean rendition of Aladdin’s “A Whole New World” on my recorder to prove it. Although seeing some of my favorite artists promote this initiative piqued my curiosity, it didn’t immediately spark me to take any direct action. Sixteen years later, I was curious to know about where the initiative is now, how it has changed the face of arts education, and whether or not the endorsements are worth the time and effort.
The VH1 Save the Music campaign was initially run out of the network’s Public Affairs department until it was spun off to become its own entity, the VH1 Save the Music Foundation, in 1997. At the time, the link between music education and academic achievement was getting more public attention just as more and more school music programs were cut back or folding under budget pressure. Given that climate, the newly formed VH1 Save the Music Foundation decided its mission should be to “to restor[e] music programs in America’s public schools, and rais[e] awareness about the importance of music as part of each child’s complete education.” Since then, the foundation has supported “$49 million worth of instruments to over 1,800 public schools across the United States,” directly funding schools and school districts to create an instrumental music program for their students.
In the business realm, celebrity endorsements or partnerships have long been a proven method for raising a brand’s profile and increasing sales. This general assumption is that this model can be successfully reproduced in the nonprofit sector as well. But what do these endorsements really mean for nonprofits, especially those in the arts? TheVH1 Save the Music Foundation seems to be a good case study for using the power of celebrity to maximize impact, enabled by its connection to a popular television network and the stars that network promotes.
Beyond the cycle of public service announcements featuring popular artists on VH1, the foundation stages a few high-profile events like the VH1 Divas concert to help raise funds and draw attention to the foundation’s work. The Divas concert has featured storied headliners like Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey, Tina Turner, Mary J. Blige and Shakira. The foundation also runs an annual “Music Ambassadors” cohort of artists and celebrities who agree to advocate and fundraise for the foundation. Current and former ambassadors include recording artists like Robin Thicke, B.o.B, Lupe Fiasco and Katy Perry. However, it’s not clear from the foundation’s website how these ambassadors are expected to use their influence to raise awareness about the importance of art in schools.
Indeed, despite its high-profile celebrity spokespeople, popular events and a highly visible platform, the VH1 Save the Music Foundation has recently had difficulty converting those assets into cash. The foundation’s most recent financial statements indicate that the organization has been facing fiscal challenges, ending the 2011 fiscal year with a deficit of over $300,000, or about 10% of its budget. In spite of the appearance of an affinity for the organizations from big names in the music industry, it has been difficult for the foundation’s fundraising efforts to match its programmatic needs. In fact, until 2012 the last year in the black for the Foundation was in 2005. Though this could be attributed to a number of factors like a large capital investment or the economic downturn which began in 2008, it does indicate that it takes much more than star-studded events and celebrity endorsements to raise funds substantial enough to cover expenses.
There is plenty of advice out there for arts organizations looking how best to engage and utilize high profile spokespeople and donors. For nonprofits seeking to elevate their work and communicate their message to a broader audience, celebrity partnerships can be a boon to the cause. However, if the sole goal of the partnership is to increase individual donations or inspire direct action, VH1’s experience suggests that organizations may want to think about a more comprehensive strategy.
- VH1 Save the Music vimeo: http://vimeo.com/vh1stm
- Chronicle of Philanthropy group discussion about celebrity endorsements: http://philanthropy.com/article/CelebritiesCharity/63247