In 2014, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra had an innovative idea. The voters of the state had overwhelmingly decided to legalize the personal use of marijuana for recreational purposes in a referendum, much to the chagrin of Federal, state and local governments, and the CSO wanted to capitalize on the opportunity by creating a series of events to build a more diverse audience and raise money to support its organization. The Symphony raised a lot of eyebrows and received a lot of criticism for this choice, and the plans had to be changed to accommodate the pertinent laws, but they went ahead with their plans.
First, I think it should be known that the Symphony did not sell or distribute marijuana products at their events, and they did not encourage their patrons to indulge in the use of marijuana at their events. The events were sponsored by businesses that are legal in the state of Colorado, and Symphony musicians provided musical entertainment in a private setting. The purpose of these events was to open up classical music to a more diverse set of supporters, and I hope it did bring in more people including baby boomers and millennials, to help replace the supporters of the CSO who are aging.
However, from the information I gathered in some limited contact with the organization, it appears that this series will not be repeated this year. According to a statement attributed by Colorado Symphony CEO Jerry Kern,
“The Colorado Symphony does not have any events this season sponsored by the cannabis industry. The CSO serves the wonderfully diverse population of our growing, changing state. Our portfolio of business partners and sponsors also reflects the diverse tastes and demographics of Colorado. Sponsors include major corporations, small businesses, breweries, sports franchises and media outlets. We have an open-door policy to legitimate, legal businesses that support our mission. Support from the business community allows the Colorado Symphony to maintain the high artistic standards that have cemented our status as the greatest symphonic orchestra in the West.”
Unfortunately, questions about the number of attendees or the financial success of these events went unanswered, so I must assume that they fell short of projected goals. Otherwise, I would think that they would be repeated in the future.
The Symphony has been criticized because they were innovative enough to tie a newly legal vice in the state of Colorado to their fundraising efforts, but nonprofits have long used vices to raise money. This has happened for decades, so I find this criticism quite hypocritical. Let me share a few examples with you.
Alcohol, considered a vice by many, is commonly used at fundraising events. Nonprofits either provide open bars at their fundraising galas to open up the donors’ wallets or loosen the purse strings, or they sell drinks by the glass to increase their revenues. At one organization I served, we held an “instant wine collection” raffle, where the winner received several dozen bottles of fine wine for their use, and the organization increased the take of the event by thousands of dollars. I even interviewed for a development position with a nonprofit drug and rehabilitation organization that solicited support from local in brewers and served drinks at their fundraising events. The Brewer’s Festival in Portland, Oregon serves beer from craft brewers around the country, and a portion of the proceeds go to charity. I have been invited to dozens of wine tasting events that supported one organization or another. According to the National Institute on Health, alcohol is responsible for thousands of deaths each year, and nearly two thirds of those who enter drug treatment are there for alcohol problems. Now, I am not saying that patrons of those charitable organizations are alcoholics or will die in alcohol related accidents coming home from those events, but let’s face it, alcohol use is common at nonprofit events and the potential for harm is there.
Gambling is another common fundraising tool for many nonprofit organizations. I remember when gambling was only legal in Nevada and Atlantic City. Now, gambling is almost found in all states, and it is not only a fundraising method in nonprofits, but also for increasing income for state and municipal coffers. Most states have specific laws, rules and regulations pertaining to gaming for nonprofit fundraising. Once again, raffles are commonplace for fundraising in the nonprofit sector. Some organizations have “Ducky Derbies,” where people buy rubber ducks with numbers on them that are dropped into rivers, and when the winning ducks are pulled out at the end of the race, the winner gets a prize. Churches and other organizations have relied on Bingo for decades. Many organizations have “Casino” nights to raise money for their programs, and some have events centered around horse races like the Kentucky Derby. Even though these activities are legal in most locales, gambling is a cause of heartache and financial distress for many in our country. I have read numerous articles about officers and staff at schools and nonprofits that embezzled money to cover their gambling losses. Yet, people don’t seem to bat an eye at organizations that turn to gambling events to supplement their budgetary needs.
Gluttony is another tool that nonprofits often turn to to raise money for their organizations. Some groups have big food events, whether dinners or all you can eat pig roasts or, as my friend, Michael Rosen told about in his blog post, “Do Not Let Them Eat Cake“, about a fundraising event in Philadelphia where one can buy samples of hundreds of wedding cakes. Schools have their bake sales where people support a cause by purchasing sweet baked goods, like cookies and brownies. Girls Scouts sell their cookies and schools sell candy, popcorn, and a myriad of junk food choices. School groups always seem to have kids selling candy bars, popcorn, and other treats. America has a widely discussed obesity problem, but rarely do you hear someone complain about those types of fundraising events.
While what the Colorado Symphony Orchestra attempted was questioned by some in our sector, it was completely legal in Colorado, so I really don’t have a problem with their experiment. I do have a problem with the hypocrisy of those who criticized their efforts, since so many organizations rely on vices to achieve their financial goals.
As it says in Matthew 7: 3-4, “And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye[c] when you have a log in your own? 4 How can you think of saying to your friend,[d] ‘Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,’ when you can’t see past the log in your own eye?”
Don’t criticize other groups for their efforts and methods, if you are doing something quite similar. It’s really unbecoming.