A Guide to Funding Singing Projects

There is so much more to a choir or singing group than finances – and yet, like any project, if the bills aren’t getting paid then things fall apart pretty quickly! Budgeting the year’s activities and securing funding for them are critical steps in the ongoing governance of any group.
At our AGM in 2019, SLNA decided to put together a set of guidelines for fair pay for the work our membership do in teaching and directing choirs and other singing groups. During the second half of the year, we asked song leaders to complete a survey about how much they get paid for their work, and how many hours they put in, both in front of the group and behind-the-scenes. You can see the results of this work on our pay guidelines page HERE.
In the survey we also asked some questions about governance and funding of singing groups. Whilst we wanted to set guidelines for song leader remuneration that were independent of the current means by which they were funded, the reality is that once a fair rate of pay has been negotiated for any given situation, the next step must be to consider how it can be funded.
To reiterate, SLNA advocates that a fair rate of pay for any song leading role should first be determined, and then the matter of funding it should be considered. To rely on ‘whatever people can afford to attend’ implies a business model that is unsustainable given that our work is community-based and targeted at inclusive accessible participation.
About Committees
It is of immense benefit for any choir to have a structure that involves a committee (sometimes called a core group, steering group etc) which can represent the wider singing group, and be an effective body for the song leader to discuss all aspects of choir management, including agreeing fair pay for their work – and sourcing the funding for it. It is much better for a committee to advocate for funds on behalf of a community group, than for a song leader to present a case to a grants body for funding their own work. Also, many of the non-musical tasks that add to the song leader’s workload can be shared amongst volunteer committee members (or potentially delegated by the committee to regular singers), reducing the need to employ the song leader in administration work.
If there is no mediating group, the tasks of deciding pay rates and securing funding either fall solely to the song leader, or else to the whole group, where consensus is often difficult to achieve amongst a shifting membership of casual singers, many of whom have neither the inclination or the skill to be involved in the management of the choir. A committee embodies the group’s determination to establish, survive and thrive, and ensures that the song leader is a member of a team of people with a common interest, rather than a self-employed business owner.
In addition to paying song leaders, committees need to find money for venue hire, advertising, and expenses incurred in performances, concerts etc. Choir funding strategies should take all these costs into consideration.
Funding is needed for on-going costs (song leader pay, venue hire) and for one-off or event costs, such as a concert, project, infrastructure (piano?) or costs associated with a fundraising event or drive (buying stock, or advertising). This ‘use’ of funds is relevant when making applications for grants funding, where each funder has different criteria for what they will and won’t fund.
A funding strategy for a singing group should take timing into consideration: when are the closing dates for funding applications, and over what period must the money be spent? When do we get money in from subs, and what’s the best time of year to have a fundraiser (both in terms of success, and when we need the income)? A budget with a timeline for the coming year is essential. Keeping good records of money in-and-out is a straightforward but important task, and provides good information to build subsequent years’ budgets, and easy to-hand documentation for funding applications.
Legal status of the group is sometimes an issue for funding applications, and the committee should consider if it would be best to become an incorporated society and/or charity. Communitynet Aotearoa have a good resource on the subject. But bear in mind that it is only for grants applications that this might become relevant – local business sponsorship, a fundraiser or the collecting of subs don’t require a legal status. The age of a group can be significant: do you need funding for starting up a new group? Or are you well-established with a proven track record?
Where does the money come from?
Sources of funding fall into four distinct areas:
  • Members subs – where singing members pay to attend the group, either on a pay-as-you-come casual basis, or a secure-my-place payment per term (regardless of whether they come to choir or not)
  • Sponsorship – funding from a local business, or associate (non-singing) members, perhaps paying for ‘scholarships’ that can be offered to those who would otherwise not be able to afford being in the choir. Also payment ‘in kind’ such as reduced rates for venue hire, advertising, free stuff to sell on, or supporting the costs of a concert
  • Fundraising events or drives – movie nights, concerts, dances, selling stuff (including choir-related material such as recordings, t-shirts etc)
  • Grants – either nationally (Creative New Zealand, Lotteries funding), local (Creative Communities, gambling machine trusts), or specialist (New Zealand Choral Federation)
Song Leading As Employment
Song leaders, like other arts practitioners, are sometimes and in some ways business owners – either in their song leading (as contractors, to several choirs/singing groups/workshops etc) or in some related field that includes song leading. Likewise, song leading is sometimes a component of a larger body of work such as school teaching, or music therapy (these funding guidelines are not primarily addressed to those situations)
Some (but not all) of us regard their song leading work as a hobby, and many of us have, from time to time and for a variety of reasons, accepted either no pay or much less than is reasonable for their work. This not only undervalues the work of that individual but sets up unreasonable expectations of low- or no pay for other song leaders. It also creates an unsustainable financial model so that, if a guest song leader is asked to cover for illness or absence by the resident leader, there are no funds to properly pay them. Very soon these situations lead to song leader burnout and collapse of the singing group.
However, as a short-term measure, there are cases where a reduced pay rate might be appropriate:
  • Individual song leaders might have a pre-arranged ‘charity rate’ that they’ve decided upon, for occasional projects.
  • Often this might take the form of a set number of ‘pro bono’ hours per year that they are willing to donate. These hours will be recorded in an invoicing system, showing a credit for the pro bono work.
  • A new choir might negotiate an introductory pay rate for an initial period until budgeted funding strategies meet the agreed target pay rate. This should be clearly time lined. The song leader might invoice at the full rate and show the shortfall as ‘pro bono’ work.
This information has been compiled by the SLNA committee, 2019. We welcome your feedback and additions to this ongoing discussion about funding singing groups, and leave you with the following strategic advice from SLNA member Helen Diaz:
The most successful funding strategy (other than participant term fees) of the committee I work with, has been to design the singing year as a series of community facing events. This means that the choir receive a 'package' of money that can include paying the song leader for weekly sessions, special workshops/rehearsal sessions & concert, alongside advertising, hall hire, equipment, and other similar expenses. It covers a set time period and ends with a quantifiable outcome - usually an inclusive community concert also involving guest musicians/creatives from the wider community. Although funding is not always granted, it is often successful because the community who are granted the funds are so very local and can be easily seen and counted by the funder. I note that an additional advantage of this model is that it helps establish the song leader role as a professional expert, recognized as part of the cost of a sustaining a choir.