Mockingbird Foundation: Grants for K-12 Education

OVERVIEW: The all-volunteer-run Mockingbird Foundation was established by fans of the jam band Phish. The foundation raises funds for music education, then disperses those funds to schools around the country.

IP TAKE: Phish fans are an interesting bunch, particularly the ones who created and run the Mockingbird Foundation in the band’s honor. The foundation wholeheartedly supports music education, and it has an open-minded view of the forms that education can take, though it’s not averse to traditional routes. Mockingbird funds fewer than 1% of the inquiries it receives, but this is unquestionably a resource to seek out if your idea falls outside of the standard box.

PROFILE: The Mockingbird Foundation came into existence in 1996 through efforts of fans of the band Phish. Proving themselves to be music lovers beyond just the band, the fans that make up the foundation (11 directors living in eight different states) and the thousands of others who donate to the foundation give back by supporting music education throughout the United States.

Mockingbird collects donations from Phish fans and distributes those donations in the form of grants throughout the United States. To date, this has amounted to more than $800,000 in nearly every state. The total dollar amount isn’t the biggest out there, but the foundation’s arena of giving is specific in ways that other K-12 education funders—even those in the music education realm—don’t tread. 

Mockingbird’s giving guideposts flow through five tenets that bridge the philosophical and the practical:

  • “Music itself matters. . . we tend to favor applicants who recognize the importance of music education for its own sake.”
  • “Direct experience is best. . . the Mockingbird board has historically been more interested in programs that engage students directly with music, rather than in funding musical performances for students who would only observe others experiencing music.”
  • “Underserved niches are great . . . we’re especially proud of support we’ve given to economically, culturally, and musically distinct efforts. Many of our grantees serve children with special needs and/or underserved populations, and some have been internal efforts by dwindling indigenous peoples. Additionally, we are interested in supporting unconventional forms of instruction, and instruction in unconventional forms; and we are not focused on traditional performance skills, but are also interested in composition, vocalization, and musical improvisation."
  • "Unconventional outlets are interesting. . . while we have funded many schools. . . we are especially interested in efforts outside of schools, including hospitals, shelters, foster homes, community centers, churches, shelters, workshops, and camps.”
  • “Outcomes may not be assessable. . . Nearly all relevant advocacy efforts have focused on putting instruments in public schools, promoting music education as a tool within broader education, and measuring outcomes in terms of assessable skills. Contrarily, the Mockingbird Foundation looks beyond public schools, and is interested in some areas for which skills may be less assessable (or even irrelevant).”

Giving through the foundation’s Competitive Grants program ranges from $100 - $5,000. It also gives out emergency funds, such as to music education communities affected by Hurricane Sandy. The foundation looks to support diversity of musical expression, as well as diversity of students—particularly seeking out “disenfranchised groups.” It does support infrastructure (instruments, sheet music, rehearsal space) but keep in mind that the foundation wants students to make music in order to build their self-esteem and express themselves. More detailed information about the foundation's grantmaking history is available through its list of recipients as well as an interactive map.

Phish fans might be an easy-going bunch at the outdoor festivals, but the Mockingbird Foundation’s granting process is just as rigorous as other K-12 funders out there. Initial inquiries must be submitted online by August 1 each year; from these, the foundation will invite a select group to submit a full application. Mockingbird states that it is able to fund fewer than 1% of the LOIs it receives, so this is a tough nut to crack, but a uniquely valuable one for those in the K-12 music education community.

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