4 Days of Fun, 365 Days of Making a Difference

You can’t fully understand Bonnaroo until you have been there,” Nina Miller, executive director of the Bonnaroo Works Fund, says. Her favorite memories from the yearly music and arts festival held in Manchester, Tenn., are not the big-name rock stars or the well-celebrated party atmosphere. “The first time I was there, the gates hadn’t opened yet, but there was such a feeling of peace,” she says. “I was watching a city being built. It’s got its own post office. It’s got its own medical center. It’s got everything. And then when they open the gate, 80,000 people come in and there is a palpable rush. You can feel it. There’s something very powerful about it in the very best sense of the word. It’s a place where everyone wants to be part of something bigger. Even when you’re working your tail off, you’re doing it for something bigger than yourself, and everyone feels that.” That feeling of being part of something bigger has found real world results through the Bonnaroo Works Fund. The nonprofit charitable foundation gives back to the communities of Middle Tennessee through grants to many organizations and programs.
     “From the beginning of Bonnaroo in 2002, the founders of the festival wanted to give back to the surrounding communities in large amounts and significant ways,” Miller says. “They’ve donated to nonprofit organizations and other agencies that may not be nonprofit, but that do good work.”
     Some of those early donations included $30,000 for building a skate park in Manchester and purchasing new band uniforms for the Coffee County High School. As the Bonnaroo festival grew, the need for a more formalized and efficient method of administering grants also increased. In 2009, the Bonnaroo Works Fund was organized as a formal entity, and recently became a stand-alone, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
     “Since 2009, the fund has made grants upwards of seven million dollars to over one hundred organizations,” Miller says. “We work with the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee. They administer the funds for us, and they are so good at what they do.” Miller brings her years of experience working with nonprofit organizations. Before joining the BWF in 2013, she served as executive director of the Gibson Foundation for six years, a position that also joined the music business with philanthropy.
     “I found the similarities intriguing and the differences compelling between Gibson and Bonnaroo,” she says. “I was very impressed with what the Bonnaroo Works Fund was doing and what they had accomplished. They thought big — focusing on the arts, education, and the environment, specifically environmental sustainability. Although the focus was predominantly on the Coffee County region, they were also giving to surrounding counties and communities, including Davidson County.”
     Grants from the Bonnaroo Works Fund have benefited Coffee County school libraries (with more than 4,000 new books purchased), the Manchester Municipal Arts Commission, the Coffee County Soil Conservation District, and the Nature Conservancy in Tennessee. Specific projects organized by the fund have included a beautification project for New Union Elementary School and providing free energy retrofits to low-income families in Coffee County.
     Closer to Nashville, Bonnaroo Works Fund grants have supported the Music Makes Us program which provides funding for music education in Metro Nashville Public Schools, the Notes For Notes organization that sponsors after-school music programs in Boys & Girls Clubs, land management programs through the Friends of Warner Parks, the PENCIL Foundation’s Reading Partners program, and many other worthy causes.
     “Because our mission is driven by arts, education, and the environment, those types of organizations get priority in the grant process,” Miller says. “But we also get some requests that are less of a direct mission fit, but have some core piece that is so compelling we choose to support them too.”
     The funding for the Bonnaroo Works Fund comes from many sources, Miller says. In addition to $2 from every Bonnaroo ticket sold and direct contributions, there are several events and programs that raise money both at the festival and throughout the year. These include onsite and online auctions of music memorabilia, the annual Roo Run — a 5K on-site race, the Root for Roo on-site tree planting program, and licensing fees collected from the sales of Ben & Jerry’s Bonnaroo Buzz ice cream.
     “It’s a very exciting time for the Bonnaroo Works Fund,” Miller says. “We’re raising our visibility, and at the same time, raising more funds. When a project is completed in a community, someone asks, ‘Where did you get the money?’ and the word spreads.
     “Right now we’re in the process of our grant-making cycle for 2015. We’ve received over 100 grant requests this year. The number of applications has more than doubled in the last two years.
     “Bonnaroo has several great slogans that express their philosophy,” Miller says. “Play as a team, radiate positivity, don’t be ‘that guy.’ The Works Fund is truly about distilling the essence that is found in the four days of Bonnaroo and then spreading it out to others. We want to generate that same feeling of being part of something bigger than yourself. It’s not just four days of having fun and doing good. It can be a year-round experience.”

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