Interview with Rob Saffer, Creative Music Foundation Executive Director

(Shot from CMF’s 2014 Fall Workshop. Courtesy of the Creative Music Foundation)

Key Elements Group LLC had the pleasure of sitting down with Rob Saffer from the Creative Music Foundation. Hosting workshops in Woodstock, NY, CMF brings together musicians from around the globe to form truly unique scenarios for artists to explore innovative concepts and ideas through improvisational sessions. Here, we discuss Saffer’s experience with the organization and what is on the horizon for CMF and other arts nonprofits.

KEG: What is the Creative Music Foundation’s mission?

RS: The Creative Music Foundation (CMF) makes it possible to profoundly experience and express our deep connection with the transforming energies of music, our universal language. CMF programs focus on the common elements of all music, emphasizing keen awareness, personal expression, intensive listening and cross-cultural communication, as well as provide unique opportunities for musicians, students and listeners from different backgrounds and traditions to explore together, share, develop, and broaden their musical understanding and sensitivity. CMF pursues its mission through workshops, residencies, coaching, concerts, recordings and archival projects that engage both listeners and musicians in the USA and around the world.

KEG: What role do you play in the organization, and what are some of the greatest challenges you face in that role?

RS: I’m officially executive director, but it’s really more of a producer’s role. I am responsible for getting stuff done: producing concerts, archival recordings, workshops, residencies, website and all manner of social media. I am the guy who figures out how to make stuff happen on shoestring budgets or less. As a former marketing and creative professional, I’m also figuring out how best to communicate what we do, how best to promote our work. I also get involved in board building and some of the artistic aspects of the organization, like helping choose which artists should come to our workshops. It’s a constantly changing situation that demands true improvisation.

KEG: What draws you to the organization’s work?

RS: I have been a huge fan of this music since I was in college at the University of Pennsylvania. This music has changed my life and has been the basis for much of my professional and personal success. More than anyone, I think it was the music of Ornette Coleman that – as I told him before he died earlier this year – gave me a strategy for living and an understanding of authenticity, creativity, democracy, and so many other crucial aspects to life. So I’ve always wanted to give back to the musicians and music that gave me so much. When I was living in Brooklyn, I volunteered my time helping cultural and musical organizations such as Celebrate Brooklyn, Symphony Space, Brooklyn Museum and Jazz Workshop – a Charles Mingus nonprofit.  When I moved to Woodstock and met Karl Berger, I got more involved with CMF. I learned that it was co-founded by Ornette, too. So, how could I not help the organization? Over time, my role grew from volunteer and fan to actually helping rebuild the organization. It’s a great honor.

KEG: How does the Creative Music Foundation fit into a larger context? What role does it play for culture and art in 2015?

RS: We’re trying to fill a role that traditional music conservatories do not: that is, helping people feel the basic elements of music so they can find their own voices to add to this wonderful gumbo of improvised music. We exist to help artists develop their artistry, giving them time and space to develop their own ideas and their own unique voice. Our workshops typically go way beyond music; they’re almost spiritual retreats, too. We constantly get feedback that our workshops don’t only help people become better musicians; they help people evolve as human beings! Could there be more rewarding feedback?  Additionally, we run an improvisers orchestra, led by Karl, that draws on nearly 100 musicians in the NYC area to create full scores of improvised orchestral music with astonishingly beautiful results. We have also digitized the Creative Music Studio (CMS) archives which are being housed for posterity and study at Columbia University. We’re just releasing the second three-CD set, following on the heals of the first that was hailed as ‘best jazz reissue’ of 2014 and received high critical praise around the world. We are considering starting a digital download label to release the majority of our catalog of 550 concert recordings made at the CMS in the 1970s and 80s. So, we’re looking back and getting out some great music from the past while helping to create the next generation of improvising artists.

KEG: How do you envision the Creative Music Foundation developing in the short-, long-term future? What are the organization’s goals?

RS: We want to build our board and build our professional capacity so we can fundraise more successfully to fuel some of the projects mentioned above. We want to become a more financially sustainable organization that will be around for another 45 years. We’ve recently begun working on a succession plan so that our co-founder and artistic director, Karl Berger, can focus on composing and playing and not be burdened with the requirements of running a 501c3.  Ultimately, we would like a physical home – a campus – where we could have year-round programming: workshops, residencies, recording projects, etc.

KEG: Is there anything that, looking back, you would have done differently in your work with CMF?

RS: Not yet but I’m hoping that over time we’ll take chances, innovate and do a bunch of things that we should have done differently. We’ll always be an improvising organization at heart, so we’ll make mistakes and hit home runs. That’s art.

