Five Minute Interview: Jim Ricciuti, Passim Folk Music and Cultural Center
For 50 years, the Passim Folk Music and Cultural Center in Harvard Square has been a mainstay of New England’s arts community, fostering performers and audiences alike. Passim is a Cambridge, Mass.-based nonprofit devoted to the preservation and cultivation of folk music — and the spreading of the folk gospel to people and communities everywhere. Passim executes its mission through unique programming — Club Passim, the Passim School of Music, Archive Project and Culture for Kids.
We spoke with Jim Ricciuti, director of development at Passim, about his organization’s fundraising highs and lows, and how he envisions its fundraising future.
FundRaising Success: Can you give me a brief history of the organization?
Jim Ricciuti: First of all, I should mention that on Jan. 6, we turned 50! Passim Folk Music & Cultural Center first opened its doors as Club 47 in 1958. It originally opened as a jazz club but soon became one of the homes of the 1960s folk revival. A young Joan Baez mesmerized audiences there (and she is joining us for our celebration concert on March 28), and Bob Dylan played between acts.
The club was shut down for a brief period of time and reopened in its current location in Harvard Square in 1963. It has seen many incarnations since then as Club 47, Passim, Club Passim, and Passim Folk Music & Cultural Center.
Club Passim incorporated as a nonprofit in 1995 and shortly thereafter expanded its programming to include a school of music and an outreach program titled Culture for Kids. The Archive Project has been chronicling this rich history through photographs, recording and documents. In 2005, the name changed to Passim Folk Music & Cultural Center (Passim Center) to better reflect our array of programming.
Passim’s history is defined by the artists and audience of the past 50 years. Since it is an intimate listening room, lasting connections are made at each performance.
Here are some of the artists who have played the Club 47/Passim/Club Passim stage: Joan Baez, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Buffett, Taj Mahal, Bob Dylan, Nanci Griffith, Jackson Browne, Tom Rush, John Prine, Mavis Staples, Dar Williams, Richard Shindell, David Grisman, Doc Watson, Arlo Guthrie, and Lori McKenna.
FS: How do you fund your mission? What fundraising avenues do you use?
JR: Passim Center relies on funding from individual donors, foundations, companies and government agencies. Membership is a large part of what makes Passim great. Individuals receive benefits depending on the level at which they give, ranging from discounts on shows and classes to discounted parking and free shows. Individual donors are engaged in a variety of ways: in person at performances and special events, via the mail, e-mail, as well as by phone.
We seek grants largely for our Culture for Kids program, which connects artists from varying cultures with children of the community who might not necessarily have access to such artistic experiences on a daily basis.
FS: What are your fundraising strengths? Weaknesses?
JR: Membership is a strength of Passim. Each night people see the tangible benefits of membership. They get to experience Passim first hand and can decide what is the right amount to give. Membership has been growing over the years, and individual giving overall has been increasing. One need not become a member to give to Passim. There are those who simply believe Passim is a valuable resource for the community and support us even though they might not attend many performances.
Grants for our Culture for Kids program have increased over the past few years as well. We have developed long-standing relationships with several foundations and are pleased to begin a new relationship last year with another foundation. We are very grateful for their generosity and inspired that they share our vision.
Sponsorship, without a doubt, is the most difficult area of fundraising for Passim. Passim, like most small arts organizations, does not have the name or brand recognition as other Boston cultural institutions such as the Boston Symphony Orchestra or Museum of Fine Arts. Also, people do not necessarily associate lovers of folk and acoustic music with wealth, despite the fact that people of varying incomes support Passim. Consequently, finding corporate sponsors has been a challenging endeavor.
General-operating grants have been difficult to find. However, I feel that is a trend for many arts organizations. Many foundations and donors enjoy giving to specific programs. Paying to keep the lights on is not as attractive as bringing music to children, yet organizations can’t work in the dark.
FS: Do you foresee any big changes in the way you reach potential donors and other supporters in the near future?
