Please Go Fund Me…(although you aren’t really sure where the money is going)

debaseinstallFinancing the Marching Arts

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It isn’t a mystery to anyone who knows me or reads my blog, that I have an issue with how we use money in this activity and the accountability that goes along with it. In my last post, The Great Middle Class Divide, I attempted to make a case for the collection of data so we as an activity can look across the regions and see how costs have or have not risen in relationship to the past recession starting in 2008. For many years now, the community of the pageantry arts has been inundated with requests and pleas for funding individual accounts for winter guard, marching band, and drum corps. Our activity is no different than any other. On a quick search of the Gofundme website, you’ll see every sport and activity represented from baseball to synchronized swimming. Sports and youth activities across the board have risen in direct counter relationship to the falling incomes in America. You can find that data in a number of resources that research the effects on the economy on youth. In 2012, Mark Hyman released a book called, “The Most Expensive Game In Town,” where he did extensive research on the phenomena of youth sports and the cost to middle class families. It was shocking to say the least. That’s when I started looking at the pageantry arts and my frustration with our lack of data collection to get a true picture of who is participating and what it is they are paying.
GoFundMe is a crowdsource website that allows anyone with a cause to set up an account and ask for donations. Let’s first discuss about some of the big issues with it that has caused a number of news outlets to report on the organization. Anyone, ANYONE can set up an account for anything and beg for money. I, Shelba Waldron, can set up an account for just about any winter guard out there and advocate for them. However, I don’t have to give the money to that team, if that team even knows I’m raising money for them. Is it illegal to fundraise and then keep the dollars from the cause it’s supposed to go to? Yes. Is it on the radar of the feds…maybe….sort of…well…not really. They have bigger fish to fry. GoFundMe has been reported on numerous times of the scams out there. The most disgusting are the people who hear about a child with cancer and raise money for that child, but the parents never see a dime. Yes that happens. The second part, is that GoFundMe keeps 5% of all donations. In their defense, they have to make money. Then there is the 3% for withdrawal. So, you lose 8% right off the top. It’s also possible (although, there has to be over $20,000) that the IRS will tax your campaign based as income received. My personal favorite campaign I’m following is for some frat guy to raise money for a tailgate blowout for the SEC Championships. Ummmm…o.k.
Now why is it I really hate the GoFundMe accounts? It’s because at the end of the day, I have absolutely no idea where the money is going. I don’t know how much the student seeking funds has contributed to their own fundraising and I don’t know if they truly intend to march or not. What if I find a student that is just great? Truly deserving based on what they wrote and supported by their staff. O.k. great! I donate $100 to that campaign. What if that student then decides to quit? What if they break their leg? What if their grades aren’t good enough to stay in the program? What if their parents pull the plug mid season? What happens to the money? How about this? What if the performer raises some of the money, but not all of it? How do I know they paid their dues in full and offered anything to the unit they are performing with?
When I read the GoFundMe requests, I wonder how much their parents paid into their account. I wonder if the child comes from poverty or the upper middle class. I wonder if the parents are participating in fundraising. I wonder if the performer in question just bought the latest IPhone 12. I wonder if the performer is going to college or plans to. I want to know more than, “Please give me money to pay $4,500 to march drum corps.”
Here’s another scenario. What if the guard folds mid season? What if the money raised was supposed to fund a trip to Dayton, but Dayton never happens for that guard?
These are my personal favorites. “Please help me fulfill my dream of always marching in a top 12 drum corps.” O.k. That’s a very valid request. Drum Corps is extremely expensive. What if though, I find through a little bit of research that the performer asking for funds marched winter guard the previous season and the season before that to the tune of $2000 per season? What does that say about the performer asking for money and their ability to set financial goals for themselves?