An Interview with Women on 20s Founder Barbara Ortiz Howard

An innovative nonprofit has attracted a great deal of press lately, broadcasting its message of gender equality through a clever campaign to put an influential woman from US history on the $20 bill.

Women on 20s aims to replace Andrew Jackson – the controversial president who presided over the Indian Removal Act. Who exactly should go on in his place, however, is up to the US populace. The organization rolled out a primary round voting this spring, consisting of 15 women that included key figures from the suffragette, abolitionist, labor, and environmental movements. Counting more than 250,000 votes, the final list features Eleanor Roosevelt, Harriet Tubman, and Rosa Parks. And – in a nod to Jackson’s infamous legacy – the nonprofit has included Cherokee Nation Chief Wilma Mankiller in the final round of voting.

Barbara Ortiz Howard – the founder of Women on 20s – sat down with Key Elements Group to discuss the inspiration behind the campaign, her experience starting and running a 501(c)3 nonprofit, and how her organization’s campaign fits into a larger context.

KEG: What was your inspiration for founding Women on 20s?

BOH: A desire to honor our Centennial of suffrage with an iconic woman on our currency that heretofore had not seen a woman on it. For me, having role models of great women in our daily lives is important to helping us all conquer stereotypes that limit our perspectives. Seeing women who exemplify the best of who we can be is at once uplifting and inspiring for everyone. Imagine if we were all inspired to be our best selves.

KEG: The campaign’s goal is so precise, and has garnered so much positive attention and press. How did you and your team arrive at such a specific, effective objective? 

BOH: It was a precise mission – the lack of a woman on our currency despite the significance of women in our culture, economy, and everyday life seemed to be a glaring omission, and not a difficult one to formulate. On the other hand, it has been tempting to veer off and consider other missions, so it has been important to stay on point.  In addition, we had some other defining parameters. Us wanting the process to proceed in a timely way meant limiting the scope to replacing one portrait with a woman who fit the few guidelines in the code. Not trying to change too many things at once.

KEG: What larger mission or goal – outside the scope of Women on 20s –  does the campaign fit into?

BOH: This campaign is about helping create cultural shifts that will better align the intentions we inscribe in our laws in our everyday lives. This mission is to value women as full and equal beings, which can be best done in our everyday lives and activities rather than in thick laws most of us don’t have access to and rarely refer to as we interact with one another.

KEG: After registering as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, what were some of your biggest hurdles getting the organization running, and how did you overcome them?

BOH: Spending time setting up your 501(c)3 is very important in minimizing the hurdles you may face down the road. Understanding what you can and cannot do and your purpose is critical. Getting this done correctly and efficiently will allow you to get donations more quickly.  Get professional help in doing this if at all possible, this will be a huge ROI. We were fortunate to get this right, although I wish it had been earlier in our evolution.

BOH: After that, getting the timing, critical support from similar groups and influencers, and having a “product” with integrity were essential ingredients. As a startup organization we faced huge staffing issues that never got quite resolved. I work at this as I can, as I have another business to take care of, while my colleague Susan Ades Stone rarely was able to leave her desk caring for the infinite pieces of the campaign.  We do not have a physical office and we have become so busy and specialized and time sensitive, we cannot bring on staff. If you can set up the right people in advance and have funding for this, it will not be so challenging! It is unlikely that you will ever have enough people or support to do exactly all you need to do, but try to get a strong team together as soon as possible.

KEG: What were your most effective fundraising strategies? Which strategies were least effective? 

BOH: So far we have not had effective fundraising strategies.  We are working on that so we can sustain the enthusiasm and maintain our movement. We’d really also like to take advantage of many exciting options that we can develop, such as the educational component, and funding will allow that. While people have been donating lately, we are far from being self-sustaining.  However, we believe that inspiration will carry us through most of what we have in the days ahead, and then new options will pave the way. We are fortunate that we have such a compelling cause. A well developed and compelling cause is a main goal you must achieve.

KEG: When do you estimate the final vote will take place? 

BOH: We are planning to keep the voting going through the month, as our funds allow and as the voting remains strong.

KEG: How would you characterize the response from voters?

BOH: Overwhelmingly positive, with many expressions of gratitude for the effort and offers of help.

KEG: Is there any advice you would offer to young women who want to make a difference, and who may pursue their goals through forming a nonprofit organization?

BOH: I think most of my answers here are also formed in part as advice. Surround yourself with good people and ask for help. You cannot do it alone. You must be willing to do what you may never have thought you’d do and /or sacrifice. You can do it if your heart is really in it, and people will respond to that!

KEG: What do you think the chances are that your campaign will succeed?

BOH: We seem to have the law, timing and hopes of so many on the side of this overdue change, so we are very hopeful it will all happen to celebrate the Centennial in a grand way.

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