JR: No, we don’t anticipate any dramatic changes in how we engage potential donors. However, since it is our 50th year, we see ourselves engaging them much more since we will have more special events than in a normal year.
FS: How would you describe your fundraising philosophy?
JR: Our philosophy is similar to that of many organizations: Find out what’s important to the donor and make it inspiring and easy to give.
We inspire by showing people the Passim experience. This is comprised of four elements: legacy, community, the musical experience, and education. Our goal is to convey these elements to everyone that sees a performance, takes a class at the school of music, reads our bimonthly newsletter, visits our Web site or attends one of our Culture for Kids events.
People who give attach themselves to at least one of these four elements. Some give because of the rich history of Passim; some give because they just love the music. Others value the educational aspect of our music school and Culture for Kids program. We make it easy to give because our donors can do so in so many ways (as discussed above).
FS: How do you reach out to supporters and potential supporters in ways other than purely fundraising? Are you engaged with the new social media sites — MySpace, Facebook, etc. — and online social networking?
JR: Yes, Club Passim does have a MySpace page at www.myspace.com/clubpassimmusic. Please visit!
FS: Can you describe a recent successful fundraising effort?
JR: We just concluded our Annual Appeal for 2007 with great success. This was done largely via mail but also included e-mail and phone contacts. A key to this appeal was that Passim has turned 50 in 2008. It’s an exciting time to be a part of this organization, whether you are a performer, audience member, donor, volunteer or staff member. So when people think of Passim, they can reflect on our rich 50-year history that has included some of America’s most treasured musicians. Then they think to the next 50 years. Each night is an opportunity to make a lifelong relationship with an artist.
We can feel the community’s excitement by their giving. We have seen our donors increase their giving, and we have had new members join us. The result is a sound funding base to begin our 50th year. We have seen an increase in major gifts as well to help commemorate this historic occasion.
FS: Any major difficulties or setbacks you’ve faced along the way? Things you would do differently with your fundraising?
JR: The major difficulty we have encountered is sponsorship. It’s certainly worth mentioning again because it requires a lot of work. As a small organization, going in through the “front door” can be quite difficult considering in many cases the company has not heard of you. Therefore, having an “in” really helps. However, small organizations, by their nature, are limited in their contacts. They have smaller boards, staff, and a smaller constituency.
We created a compelling sponsorship proposal, list of prospects and a committee to carry out the solicitations. Yet, we yielded little results. Had we a larger staff, we could have done things differently, but we are pleased with the effort we made. It was an important process to go through. We have made contacts that may lead to success down the line. Also, it was an avenue of fundraising that must be explored. From this process we learned more about ourselves as an organization and that is always a good thing!
FS: What advice would you give to organizations similar to yours, in size and annual operating budget?
JR: A challenge of small organizations is that one person must do many different things. Due to our size, we do not have departments (i.e., development, marketing, finance). Often times the staff must do a mix of things outside their primary area of expertise. This is a wonderful opportunity and is quite invigorating.
However, with that, it’s easy for the organization and individual staff to take too much on. Therefore, my advice is define the roles within the organization as best as you can and make sure the leadership is clear.
There are many different tasks you will have to do at one time, so it’s key that you prioritize on an organizational and individual level. That way, everyone in the organization is working toward the same goal at the same time, and each person knows what they have to do. It sounds like common sense, and it is. Yet in the thick of it, staying on course takes constant attention to what you and those around you are doing.
FS: How many employees do you have?
JR: Eight full-time. We have night managers that assist with performances at Club Passim. We have sub-contractors who assist with booking and additional areas.
FS: Do you have any employees strictly devoted to fundraising?
JR: No employee does only fundraising. I am the director of development, so I am the primary fundraising staff member. However, my duties often extend to finance, special events, marketing, programming, etc. Such is the nature of small organizations.
Passim Folk Music and Cultural Center
26 Church St., Suite 300
Cambridge, MA 02138
Annual operating budget: $1 million
Individual donations and memberships: $190,000
Special Events: $20,000