Then there is this conundrum. How do I know as a potential donor where the money is really going? How do I know if the organization they are performing with is legit in terms of financial accountability? How do I know that I’m not paying for the high salary of a designer or a staff raping the activity to fund their new house? How do I know if the executive director of the organization isn’t making an absurd salary for the amount of money that organization brings in? Think in terms of the Susan G. Komen foundation, Red Cross, or Goodwill. When you donate to causes, you don’t always know where the money goes. The best way to find out is to look at the tax forms of the nonprofit you want to donate to. Where do you find it? Go to Guidestar and look up the 990 of the charity you want to donate to. In it you will find a lot of interesting information such as salaries of top executives, the board of directors, and basic information on the budget. You won’t find out everything, but you’ll see enough and yes, WGI, DCI, and Music for All are all available in public record, where you can click on the links I’ve provided and go straight to their tax forms. If your local marching band or winter guard is a registered 501c3, then chances are they are there as well. When doing this, be sure to review the three years offered as that gives you a wider picture of where the money is really going. The tax forms don’t give you enough information to make a true informed decision, but they are a start. If the organization you are donating to is NOT a 501c3, then question what holds them accountable for dollars raised for their cause. I don’t suggest by any means that any organization out there is doing anything wrong, but when it comes to money raised by youth, then accountability is a huge deal.
Also, remember that if your program lies within a public school, then the tax payer has a vested interest in how your money is spent, because although you might not get direct funds for your winter guard, you are using school property to house your flags. The students are public school students who use facilities to practice, even if it’s just the parking lot. What about the independent program that flies under the radar by practicing on public school property? This begs the question of the on gong debate of pay to play. That’s another blog post, but it’s popping up on school board agenda’s around the country more and more often. Do you think scholastic units will continue to go to Dayton if it’s found out the public school winter program isn’t accountable to the general tax payer and they are paying astronomical fees for staff? It takes just one pissed off tax payer standing in a public meeting to bring the system to a halt.
So what do we do about this GoFundMe problem? Well, I don’t have an easy answer, but I think this is a start. We have to gather the stakeholders of the activity (staff members, parents, board members, band directors, and performers) and analyze thoroughly what is really happening in our activity from the standpoint of financial accountability from the highest levels; all the way down to the local novice guard just starting out. We need to find out how to bring the costs down or at the very least, teach these guards and bands how to keep costs down by setting realistic goals for the kids in their program. I don’t at any level begrudge a person who wants to make a living off of the activity or bring in a little side cash. What I have a problem with, is that we aren’t taking the steps necessary to make sure that these programs are setting goals that take the kids into account first. Maybe Dayton isn’t necessary. Maybe the kids would be just as happy staying local. Maybe the band doesn’t need silk screened flags for every movement or the winter guard doesn’t need new uniforms every season. Maybe programs need to learn to write their own drill, guard work and sew their own flags. Remember flag sewing parties? If we look closely, maybe there are ways to share silks and floors and travel. Some guards and bands do it and the kids are just as happy. In research from the Aspen Institute, they noted that having fun, participating as a team, and knowing the coaches care is the number one reason kids come back to an activity the following season. Now that’s something to think about. In every sport, there are national teams and local teams. We need to start taking a closer look at what it means to be local and national and how to know which program you really have. In my organization, we fund millions of dollars to youth services every year. With those dollars, we require parents and the youth to be surveyed on how they feel about that program. You would be shocked to find out what the parents and kids really think. We then require the programs to analyze those surveys for potential changes or upgrades. It’s very effective.
We need to start helping performers understand that they must make choices in where and when they perform, but also in how to save money for their particular marching endeavor. We need to help parents understand that they have the right to ask where their money goes and demand to see the budget. In my industry of government and nonprofit our motto is, “We have nothing to hide.”
In closing, it is from the heart that we start looking at ways to bring costs down and figure out how more kids can participate so these GoFundMe accounts will go away. We need foundations set up for kids who are truly deserving. We need to start writing grants and yes…they are out there. They just don’t look they way most want them to look. No one is going to fund a guard to attend nationals in Dayton, but someone might fund a local inner city group to take classes and do a couple of performances. Color guard is primarily a female based activity. Do you realize how many grants are out there for what’s called, “Gender Specific Programming?’
It’s time to start thinking differently. If you really want to donate to the pageantry arts, find a local program, talk to the staff and see what they need. Donate a set of silks or the upkeep of a musical instrument. Ask for the name of a performer who is really trying and parents just don’t have the money. Think in terms of the Angel Tree at the mall. Donate straight to their account. There are better ways and then you will be sure your money is going where it needs to go to as opposed to vague GoFundMe campaigns.

And one more thing…if you do set up a GoFundMe campaign by all means…PROOFREAD!