The power of a spontaneous business pitch

Music for Seniors’ Sarah Martin McConnell’s willingness to pitch on the fly opened doors for her nonprofit

Like most entrepreneurs, Sarah Martin McConnell is determined. It was determination that led her to start Music for Seniors—a nonprofit that helps fight cognitive decline by bringing live music concerts and classes to the elderly—in 2007 while caring for her mother, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

“My mom was the inspiration for this,” says Martin McConnell, who is a singer-songwriter and as well as a social worker. “I asked if I could bring music and do a sing-along at my mom’s daycare center. I ended up going monthly, and the transformation that happened was amazing. There was such a connection between the seniors and the caregivers and the musicians.”

In the years since, it’s taken determination to build her organization. Martin McConnell convinced other senior centers, one by one, that performances by local musicians could help the elderly connect with their community, improve memory function, and reduce depression. She also had to raise the funds to make it happen.

In 2018, Martin McConnell applied for the WeWork Creator Awards in Nashville, certain that would lead to the capital needed to expand her small Tennessee nonprofit. When Music for Seniors wasn’t selected, she was undaunted, and determined to at least learn all she could from competitors by attending the event last September.

“I had my pen and my notebook,” she remembers. “I wanted to be front and center so I could soak it all up.” When WeWork co-founder and CEO Adam Neumann and host Ashton Kutcher invited volunteers from the audience to make an unplanned elevator pitch on stage before the main event, Martin McConnell’s arm shot up before they even finished asking. “This is my chance!” she thought.

Indeed, it was. On the spot, she was awarded $50,000 to fund her goal to triple the organization’s size within a year. At the time, she was thinking Chicago would be Music for Seniors’ next city; the two-person organization had already gotten requests for expansion there. With more research, however, they decided Knoxville, Tennessee, was the better pilot for their expansion. Its proximity to Nashville—180 miles east—will make it easier to train staff and musicians to replicate the successful programs and to build a template for expansion in other cities.

The first Knoxville Music for Seniors concert will take place in summer 2019, and after that, the pilot will move to Chicago. Beyond that, Music for Seniors has had requests to expand to Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Dallas, Houston, and San Diego. More than 10,000 people turn 65 every day in the U.S., so there’s a growing population that can benefit from its services.

While other organizations offer music to the elderly—loading Big Band sounds onto an iPod, for example—Music for Seniors is different. Its live music is played by musicians who are compensated for their time. In the last few years, programming has expanded to include Learning Labs, where seniors can dance or try to play an instrument. To make the program accessible to as many senior communities as possible, Music for Seniors’ program fees are on a sliding scale.

“This isn’t just a shotgun thing,” Martin McConnell says. “We’re in our 12th year because we have taken time and done things strategically. We started with one program, then we added another. And another.” To date, the group has connected with more than 30,000 seniors at 106 different locations in middle Tennessee.

The interaction between clients and musician is a key part of what Martin McConnell believes sets Music for Seniors apart. The organization has formed a research partnership with Vanderbilt University to determine evidence-based outcomes of its work. Such studies would aid the organization in applying for grants as it expands, Martin McConnell says.

Having the WeWork name support has been as important as the $50,000 she now refers to as “seed money.”

“It has shined a national spotlight on us and our potential,” she says. “And it’s the reason that Aetna Medicare Solutions is on board as a sponsor.” The health-care company is now underwriting some of the group’s concerts. Osher Lifelong Learning Institute is another new partner for the organization, and Martin McConnell is in talks with TEDxNashville, the National Endowment for the Arts, and others about how to efforts expand her reach.

“Adam’s vision is huge,” Martin McConnell says of WeWork’s co-founder. “And it has helped us expand our vision.”

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