Bill Graham and the Benefit Concert

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Driving into work a few days ago, our COO Joe Magee was greeted by an NPR story on famed concert impresario, Bill Graham. While influential in the storied Fillmore Auditorium’s rise to prominence, he was also the father of the benefit concert.

This sparked some internal deliberation about the evolution of fundraising and those whom have had a significant impact on how charities accumulate funds from supporters.

To start, let’s take a look at Bill Graham and in succeeding weeks we will examine a variety of influential players in transforming fundraising into its form today. Sometimes the best way to move forward is to look back.

In all regards, Mr. Graham was an epic character, possessing many unique qualities. He needed them as being born in Germany in 1931 was no easy task. But it set the tone for his perception of the world. A perception that we must all be grateful for.

Around the age of 9, his mother facilitated the exit of he and his sister from Nazi Germany through France eventually landing them in New York where they were taken in by a foster family. It was here where his resolve would strengthen and shape who he would become.

After arriving in San Francisco in the mid-sixties, he was taken to a free concert in Golden Gate Park where he witnessed the arrest of the San Francisco Mime Troupe for obscene gestures. This injustice served as catalyst for the benefit concert, which supported the payment of their legal fees.

Over the next twenty-five years, Bill Graham would be the innovator in leveraging music’s cultural influence to raise awareness for social causes all the while expanding the reach of musical acts such as Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead and many others. What’s more, he was the first promoter to make medical personnel compulsory at a concert. Wow!

The power of his innovation is unparalleled and initiated the snowball effect for many of the fundraising strategies we employ today:

-Examination of non-traditional channels as sources of visibility

-Celebrity promotion

So here’s to Bill Graham, a true pioneer who valiantly stood up for the downtrodden, persevered against great odds and left an indelible mark on social movements. If you happen to be in Los Angeles before October 11th head over to the Skirball Cultural Center to celebrate even more about this one of a kind gentleman!




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