Within the Augusta area there are more than 2,000 nonprofit organizations and charities serving the citizens of this region.
That is more charities and nonprofits per capita than almost any other city in the country.
Over the next several months, the Metro Spirit will embark on a series of stories looking into local charities and nonprofits throughout the CSRA to answer the simple question: Where do your donation dollars go?
One unique charity that began almost 15 years ago in the Augusta area was the 12 Bands of Christmas.
Originally, 12 Bands began back in 2001 with a group of local musicians getting together to perform a Christmas concert, explained the organization’s Executive Director Joe Stevenson.
“I got involved in 2003 because I was doing my radio show, which was called HomeGrown at the time,” Stevenson said. “It always got to be around Christmas and I was like, ‘Man, I never have any Christmas music from local bands. We ought to do a Christmas album.’”
With that simple goal in mind, Stevenson approached the organizers of 12 Bands about putting together a CD of local musicians and playing a concert at the Imperial Theatre.
As the idea flourished, Stevenson and the organizers decided that 12 Bands should also focus on a cause in which the group could donate a portion of the proceeds.
“We were like, ‘We need to have something, make it a cause, donate the money,’” Stevenson said, adding that the group began talking to the Children’s Hospital of Georgia, then known as the MCG’s Children’s Medical Center. “And that is kind of how 12 Bands began as a nonprofit. It started out as just a thing for local music, to promote local bands, and it turned into a cause to help families and children at the hospital here.”
According to 12 Bands’ website, 12bands.org, the nonprofit organization has raised more than $250,000 to “support families fighting pediatric cancer.”
“The music of 12 Bands has provided ‘just in time’ resources to families being cared for at the Children’s Hospital of Georgia,” the website states. “As 12 Bands evolved, the organization became wholly focused on the often unknown, seldom discussed and frequently ignored needs of children and families facing life-threatening cancers.”
In 2010, Stevenson said 12 Bands registered to be tax exempt under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code and started to work towards more of a year-round outreach program.
“Now, it’s not just a concert to raise money and give it to the hospital,” Stevenson said. “We wanted to be more about outreach, more about awareness and the concert is just kind of what we are known for.
“But we struggle sometimes getting exactly what we do out there. We don’t just raise money and give it away. We take music into the hospital, we raise awareness and we do a lot of other events throughout the year to try and raise money and make a difference.”
When 12 Bands registered as a 501(c)(3) in 2010, it began filing annual tax returns with the IRS. These tax returns, which can be viewed by the public at guidestar.org, currently include the years 2010, 2011 and 2012.
According to the 2012 tax return, 12 Bands received a total of $208,786 in public support from 2008 to 2012.
But not all that money went to families fighting pediatric care.
One of the organization’s biggest expenses is Stevenson’s salary.
In 2010, 12 Bands’ revenue was listed at $161,029, while Stevenson’s salary was $50,000 that year.
In 2011, the organization’s revenue was $67,038, while Stevenson’s salary was $47,917. However, in 2011, 12 Bands’ expenses exceeded its revenue by $33,530. The organization still provided more than $35,000 in grants to the Atlanta-based nonprofit cancer research foundation called Cure Childhood Cancer.
In 2012, the tax return states the organization’s revenue was $80,524, while Stevenson’s salary was $48,417. The amount of “cancer patient grants” provided by 12 Bands in 2012 is listed as $11,448.
If you look at the most recent tax filing in 2012, more than half of the revenue collected that year went towards Stevenson’s salary.
That is about 60 cents of every dollar collected in 2012.
According to CharityWatch, a national nonprofit charity watchdog, it recommends “60 percent or more of an organization’s charitable donation should go to program services” and less than 40 percent should be spent on fundraising and general administration.
While those numbers may raise a few red flags for some, Stevenson insists that doesn’t
paint an accurate picture of 12 Bands and its mission.
“Since 2010, a good bit has changed with our direction and what we are doing,” Stevenson said. “When we started as the 501(c)(3), we were super big picture. We were going full guns to save the world.”
But the organization soon realized that many cancer-related nonprofit organizations around the country focus their attentions on funding scientific research. 12 Bands decided that it wanted to focus on basic needs for families facing a child diagnosed with cancer, he said.
“How it works is, basically, the hospital social worker sends us a request of a family who is actively being treated at the hospital,” Stevenson said. “A family will often come in and the parent is out of work because they are dealing with their sick child. A lot of times, they are being treated here, but their home is two to three hours away. That is a burden because, when they are out of work, they can’t pay their rent.”
That’s when 12 Bands‘ board of directors considers the request, and, if approved, Stevenson will immediately cut a check for the family.
“For example, at Thanksgiving, we paid for a rental car so somebody could get to Valdosta to take their child home,” Stevenson said. “We have paid gas bills, power bills, rent, mortgages and groceries. The board just considers the requests as they come in. And around Christmas, we buy gift cards to pass out. The hospital will say, ‘Hey, we have 12 families who need a little help for Christmas.’ So we will go and buy $200 Walmart gift cards and they will give them to families.”
