The CMA Foundation Donates Millions to Music Education

Mike Lawson • ChoralFeatures • August 4, 2018

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The Country Music Association (CMA), established the 501(c) (3) CMA Foundation with a commitment to improving and sustaining music education programs across the United States, “working to ensure every child has the opportunity to participate in music education and every music educator has the support and resources needed to create a thriving program.”

The CMA Foundation “selects organizations and school districts that are focused on improving, sustaining and increasing overall participation in music education programs for all students.” With a focus on strategic partnerships, professional development and distribution of grant funding, the CMA Foundation has awarded more than $21 million in over 87 programs to public school systems, after-school programs, summer camps and community outreach organizations. They are funded by the massively-attended annual CMA Fest, which features leading country music performers donating their talent and time for the cause.

SBO recently spoke with Tiffany Kerns, executive director of the CMA Foundation, to learn more about this unique and highly-impactive organization serving the music education population.

How long has the Country Music Association Foundation been providing grants to educational organizations?

Since 2011, we have been evaluating different music education programs from across the country. The last several years we’ve been able to look at the nationwide landscape and how we might be able to contribute and move the needle forward in music education.

How is money raised for the programs?

CMA Fest [is] a four-day music festival. We raise between $2 to $3 million for music education annually. That money has been invested directly back into music education programming. Every single dollar is invested into music education. Our festival has two priorities. The first priority is growing country music, making sure that we are connecting fans with the genre. The second piece is funding the CMA Foundation’s priority, music education. We take half of the net proceeds. The net proceeds could be ticket sales, [but] it also includes sponsorship dollars, generous donations given by fans or given by companies.

When the foundation looks at funding a program, they’re not genre-based, right?

We get asked this often. We believe in equity in and access to participation, which means every child should be supported in some form or fashion when it comes to music education. Yes, CMA’s goal is to grow the country music genre, but the strategic mission of the foundation is to ensure that every child in our country has access to participate in music education. Most of our artists grew up listening to all kinds of music. They also grew up in band programs and orchestral programs and choral programs. It’s about supporting that creativity and harnessing that creativity in the child so they can be successful individuals, be the next generation leading our country.

That has nothing to do with the genre and more to do about just supporting that child and wherever it takes them is where it takes them. The foundation’s goal is to make sure that every child has access to participate in music.

The CMA Foundation has five priorities when reviewing grant applications. One of them is student achievement and participation. What should that mean to a grant applicant?

There isn’t a rubric that says if 90%, growth isn’t happening in a year, then we’re not funding it. We think locally. What does your community currently need? We have to take a step back and ask, “How are you measuring success? How does your organization, your classroom, your district, how are you measuring success?” Then we help shepherd what we believe could be or should be some metrics. In student participation, not every organization has the opportunity to scale. That means participation may not increase in terms of how many students they’re serving. Instead, we would go deeper. How do we make sure that it’s a quality program and that the students are actually achieving? How do you know they’re learning? Every organization will answer that differently.

It goes back to what is the strategy of the community. How are you serving the community? How do you know you’re making a difference in your community? We are big proponents that the community who needs it must lead it. It’s asking that question first and then focusing on what the answer is. For some organizations it could be scaling. We have the ability to have more students participate. Our funding could help service that. It could be that they to need to increase the quality of a program. For us, that means making sure that the teachers are equipped. We want [them] to consider funding professional development so that way we can see this downstream effect of us being able to serve the students better. This is making sure that they’re paying attention to the needs of that community, and then pushing them to certainly think above that and giving them a good picture or, you know, a bigger landscape of what the music education field, as a whole, is challenged by. But for us, it starts first with asking the question, “How are you measuring success?” Then it’s making sure that it has quality, is sequential and focused on the whole child, and we are seeing some achievement.

Who is invited to apply and what is the process?

For most organizations, if they have a really great development department, they are tracking down areas of funding opportunities year-round. I would say that the process can somewhat be lengthy. I typically like to know about an organization for at least a year before we consider a partnership with them. And it varies grantee by grantee, but I like to have a feel for what they are in a relationship to their community. Are they invested in the school system? Do they have a relationship with the district? Have there been any elections lately that would impact education? I really try to have a full scope of what’s happening in each community before they apply.

Organizations apply by filling out what I would call a phase one, which is just interest. “We have interest in applying. This is a little bit about our organization.” And from that, we draw some pretty quick conclusions based on the constituents they’re serving. Tell us a little bit about the students you’re serving. Tell us a little bit about your community. Tell us about your strategy, what do you aim to get within the short and long term. And based on those answers, we decide whether or not they go to a phase two. Phase two is definitely more in-depth. We go on a little bit deeper. We want to get at the underbelly of a program and of an organization to truly understand what success looks like, but also what are they challenged by because if an organization is reaching out for funding, they have a challenge that they’re trying to achieve.

