arts, local, nonprofit profile

Local Nonprofit Profile: Pianos for People

This young man is Royce Martin. Please allow him to create an inspirational soundtrack to the next 4 minutes of your reading life.

Royce began playing piano only a few years before that performance. He wrote that piece. He has won competitions already after only a short time playing. He may very well be a prodigy.

And he got started thanks to a donated instrument from Pianos for People. This fairly new nonprofit supplies pianos to needy individuals in St. Louis. They began in 2012 and have recently passed the mark of delivering 200 pianos. Thus they’ve already made a dent in the needs of the community, but there is much more yet to do.



Pianos for People collects and restores (as necessary) pianos in reasonably good working order. From there, they donate these pianos to needy individuals or families in the area. Pianos for People works on the principle that playing music changes lives – it gives hope, it soothes the soul, it allows for creative outlet, it teaches discipline and focus.

You can read the history of the organization here. I won’t go into that with this profile. I will touch on some positives and negatives, and give some challenges and opportunities.


What I Like About Pianos for People

This organization serves a need people likely didn’t know they had. Most people can identify that they’re hungry, cold, or sick. Or that they don’t have adequate transportation, education, or social skills. There are hundreds of organizations around the country to help them meet those needs.

Not many know that they are missing music in their life. But, when that opportunity comes to connect with the harmonies of this world, if there are barriers in the way, many will let those chances slip through their fingers.

Pianos for People works to change that. They give pianos away because it allows people to meet that burning desire inside of them. A desire they may not have been able to identify, but was still holding them back through non-expression nonetheless.

They give away pianos. They give away lessons. But more than that, they give connection to the community. They bring together people who need pianos with pianos that need people. That’s a great line. But it’s theirs, I can’t take credit for it.


Challenges Ahead

Currently Pianos for People is still growing. They’ve delivered the 200th piano this year, but there is more need. As evidenced by this statement on their website:  “We sincerely apologize, but applications for a piano are presently closed as we have reached our capacity for 2018. We will begin accepting applications in September 2018 for 2019 delivery.”

So there are clearly people who want a piano, but capacity within the organization is lacking to make those dreams come true. This is likely due to a combination of factors: not enough pianos donated, not enough restoration time available, not enough administrative capacity, etc. Each of these can be handled in time, and with money, which suggests that there is a lot of growing yet to come.

Another challenge is the relative newness and obscurity of the organization. With traditional charities like the United Way or American Cancer Society, there’s a big, recognizable name associated. This makes fundraising, volunteer recruitment, and community interaction much easier. Pianos for People will need to expand their reach (in a responsible way) in order to make a bigger name for themselves and reach more people

This is evident by looking at a few nonprofit review websites. Charity Navigator and Guidestar, which provide ratings of the administrative efficiency and fundraising efficiency of nonprofits, have virtually empty profiles. And Great Nonprofits, where users or clients of an organization can make a review, has nothing. Again, these are likely due to the fact that Pianos for People is a fairly small, fairly new organization. In order to create greater credibility, leading to greater impact, leading to greater change in the community, they’ll have to be intentional about creating a positive public profile. The good thing is that as they start basically from scratch they can craft that image how they wish.



Obviously there is an ongoing need within the St. Louis community for the instruments and lessons provided. In addition, I think that greater expansion throughout the region would be a big boon to the validity of the organization. And it would greatly increase the potential donor pool, not just for cash and grants but for pianos as well.

Second, I would not be surprised to see Pianos for People expand to more instruments, not just the piano. A piano is large, intricate, delicate, and, frankly, a lot to maintain. I suspect that in a few years there will also be a market for accepting, restoring, and giving away other instruments, such as trumpets, violins, flutes, drums, etc. These may be more accessible to people who don’t have the floor space for piano. Or for those who do want to experience the transformation that comes through playing music but don’t have an inclination to play piano. Or even an opportunity for those who are just out of a piano delivery area yet may be able to accept an alternative instrument.



I think Pianos for People has a good thing going. They’re small, but they have incredible opportunity to meet unspoken, unmet needs in this community and around the country. Better still, around the world. I think they’re on the edge of something great. Stay tuned, it’s about to get very interesting on Cherokee Street.



national, nonprofit profile, service

Nonprofit Profile – USO, a national service organization


In this post I’m going to profile the United Service Organizations (USO). USO is a nationwide service organization dedicated to helping military service members. You’ve probably heard about the USO in stories of Bob Hope on tour, providing entertainment and encouragement to thousands of soldiers and sailors around the world.



The USO provides for service members, and their families, throughout the life cycle of engagement. From pre-enlistment support, to deployed entertainment, to post-discharge help with finances and transitions to civilian life, the USO has a mission to be there for those who are there for us. In their own words:

The USO strengthens America’s military service members by keeping them connected to family, home and country, throughout their service to the nation.


Positives (i.e. Keep On Doing These Things)

And they do that. They’ve been doing that for over 75 years, beginning even before the United States had entered WWII in 1941. Probably the most recognizable of the USO’s operations is the entertainment tours, of celebrities ranging from Bob Hope to Robin Williams to Toby Keith; Betty Grable to Marilyn Monroe to Jessica Simpson and Ke$ha.