It is the small things that help these families relax and focus on caring for their child who might be facing chemo or radiation treatments, Stevenson said.
12 Bands is also extremely passionate about the “healing power of music,” Stevenson said.
Once a month, Stevenson will bring music to the kids undergoing cancer treatment.
“When we are not on a flu ban at the hospital, like we currently are, Joe comes once a month and brings music to the kids,” said Kym Allen, the manager of child and adolescent life services at the Children’s Hospital of Georgia. “He plays to a crowd that ranges anywhere from two kids to 20 kids on any given day. Obviously, kids are in the hospital because they are sick, so sometimes they are going to surgery or they are on isolation and can’t leave their room or they going down for an MRI procedure, or they are just not feeling good and don’t want to come out of the room. But Joe is really good about making the performances interactive for all ages, so the kids love it.”
Stevenson will bring shakers and drums so the children watching can play instruments along with him, Allen said.
“It helps them forget about being in the hospital,” she said. “It is something normal that they can enjoy because part of what we do is try to make the hospital experience as normal as possible for kids.”
Stevenson is also involved in performing at Camp Rainbow, a free annual summer camp for any child who has cancer or a rare blood disease who receives care at the Children’s Hospital of Georgia.
“Either he will come and he’ll put a little band together or he has helped us get artists to come to the camp, like Ed Roland from Collective Soul, came a few years ago,” Allen said. “He has helped publicize Camp Rainbow and what we do for kids and the kids adore him.”
12 Bands refocuses its mission
More than a year ago, Stevenson said the 12 Bands’ board realized it needed to refocus itself because the charity was getting “lost in the shuffle.”
“We were getting lost in all the other nonprofits and all the other pediatric cancer fundraising,” Stevenson said. “So we actually hired an outside consultant to come in and look at our organization and give us some direction on what we should be doing and how we should be looking at our expenses.”
One of the biggest points she suggested was to provide more support for families that can be promoted at a local level, Stevenson said.
“She was actually the one who said, “Look, I think you need to have a more tangible result. Focus on the outreach and focus on helping specific families.’ And that’s what we did,” Stevenson said. “Last year was the first full year of the new direction.”
Laura DiSano was the nonprofit consultant from LMD & Associates who came to work on 12 Bands’ organizational framework in 2012.
“Nowadays, your nonprofit boards need to be working board. That is just the way it is,” said DiSano, who has also worked with local organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, the Westobou Festival and Juilliard in Aiken. “What that means is that you bring people on and you leverage their unique talents with a roll-up-your-sleeves mentality.”
In the last 12 to 15 months, DiSano said 12 Bands has recruited new board members and established a new three-pronged approach.
“Initially, this group started out primarily with awareness of the plight of pediatric cancer patients and their families through entertainment and performances,” DiSano said. “As it evolved, 12 Bands began to take on the framework where there was the ability to do more active fundraising. So the next step was direct services to patients and families, where they might help with a mortgage payment or apartment payment.”
DiSano said that was an extremely important step for 12 Bands because the organization was not just giving money to cancer research.
“These were very direct things that would be really meaningful on a very intimate level for those families,” DiSano said. “And the third prong was the utilization of music as therapy for families — moms and dads, brothers and sisters and extended families — to really relieve stress and the rigors of chemotherapy, radiation and the emotional strain that it places on families.”
When asked about the high percentage of the organization’s funding which goes towards Stevenson’s salary, DiSano said she was not hired to evaluate 12 Bands’ revenues and expenses.
However, DiSano said she was familiar with Stevenson’s salary and did not find it to be out of line.
“Joe works tirelessly to continue to get that organization to grow,” DiSano said. “From my perspective, it’s not a lot of money for a person who does the number of things that he does. It’s really not.”
The goal of 12 Bands is not to raise a truckload of money, DiSano said.
“If the entire goal of the organization was to strictly raise funds, that is great, but it’s not,” she said. “For 12 Bands, it is about awareness in the community, healing through music and direct services. And while those direct services do not cost enormous sums of money to do, they are still very important services to those families who are struggling with the mortgage payment or a power bill.”
12 Bands confident in the future
You will not find a bigger supporter of 12 Bands or Stevenson than board member and past president of the board Duncan Johnson.
Not long after his son, Duncan, turned 3, he was diagnosed with Burkitt’s lymphoma, an aggressive form of childhood cancer.
“My son had a tumor the size of a youth’s soccer ball in his stomach and another tumor the size of a grapefruit,” Johnson said, explaining that Duncan spent six months in the Children’s Hospital of Georgia receiving treatment. “He’s nine now. And all I can say is, I have been blessed in my life and wasting the opportunity to use the knowledge that I have gained to help other people would be a crime.”
But before his family was ever touched by cancer, Johnson said he was supporter of 12 Bands’ efforts. After his son was diagnosed, he was asked to serve on the 12 Bands’ board.
Over the past several years, Johnson and fellow board member Brad Usry have tirelessly worked to refocus the organization.
“Brad and I were involved in trying to turn it around from just a music focus and just an event focus,” Johnson said. “Originally, when I was on the board, we were creating events and a lot of money that went to some research organizations, which are great, but we decided that we wanted to focus more on helping children locally who are treated at the Children’s Hospital of Georgia.”
