'Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste': How Music Charities Are Raising More Money Than Ever

Alicia Keys, Sylvia Rhone and Sara Bareilles

Alicia Keys, Sylvia Rhone and Sara Bareilles at the City Of Hope: Spirit Of Life Gala in Los Angeles on Oct. 10, 2019.

Charities with close ties to the music business are moving their big events online -- and thriving.

As the pandemic worsened in the spring, executives at the cancer and diabetes research and treatment center City of Hope began to contemplate a fall without its annual Spirit of Life music industry gala dinner, which in 2019 raised $4.4 million. So the organization’s chief philanthropy officer, Kristin Bertell, acted accordingly to the saying, "Never let a good crisis go to waste."

Once the organization canceled Spirit of Life in the spring, it focused on instilling a sense of urgency among donors. ("We kept messaging, 'Cancer doesn’t stop [in the pandemic],'" says Bertell.) She and her staff also utilized virtual events, like its first-ever Holiday Benefit fundraiser on Dec. 1, which served as its marquee event of the year and featured performances from Aloe Blacc, Sammy Hagar and Pentatonix. Organizations like City of Hope with close ties to the music industry have been well positioned during the pandemic, able to pivot to livestreams with the sort of star power that gets donors to show up. And Bertell says it has tapped into a new pool of donors across the country who wouldn’t ordinarily attend Spirit of Life in Los Angeles, helping City of Hope raise a record $188 million in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, up 32% from the year before.

The UJA Federation of New York, a Jewish nonprofit supporting various charitable causes in New York and Israel, had a record year as well. Between March 16 and June 30, the organization raised $55.5 million, up 35% over the same period in 2019 -- even without its annual Music Visionary of the Year luncheon in June, which typically raises $1.5 million. On May 6, the UJA’s entertainment division launched a virtual weekly fundraising series with speakers such as SiriusXM chief content officer Scott Greenstein and Ticketmaster global chairman Jared Smith, while Glassnote Records founder/president (and UJA entertainment division chair) Daniel Glass helped raise funds through direct outreach to his industry contacts.

WME agent Richard Weitz and his daughter Demi saw the opportunity for charitable livestreams early in the pandemic and launched the Quarantunes variety show concert series on Zoom in April. So far they’ve raised $14 million for charities including Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank and Baby2Baby with surprise appearances by John Legend, Billie Eilish, Rod Stewart and Elvis Costello. (On Dec. 16, Quarantunes will host a virtual benefit for UJA, during which the Weitzes will be honored with the organization’s philanthropy impact award and attorney Doug Davis will be named Music Visionary of the Year.) Plus, "there’s no cost for food, valet, rentals, lights, entertainment," says Weitz. "Everything they make goes directly to the organization."

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 5, 2020, issue of Billboard.