But the USO does much more than simply entertain troops on the front lines. They provide connections for service members back to their families through care packages and phone calls home. What’s more, they provide comfort services in over 200 locations around the world. These provide little bits of home: fast internet, movie nights, a chance to relax and unwind, even a workout room.

Many of these are comforts that the rest of us take for granted. They keep service members feeling valued, appreciated, and ready for action. Plus, centers near bases provide an additional community for families whose service member is deployed. These can be critical in maintaining morale, readiness, and forging connections that last a lifetime.

Most civilians probably assume that our military is funding such services. However, the USO is an organization completely separate from the military. It steps in to provide where the traditional budget allocations have holes. It allows for a better-trained, more capable military and more resilient home family waiting for their return.


Negatives / Challenges / Opportunities

Here I’d like to highlight some areas that may be considered negative. However, they can also be viewed as opportunity for growth, as these are touch points  the USO could improve upon to enhance their profile and effectiveness.

Public Perception:

I reviewed the GuideStar, GreatNonProfits, and Charity Navigator profiles of the USO. There are some challenges. GuideStar allows individual users (donors) to make reviews. Right now there are 41 reviews, averaging 2.5 stars, as follows:

5-star: 7

4-star: 5

3-star: 3

2-star: 12

1-star: 14

There is a large split here. The 5-star and 1-star are the most informative. Ratings of 5 stars come from reviewers who say, in a sense, The USO is doing great work! Keep it up! While the 1 star ratings often come with statements like I gave them $10 once, and they sent me ten more mailings over the next year. What a waste of my money. Or, I donated, and three months later I was spammed with a dozen letters from other groups. I’m done giving to these people who sell my name to the highest bidder.

In these cases the good things that the USO is doing for service members and their families are overwhelmed by a perceived inefficient use of resources or lack of respect for their donors’ privacy.

And while this is not a statistically valid survey of those who donate (or don’t) to the USO, it is out there in the public domain. Impressions like these affect perception when potential donors may be researching an organization to determine whether or not to give. If the USO can make a better argument for how they use their donations, then the balance of these ratings will likely increase as more 4- and 5-star reviews show up. This is tied to the next element, fundraising efficiency.

Fundraising Efficiency:

Currently the USO only earns 3 of 4 stars on Charity Navigator. This is because their Financial Rating is 2/4, due to high fundraising expenses. 18% of every dollar donated is used to bring in more money. See above, where many reviews point out excessive mailings. While this isn’t bad in the grand scheme of things (in general, nonprofits are doing well if they can keep fundraising and administrative expenses under 35 cents on the dollar), it could be less.

Many of the more highly-rated nonprofits have fundraising ratios under 10%. This might be a challenge to the current business model. The USO would have to either keep fundraising processes the same and bring in almost twice as much money, or find a way to cut about half of their expenses out and still collect the same total donations. It won’t be easy; but at least they’re not on the Charity Navigator list of “10 Charities Overpaying their For-profit Fundraisers”, where fundraising expenses are over 50%. Oof.

It will be a challenge to the current business model. I don’t know what the perfect mix will be, but I’m sure it will require some combination of lower cost (fewer mailings, fewer “freebies”) and higher efficiency (better integration with e-mail, higher quality contacts, getting more out of the same events, etc.).

Initial Website Impression:

When I opened up my web browser and typed in, I got this:


The “Donate Now” popup box is big and intrusive right away. I didn’t even get to see a “Welcome, We’re Glad You’re Here” page first.

The problem I have is that this is quite presumptive. It’s like the USO is saying, in effect, “Hey, we know you came to this website just to make a donation, even if you think you came to find out more about us. So, go ahead and do that, first, and then we can get on to your agenda.”

The USO seems to be acting as if it is owed my donation, and therefore all that’s left is for me to play along and give. I don’t wish to be crass, but it’s almost as if your blind date rings your doorbell, and you invite them to your bedroom before you’ve even gone out for the evening. Might it not be better to go slower, introduce yourself, let me browse around a few pages and get to know you a little better, then see if there is a connection, before we get down to business?

[To be fair, I’m not the first to think of persuasion, whether in sales or soliciting donations, as a romantic encounter. AWAI describes one sales strategy called the “Architecture of Persuasion” that is similar in explaining how to romance a potential client (or, in this case, donor).]

Now, I don’t know whether this is a winning methodology. If I was working with the USO, I would certainly advise them to test it. A simple question could be answered with about a month’s worth of A/B(/C) parallels on their landing pages: Does having this pop up immediately on navigating to the website produce more donations, or donations with greater average size, than having the pop-up show up 10 minutes later (or not at all)? If so, then keep it and I’ll stand corrected. My suspicion is that it is not, however, and that a change would benefit the organization through visitors feeling more respected, trusted, and valued before being asked to donate.

What a short test cannot answer, though, is whether those donors will have greater longevity, provide higher quality word-of-mouth referrals, or higher engagement with the organization. Only time will tell that, but my suspicion is, again, that the USO could improve public perceptions in many areas, web included, that would lead to better results in the future.

