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Six Random Things Nonprofits Can Learn from the Grateful Dead

When my brother came home for the holidays my freshman year in high school, he brought his load of dirty laundry for my mom to do, a backgammon board, and box of Grateful Dead tapes.  Over the weeks he was home, we played a lot of backgammon and I listened to a lot of his tapes, although not necessarily by choice.  When he returned to MIT, he took his music with him, and I realized that I missed listening to the tapes everyday. 

I went to my first show at Alpine Valley in East Troy, Wisconsin in 1980, and eventually saw seventy-five shows in over thirty states over a fifteen year period.  While my friends were banging their heads to AC/DC, Def Leppard, and Van Halen, I was wearing tie dyed shirts and planning my next road trip. 

For those of you who are too young to know this iconic band from San Francisco, the Grateful Dead were a seminal psychedelic band that didn’t get much radio play, but they had a loyal following of fans that would follow them from town to town.  Officially founded in 1965, they were the house band for Ken Kesey’s infamous acid tests, and their band played and toured for thirty years.  Even today, they can be heard on their own radio station on Sirius.

August 1st marked the 70th birthday of the late Jerry Garcia, one of the founding members, and August 9th marked the 17th anniversary of his death.  In memory of Jerry and the other members the band, I thought I would share some things that nonprofits can learn from the Grateful Dead and its loyal Deadhead fans.

  • Be inclusive and have something for everyone.  When the Grateful Dead played their music, they played a variety of styles and songs from many genres of music. You could never really pin them down. During a set, you could hear them play an old country song, a Chuck Berry song, one of their own pieces, some improvisational jazz, some sweet love song, a classic blues tune, or a number of any other styles.  When a nonprofit is trying to build its base, it needs to do something that will appeal to a diverse following.  If it limits itself to a small group of followers, it will have trouble maintaining support.
  • Experiment and improvise.  When the Grateful Dead played, the band would often find itself extending a song with long jam, with different members soloing at different points, and then they would transition into a new song without breaking stride.  Some songs naturally flowed into other songs and then to others.  No show was ever exactly the same and never followed a formula.  A nonprofit organization needs to try new things and improvise as well.  If they continually follow a formula, things will become stale and supporters will get bored.
  • When you make a mistake, laugh and learn from the experience.  Over the years I saw the band play, I saw them make plenty of mistakes.  Lyrics would be forgotten mid-song, or a verse would be sung at the wrong time.  Sometimes one member would start playing a song while the rest of the band was still playing another.  You could hear laughter on stage or one of the singers make a comment, and then the show would go on.  Not everything your organization tries is going to work, so learn from your mistakes and go on.  It’s not the end of the world.
  • Pay attention to your finances.  At one point in their career, the band was playing a lot of shows and recording a lot of records, but money was not there.  It turned out that their business manager had given in to temptation and was stealing money from the band.  What was worse was that the manager was the father of one of the members, so they trusted this man to treat them right.  Boards of Directors need to do their due diligence and keep track of the finances of the organization.  Even trusted financial officers of the nonprofit can fall to temptation and misuse funds that are meant for programs.  It happens too often, and the only way to prevent it is to actively keep track of expenditures and perform audits by outside accountants on an annual basis.
  • Don’t do something everyone else is doing.  The thing I liked about the Grateful Dead is that they didn’t sound like any other band.  Whether they were playing their own songs or covering the work of another band or artist, the music sounded like nobody else.  Most bands perform concerts to sell a recording, but the Grateful Dead performed to play and entertain.  Their albums didn’t sell all that well, but they sold out concerts on a regular basis.  They also let the fans record their concerts and trade recordings with each other.  When starting a nonprofit, you want to be different from all the other organizations in your locality.  You need to provide services that others aren’t. Otherwise, you will be fighting for the same financial support from limited resources and less people will benefit.
  • Share the spotlight with your team.  When the Grateful Dead performed, they did a pretty good job of letting everyone get some recognition.  While Jerry Garcia was iconic, he shared the limelight with the other band members Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Micky Hart, Bill Kreutzman and the various keyboardists that played with the band.  Garcia would take turns with Weir on most of the singing duties, but Lesh had his songs, as did Ron “Pigpen” McKernon, Brent Mydland, Vince Welnick and Keith and Donna Jean Godcheaux during their tenures with the band.  During the second set of most of the shows, percussionists Hart and Kreutzman would get ten to twenty minutes to play a myriad of drums and other percussive instruments, and then the rest of the band would rejoin them for the rest of the show. They also welcomed other musicians onstage to jam and gave them a chance to shine.  Nonprofits need to share the responsibilities and successes with those on their teams, from leadership to program employees and administrative workers.  They need to value all the contributions that are made and listen to ideas that those people can share to make the organization better. 

The Grateful Dead brought pleasure and joy to a wide variety of people from all walks of life.  At any time, you could be enjoying the show with street people, students, and professionals like doctors, lawyers, and engineers.  All were welcome, young and old, liberal and conservative, rich and poor.  When at a Grateful Dead concert, all were family.