We try to get to kind of the very bottom of what is the challenge? What does achievement look like in their mind? And also, are these organizations good partners of ours? We require a lot. If an organization is staffed by one person, we have the conversation, “You have to check in with us four times a year, it’s a pretty lengthy process in terms of reporting back. Are you capable and able to do that?”

Sometimes it just so happens that we’re not a great fit for organizations as well, but our board of directors reviews are phase two applicants. We sit in a very long board meeting where we go through each of those applications and really strategize on both needs, but also, the breadth and depth of each of the programs. How do we make sure that we’re not just skimming across the surface? How do we make sure we’re, again, tackling some real challenges facing the organization at large and also making sure that they are really moving the needle in terms of music education and giving access to students?

Your list of 2018 grant recipients are incredibly diverse. Is that typical?

It’s evolved over time. The community that needs it must lead it. And as I have traveled the country, while there are certainly some similarities and challenges facing the greater music industry at music education industry at large, what I can tell you is that every community is different.

If we’re truly trying to be a leader in the music education field, we have to get a really good understanding of all of the pain points that are facing the industry of the country. It’s making sure that we step out of our comfort zone and we make investments where we know we’re going to learn and ones that, you know, may require more help and more expertise. Every single one of our grantees offer something specific that we need to be able to continue to be the leader in the field. With Little Kids Rock, we’re trying to understand how the diversity and music offerings are helping student participation.

We’re trying to understand how when a school district and an organization comes together, the collective impact model works. Trying to write a strategic plan for Houston ISD because they want to make sure every single student in their district has access and opportunity to participate in music. But they have to know where they are as a community before they can even figure out what they should be investing in. Every single one of our investments is strategically made based on learning. How can we learn from them, so we can take these learnings and apply them in different areas of the country?

How much of CMA Foundation’s direction is based on its original investment in Metro Nashville Public Schools?

They were the very first investment. So many of our artists started their musical journey in a classroom. We felt if Metro Nashville is really struggling in terms of music offerings and being able to provide the resources to the students and the teachers, this is where we want to start our funding. This is where we want to start our [own] education and our learning of what a quality sequential music program looks like. We’ve been giving since 2006, so twelve years later, we’re very happy with what they’ve been able to do. And it takes every year. We have to look at their grant just like we look at every other grant. We push each other. They’ve helped us be a better investor in the space because we have been encouraged to ask different questions. When we first started, we were giving to Metro by providing instruments.

Then we realized we needed to make sure that we were tracking these instruments and that we had a repair facility because otherwise this investment was really made to not have scale or sustainability.

So now, we ask all of these questions any time we’re about to make a purchase or provide the funding to make a purchase. We are asking, “What is the upkeep? Who is paying for repairs? Have you thought that far ahead? Who’s insuring them? Are they insuring them? Where are you placing them? Are the students taking them home?” We now know those are questions that we have to ask because of our relationship with Metro.

What does their district need to be thinking about if they’re gonna approach the CMA Foundation for a grant?

This is a great question, and actually I have an answer that’s twofold. The first one is that when we get to Little Kids Rock, we look at it in our mind as we are investing in a district. Every single one of our grantees has to tell us and explain their current relationship with the school district. If we are funding an after-school program, I want to know if the school district knows about this after-school program. And are you providing sequential learning? Are you teaching something that is currently being taught as part of the school program? Are you strengthening what is being taught? Or are you providing something that the school district isn’t providing at all? We try to make sure that the district, no matter what, is involved in every single one of our investments.

The flip side to that is a school district can apply, most definitely. But what I have found is that when you lean on really great partners like Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation or the VH1 Save The Music or Little Kids Rock, when you look at these national organizations, they typically are bringing the school district to us. So [with] Houston ISD, we did not write Houston ISD a check. We wrote Mr. Holland’s Opus a check and invested in that program that specifically was targeting a pain point for Houston ISD. Having them [the districts] think outside the box, “What organizations can we partner with? And then how can we together approach the CMA Foundation?” I think, at this point, we have not, with a few exceptions, ever really had robust strategic conversations at that district level until probably the last year. And I can tell you that this year, we are absolutely seeing requests for funding from districts. And it’s requiring us to say, “Can you facilitate a really robust report four times a year?” And if not, this is where outside organizations tend to be very helpful because they have development departments. They understand how reporting works. Many districts have public edge foundation as well. But it’s finding out what is the pain point. Is there an organization that we can align ourselves with and then come to the CMA Foundation?

I’m meeting with probably a dozen districts right now, where we will bring in an outside partner to help with whatever they’re challenged by. If it’s professional development, it’s linking up with a state MEA. If it is providing instruments or a strategic plan, it’s linking up with the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation. I think we do a variety of both. We want to have the greatest impact on students and we believe that is going to happen at the district level.

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