When Giving Is Getting: Festivals With Charity In Mind Raise Cash For Causes

One of the hallmarks of this festival firehose of a concert season is the sheer number of outdoors events filling up the calendar, as artists, promoters and agents make up for lost time and income after the live drought of 2020-21.

But among the hundreds – if not thousands – of festivals that went dark during the pandemic shutdowns are many that are depended upon by others beyond the music world and its fans. Festivals whose raison d’être is the good they do in their communities and beyond.

HOMF Inflatables
HANGING OUT: Music fans are as colorful as the inflatables at Hangout Music Festival in Gulf Shores, Ala., returning with Post Malone, Halsey, Doja Cat and more May 20-22. Courtesy Hangout Music Festival

As “giving back” has gained currency among conscientious concertgoers over the last decade or more, it’s long been recognized that having a charitable component to big events is good marketing. For many, it’s part of their brand. For others, it’s a condition for some of the artists they want to attract as well.

For M3F Music Festival, in Phoenix, Ariz., it’s literally what they are – a non-profit established to support a bevy of local and international charities. Every dollar in proceeds from M3F – which drew some 25,000 fans March 4-5 and featured headliners Zhu, Leon Bridges and Kaytranada – go to local and global organizations ranging from artist and crew support groups like Backline to environmental supporters like Sustainable AZ and Nature Conservancy.

Since 2004, when M3F launched with “two thousand fans, hundreds of lawn chairs, one stage, and grandma’s cooking to keep us fueled as we would set up,” according to its website, more than $3.2 million has been donated to organizations like Habitat for Humanity, the Music Therapy Program from Phoenix Children’s Hospital, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, and Teach for America.

M3F – shorthand for McDowell Mountain Music Festival – also works with organizations focused on mental health and addiction, nature, animal rescue, and more. In 2020, after a pandemic-related dark year, they raised a record $600,000.

“On our website, we list almost 40 to 45 charities that we’ve impacted over the years,” M3F Festival Director Heather Rogers tells Pollstar. “We had grown, little by little, and went from one or two the first year or two, then six and then 10, and it just kept growing. But over the last few years, especially when the pandemic hit, more and more people still needed help.”

CREDIT Brianna Lee @its.brianna.lee
RAISING MORE THAN THE ROOF: Cautious Clay is one of the artists performing during M3F Festival March 4-5 in Phoenix, Ariz. M3F distributes 100% of proceeds to charity with $3.2 million donated since 2004.
Photo By Brianna Lee

So Rogers and her team went to work.

“We did more research. We checked into charities that aligned with us that understood the experience and the process behind it,” she said. “And it is the core of what we do. We want to make sure that we’re giving back and letting people know that there are still people out there, and that understand [the festival] is more than just us.”

M3F isn’t the only festival that doubles as a non-profit, or for which philanthropy is baked into its existence. Pollstar found several festivals that are heavily invested in doing good and giving back to their communities as well as supporting specific causes beyond collecting a buck or two from ticket fees. For these, giving is part of their very identity.

Another festival with roots as a non-profit is Rock The Ocean’s Tortuga Music Festival, taking place this year across three stages April 8-10 in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. A program of Rock The Ocean Foundation, a 501(c)3 non-profit that focuses on turtle and shark conservation, coral reef degradation, overfishing, and marine pollution, Tortuga has become a festival destination.

With a lineup that annually leans heavily toward country as well as rock and roots music, this year Tortuga boasts a lineup including Morgan Wallen, Thomas Rhett and Luke Combs headlining its main stage. Past headliners have included Kenny Chesney, Luke Bryan and Keith Urban.

A key component of Tortuga is its Conservation Village at the center of the festival site. Each year, Rock The Ocean consults with more than 30 worldwide thought leaders in ocean conservation to create a roster of Conservation Village partners that participate on site, and has consisted of groups like the Broward County Sea Turtle Conservation Program to international environmental groups like Bimini Biological Field Station Foundation and Sharks4Kids.

Launched in 2013, Tortuga has raised more than $2 million for the Foundation, with funds going to some 60 partners in ocean conservation, five universities and research in the U.S., Bahamas and Asia.

