January 07, 2015

Colorado Symphony Enjoys 1-Year Fundraising High

At the Colorado Symphony, 2014 will be remembered as the year that fundraising went to pot.

A string of marijuana-inclusive events—believed to be a first in the nonprofit fundraising world—netted a total of $250,000 for the Denver-based performing-arts organization last year.

"A significant percentage of those who attended these events were totally new to the Colorado Symphony experience," said Laura Bond, director of community and media relations. "Many of them have returned to see the orchestra perform since that first exposure."

Still, the symphony, which has an annual operating budget of $12.5 million, remains a solo artist when it comes to incorporating joints and special brownies into one’s fundraising strategies.

It is the sole nonprofit to have courted recreational marijuana users and the cannabis industry in Colorado, where private consumption has been legal since January 2014. It has no such events on its 2015-16 calendar, although that could change between now and when the schedule is formally released on March 1, Ms. Bond said.

And while curiosity abounds, nonprofit professionals cite a range of complicated variables including donor alienation and federal law when they say there is no explosion in marijuana-themed fundraising on the horizon.

"It is a drug, so that has really mixed messages, especially in the nonprofit community where organizations are treating addiction," said Renny Fagan, chief executive of the Colorado Nonprofit Association.

City Officials Balk

The Colorado Symphony’s foray into the world of recreational marijuana included at least a few headaches. When the organization first began selling tickets for a trio of marijuana-inclusive fundraisers it dubbed "Classically Cannabis: the High Note Series" last spring, Denver city officials balked. They argued that the symphony risked violating city and state laws and threatened to withhold special-events permits. There were also angry communiques with disapproving symphony supporters, said Jerome Kern, the organization’s chief executive.

But the symphony was able to regroup without abandoning its pot plans. It partnered with Jane West, who runs the marijuana-focused Edible Events company, to reformat the fundraising series as invitation-only events—attendees were asked to contribute $75—and stage them in private settings, thereby keeping them within the law. And early objectors from within the symphony’s own community eventually came around, according to Mr. Kern, a former telecommunications investor who once served as interim chairman and CEO of Playboy Enterprises.

The fundraising series was followed by a symphony concert in September at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre just outside Denver that attracted a crowd of 4,719, of whom 28 percent were first-time ticket buyers, Ms. Bond said.

The nonprofit community in Colorado was definitely taking note. In September, the Colorado Nonprofit Association hosted an information forum on the topic that attracted about 50 people, a larger-than-typical crowd for such an event, Mr. Fagan said.

"I think having marijuana legally available under Colorado law is new to everyone still," Mr. Fagan said. "There were a lot of questions from nonprofits from the standpoint of running their own businesses to fundraising relationships with the marijuana industry."

Not a Good Fit

Some nonprofits might feel comfortable integrating marijuana use now, Mr. Fagan said. Others will never feel comfortable with having it at their events or being supported by the marijuana industry with sponsorships.

Ms. West of Edible Events said she is working on a sponsorship deal between a marijuana dispensary chain and a statewide nonprofit. Part of the plan is for the dispensary’s brand to appear on the nonprofit’s website one day a week and for the dispensary to collect donations for the nonprofit at its retail sites. The deal will be worth tens of thousands of dollars to the nonprofit, she said.

But pitching such deals is tricky, Ms. West said. Late last year, she approached the Epilepsy Foundation of Colorado to brand a marijuana-friendly New Year’s Eve party. It seemed like a good fit—the foundation supports the use of medical marijuana. But officials there turned her down, Ms. West said, and she ultimately partnered with the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies instead.

Gail Pundsack, executive director of the Epilepsy Foundation of Colorado, said that her organization supports individuals with epilepsy who include marijuana as part of their medical treatment. But her nonprofit represents a "medically fragile community," she said.

"By branding an event with our logo to receive funding might appear to be sanctioning the validity of its medical impact for people with epilepsy," Ms. Pundsack said. "We feel strongly more research is needed so our community has proven scientific information upon which to base their decision for best treatment options."

Those at the Colorado Symphony describe their first experience with pot as a success, even as they assess their options to host similar events in the coming year.

"We’re certainly open to deepening our relationship within the legal cannabis industry in Colorado, which has generated millions for Colorado’s economy since 2013," she said.

Send an e-mail to Megan O’Neil.