From a business plan drawn on a napkin during the JUNOs back in 2009, to a charity which in 2015 reached a major financial milestone of $1 million; today, the Unison Benevolent Fund is as strong as the vision expressed when those scrawled words were first shared between two friends seven years ago.
The Unison Benevolent Fund is the brainchild of music industry veterans Jodie Ferneyhough and Catharine Saxberg. Nearly a decade on, the duo’s dream continues to grow and evolve; it’s an essential support system for Canadian musicians and those that earn a living in the industry.
“When we started this organisation our mandate was to support anyone who earns a living in the music industry who has fallen on hard times,” explains co-founder Saxberg, Vice President, International Relations for SOCAN. “Jodie and I often talked about how difficult it is for those in the arts with no support. Even if you’re signed to a major label, there are very few mechanisms available to artists and their families in times of crisis.”
The impetus for the idea started bubbling to the surface following an accident that left Jacksoul’s lead singer Haydain Neale in dire straits. “Haydain was a dear friend and his accident was catastrophic”, says Saxberg. “His situation got Jodie and I talking about both Haydain and others facing challenges without a safety net.”
Today, thanks to the Unison Benevolent Fund, musicians – and anyone employed in the music industry – now have a place to go for short-term financial aid and discreet counselling services, offered via third-party provider Shepell-FGI – the largest Employee and Family Assistance Program (EFAP) counselling network in Canada.
The Unison Benevolent Fund is a non-profit, registered charity, administered and funded by the music community it serves. There are two distinct types of support available through the fund: financial assistance and counselling & health solutions. There’s not a week that goes by where the charity doesn’t see applications for financial assistance. The operation is lean; the Unison Benevolent Fund only has two part-time staff.
“We hear stories all the time from those that have used our services,” says co-founder Ferneyhough, also President of the Canadian Music Publishers Association. “They tell us our counselling helped save their marriage, or helped them put together a financial plan. Our emergency fund has allowed other artists to eat, and prevented them from being evicted from their homes.”
Unison is the official charity partner for the 2016 Toronto SOCAN Awards Gala in June. The organization will use this platform to raise more awareness, and hopefully more funds, for its charitable work. SOCAN has always been an integral partner and invaluable supporter of the Unison Benevolent Fund. Via former CEO Andre Lebel, SOCAN gave the fund $15,000 at its inception for outside legal work to get the fund registered as a not-for-profit, with the assistance of Anne Godbout, formerly of SOCAN’s legal department.
The need for this service is ever-present, as illustrated by the rise in the use of their counselling services over the past year. How does the non-profit measure success? “In the uptake of calls,” says Saxberg. “The amount of calls we are seeing to our help line has dramatically increased. Word is getting out, which is the goal, but it also increases the pressure on our limited funds. We’re constantly fundraising to stay operational and help those in need.”
Funds are raised via various events – such as the second annual Unison Jam set to occur during this year’s NXNE, on June 16, 2016, at The Phoenix Concert Theatre in Toronto, and the annual Golf4Good tournament on June 28, 2016, at Lionhead Golf Club in Brampton. It was during the first Unison Jam last year that the not-for-profit announced it had reached the monumental financial milestone of $1 million, allowing them to launch the new financial support program to aid Canadian music makers in times of crisis.
The charity raises awareness as well as funds, through various partnerships with artists and other like-minded industry associations. For example, during the 2016 East Coast Music Awards in April, Amelia Curran shared her personal struggles with mental health issues at a session presented by Unison. The singer-songwriter is just one of more than 150 artists that have lent their support to the charity since its creation.
Why is the Unison Benevolent Fund so important? Most musicians are self-employed, and many are the sole provider for their families. As independent entrepreneurs, 45 percent have no health insurance, and almost half (49 percent) have endured some type of hardship that’s prevented them from working at some point in their artistic career.
“There is still a huge need for our organization,” says Saxberg. “But I’m always blown away by the compassion and generosity in the music community.”
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