The five-day dance party known as SXM Festival on the Caribbean island of Saint Martin, which this year took place March 9-13, was established by the formation of two foundations: Two Bunch Palm and Association Les Amis du SXM Festival, and raises fund to help those affected by the lingering impacts of 2017’s Hurricane Irma.

As the island is restored, the festival continues to work with the local government to rebuild recreation areas, clean up beaches, and raise money for the island while creating a partnership with SXM DOET, the largest volunteer initiative on the island. The house / techno-heavy lineup this year featured Magdalena, Audiofly and Pillow Talk among about 100 artists taking part.

Another festival that raises funds for several philanthropic efforts is New Orleans’ BUKU Music + Art Project, which returned to the city after COVID forced its cancellation in 2020 and 2021. Despite, or maybe because of, the lengthy hiatus, exuberant crowds returned to NOLA’s waterfront to celebrate the eclectic festival’s March 25-26 return.

Part of every ticket sold goes directly to Upbeat Academy, a non-profit that empowers New Orleans youth through music education. BUKU also works closely with the Take Action Project, which is focused on raising awareness around various social and environmental justice issues.

Since its founding it 2012, BUKU has donated a significant portion of the Upbeat Academy Foundation’s annual budget by way of ticket charity fees, guest list donations, graffiti auctions and personal donations. Every year, BUKU provides Upbeat student-artists with the opportunity to perform on stage at the festival and meet their favorite artists including such past performers as Kendrick Lamar, Nas, A$AP Rocky, Chance The Rapper and Run The Jewels.

This year’s edition included artists Tame Impala, Porter Robinson, Rezz, Taking Back Sunday, Tierra Whack, Trippie Redd, Alison Wonderland, Baby Keem, Glass Animals, Kali Uchis, Vince Staples and Tyler, The Creator among many others.

Hangout Music Fest in Gulf Shores, Ala., takes place May 20-22 and has worked to uplift the local community through philanthropy and community engagement which included recently donating $100,000 for the benefit of Gulf Shores City Schools.

The donation was used to build a state of the art music lab for the students of Gulf Shores High School. The lab includes a recording studio, music instruments, and a stage with lighting and sound equipment. In honor of Hangout’s donation, the lab was named the Hangout Music Lab.

With a 2022 lineup that includes Post Malone, Fall Out Boy, ZEDD, Kane Brown and Maren Morris, Hangout’s chosen 2022 beneficiaries can likely count on a nice infusion of cash.

Such philanthropic and community service efforts, of course, aren’t limited to U.S. festivals. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of Europe’s fests are heavily invested in environment and social sustainability efforts and charitable work as well.
Roskilde Festival in Denmark, taking place June 25 through July 2, is a preeminent such event, focusing on generating proceeds that are distributed to humanitarian, non-profit, and cultural work for the benefit of children and young people in particular.

Their approach to environmental, social, artistic, and economic sustainability is focused on donations, artistic innovation, green initiatives, and social change projects.

In 2021, Roskilde teamed up with the Tuborg Foundation to push for a greener development and influence pro-climate behavior. Longstanding partnerships with Technical University and Innovation Fund Denmark gives student entrepreneurs tools to test and develop green solutions for the festival as well as the world’s climate challenges.

What these festivals all have in common, whether they sell 25,000 tickets like M3F or 130,000 at Roskilde, is a core that is dedicated to service, education and giving in a way that radiates from their local communities to the world.

“It is a hard message to get through to some people that this is all for charity and that the need is out there,” Rogers says. “But I think we do better every year to really catch people’s attention to that and bring light to what we’re trying to do.”

M3F Marketing Director Warner Bailey stresses, and likely this is true for all of these festivals, that the work of improving lives goes on long after festivalgoers head home and stages are struck.

“One of the best things is that once we once we tear down the site on Saturday or Sunday, our message continues,” Bailey says. “[M3F] is built on three core ideas of community, culture and charity.

“Because of the fundraising that we do at the festival, our impact and our message stretch throughout the year. So really, it’s a 12-month, 365-day effort for it to continue growing through this brand.”