And the good thing about fixing this element is that it improves both of the first two points as well. Improving donor relationship, by treating them as more than just a wallet, will certainly improve public testimony. And, by having a more efficient fundraising process (through greater donations for the same effort), the financial rating may increase enough to advance the USO into the ranks of Charity Navigator’s 4-Star club.



The USO is a great organization with a high-quality history. It serves a noble purpose and meets a great unmet need. I am fully confident that the USO will continue to meet those needs with character and passion, and that, should it address some negatives in the public eye, it will be able to ensure that the future is even better than the past.

arts, nonprofit profile, regional

Nonprofit Profile – Mid-America Arts Alliance


 The Mid-America Arts Alliance (M-AAA) is a regional arts council based in Kansas City. The M-AAA supplies grant funding, professional development, and other support to the arts throughout a 6-state region: Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas. With an annual budget around $4.1 million, it served over 1,500 artists and impacted over 467,000 individuals in 2017.


More Art for More People


What the M-AAA does

 There are four main areas of program expenses for the M-AAA: grants, exhibitions, professional development, and artist business development.

Grants            The M-AAA provides grants through two avenues: directly to artists via Artistic Innovations, and to organizations presenting public events through the Regional Touring Program. Details are too much for this space, please do check out their web page.

 Exhibitions                In partnership with the National Endowment for the Humanities, the M-AAA presents touring exhibits across the country. These can be seen from Texas, Missouri, and Arkansas, where the M-AAA traditionally supports, all the way to Maine, Florida, Alaska, and Arizona. These truly do have national reach.

And the M-AAA also combines resources with ExhibitsUSA to bring varied exhibitions to varied audiences. They can cover subjects ranging from Johnny Cash to Hawaiian shirts to microfocus images of insects.

More information on exhibitions, including a schedule, can be found here.

Professional Development             The ENGAGE program currently operates only in Kansas City and Houston. Through this program, M-AAA provides development resources for local small to mid-size organizations. Resources enhance the knowledge base regarding governance, fundraising, financial management, and community engagement. The goal is to increase the efficiency of these groups, ensure greater impact, and enable long-term sustainability.

Artist Development             The Artist INC program takes a different approach. This works with individual artists not on their craft (how to paint more realistically) but on their business (how to make it as a professional artist). The programs run independently in various cities. Currently they are available in Argenta and Springdale Arkansas; Austin and Houston, Texas; Lawrence, Kansas; Omaha, Nebraska; and Tulsa, Oklahoma.

More information on ENGAGE and Artist INC at this link.

A mural in Joplin, MO


Who Supports Them

Foundations, individual donors, and grants. There is a nearly equal split currently between grant money ($1.2 million), contracted services ($1.3 million), and contributions ($1.4 million). This feels like a very balanced portfolio. Kudos to the M-AAA for ensuring that there is no single source of funding that everything hangs upon.

Within the individual donors listed on the 2017 Annual Report, I notice a few names in the $100,000+ category (foundations all), and, as could be expected, increasing numbers as the size decreases. However, I expected a greater number of smaller (<$500) donors. There were only 53 listed; this seems small for an organization receiving over a million dollars in contributions. Perhaps there is an opportunity to expand the M-AAA’s reach to more individuals and broaden their base of support.


Challenges On the Horizon

 Because a major funding source is grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, budgetary restrictions there will certainly be felt at the regional level.

Plus, as more and more of our society’s interactions take place across online / mobile platforms, I foresee that organizations like this could end up fighting to justify traditional art forms. Rather than actually expanding artwork, supporting artists, and enhancing local groups, the M-AAA may have to “go back to the beginning”, so to speak, and advocate for art itself. That would certainly feel like a bit of a setback.


Opportunities Awaiting

 I’m encouraged, however, by the varied programs that M-AAA is currently investing in. Since ENGAGE is only in two locations, expansion to more major metropolitan areas within their geographic footprint is a natural step.

And with the Artist INC also in a similar growth mode, replication of this process throughout not only the region but across the country would be a great way to broaden the M-AAA’s impact and reach.

Despite the potential for increased online engagement to drive down in-person artistic participation, there is a large opportunity for M-AAA and other similar programs to harness mobile platforms for enhancement of their experiences. Perhaps M-AAA could partner not just with artists, but business collaborators, marketing agencies, app developers, and others on the forefront of future technology to ensure their programs integrate these recent developments. Rather than feeling intimidated by uncertain losses, the M-AAA could use these channels to drive more attendance at exhibitions and galleries; spread word-of-mouth farther and faster than ever before; and create interactive programs which harness social media rather than compete with it.



I think regional arts agencies like M-AAA have an incredible potential for the future. And, with community engagement and expanding artistic impact at the forefront, they will continue to impact lives in innumerable ways. Especially as they continue to promote plans like travel reimbursement funds available to artists residing more than 150 miles from Kansas City. More programs like this, with more funding for more artists, will truly help the M-AAA make More Art for More People.



Check out the video made to celebrate 50 years of the National Endowment for the Arts.