That was extremely important for Johnson after seeing families struggle while his son was receiving treatment.
“After my stay at the hospital, fortunately, I’m blessed, I didn’t need (financial) help, but I saw people who couldn’t afford to get a kid a milkshake,” Johnson said, explaining that often after chemotherapy, a child needs something mild, yet soothing, to eat. “Seeing people who didn’t have money to buy a milkshake or seeing people who didn’t have money for gas, that’s how I knew we needed to get involved.”
Johnson said he wanted to help those “families in the middle.” Specifically, people who aren’t on complete government assistance and those who don’t have great insurance that cover the majority of their medical expenses.
“When you get that diagnosis, that first two or three weeks, you don’t think about anything else,” Johnson said. “The fact that your house payment came due and went past due, it is just not even in your mind because you are spending all your money on a hotel room or going to get pajamas for the kids because you are spending days and nights at the hospital.”
Therefore, Johnson established the ability for the 12 Bands’ board to approve families’ requests via e-mail instead of waiting for the board’s monthly meeting.
“Those needs pop up and we don’t have time to go, ‘Let’s talk about it at the next meeting,’” Johnson said. “We are able to act quickly. Within a day or two, that money is either approved or voted down.”
As far as Stevenson’s salary compared to the organization’s revenue, Johnson insists that Stevenson is worth every penny.
“I think his role is instrumental in allowing us to provide a great level of music therapy, which is a huge thing,” Johnson said, adding that Stevenson is also responsible for planning all of the organization’s events. “The quality that he brings for the price that we are paying to get him is cheap. And the board always decides Joe’s salary. In 2012, I got on GuideStar and started researching what all the other organizations in town pay their directors. When we got through, we realized how inexpensive we were getting Joe.”
Local businessman and board member Brad Usry said that the board took a hard look at the financial numbers a few years ago.
“We took a step back and said, ‘Okay. Are we going to remain an organization and do good or not? And if we are going to remain an organization and do good, we have to find a niche.’ And that’s when we started becoming devoted to the grassroots assistance,” Usry said. “We knew we could help out with everyday requests like rent or the power bill. We had enough money to make that happen and, I’m proud to say, we have yet to turn a request down because of money.”
As the board reviewed 12 Bands’ revenue and expenses last year, Usry said that the group decided to reduce Stevenson’s salary to around $39,000.
“We had to do it to keep it going,” Usry said.
But Johnson added that Stevenson volunteered to reduce his own salary.
“Not many executive directors will do that,” Johnson said, chuckling. “But, just like you are looking at the numbers, as a businessman, I have to look at the numbers and ask, ‘So how does this work?’ We started to really look at in 2012 and 2013 was a big year for us. We did well in fundraising, as well as more outreach, a lower salary and we accomplished a lot.”
Just this past week, Usry said the Augusta Exchange Club gave 12 Bands a grant to buy instruments that will be kept at the Children’s Hospital of Georgia for the patients to use.
“And those things are Joe’s specialty,” Johnson said. “Joe, having all of his music connections, he was able to get $8,000 or $9,000 worth of instruments for like $2,000.”
The board’s new president, Ash Smith, who has only served a few months, believes Stevenson’s connections in the music industry is a huge draw for 12 Bands.
“His musical connections afford us the opportunity to get artists that we wouldn’t even be able to touch without him,” Smith said. “That’s priceless.”
Smith said he got involved in 12 Bands because he is good friends with Johnson and board member John T. Chandler, who also has a child who was diagnosed with cancer.
“The age of Duncan’s son is in between my two children and I was just moved when he got cancer,” Smith said. “It just really hit home that it could happen to my kids as well. I wanted to do whatever I could to possibly help.”
Usry agreed, pointing out that it says a lot about 12 Bands that two fathers of children impacted by cancer serve on the board.
“Two of our board members actually have kids who have walked that walk. And I know that they wouldn’t be on the board if it wasn’t worth it,” Usry said. “It’s really important that people understand that this is a lot more than just money.”
“But, that’s not to say, we don’t want more donations,” Usry added. “We would love to do more. We would love to have a big check for the Children’s Medical Center and say, ‘Go buy a bunch of toys for these kids or whatever they need.’ And eventually we will get there. That’s our goal.”
But, in the meantime, Usry said he is proud of the fact that in 2013, the organization’s expenses went down as its revenue went up.
“We are very aware of the finances,” Usry said. “Nobody is coating their pockets with donations. Our push is for the kids and for that hospital. That’s all.”
Smith said the 2013 numbers aren’t available quite yet, but he will happily share them when they are completed.
As for Johnson, he encouraged anyone interested in 12 Bands and its efforts to help families fighting pediatric cancer to get involved and participate.
“Come see for yourself what we do,” Johnson said, adding the last thing he would do is be involved with an organization that wasn’t actually helping families facing cancer. “Let me say this, I am very protective of the children on the fifth floor of that hospital and if I thought anything was going to try to harm them, I’m going to rear up.”