King Biscuit Blues’ Secret Weapon: A 78-Year-Old Fundraising Phenom

Mavis Staples is scheduled to headline KBBK in October 2021.

Munnie Jordan, the director of the King Biscuit Blues Festival, has tried to retire three times. She is 78 years old now. Perfectly coiffed and thin as a whip, she challenges visitors to guess her age. She looks 20 years younger, and knows it. “Can’t we keep talking about the festival?” she says at the end of an interview. “I have loved it for ever and ever.”

Since 1992, she has raised more than $2 million to keep people coming back to celebrate the blues in Helena, Arkansas. (That’s my conservative estimate based on the festival’s recent budget).

The King Biscuit Blues Festival was formally launched in 1986. It brings about 30,000 people to this small city in the Arkansas Delta, attracting such greats over the years as B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt and Buddy Guy. This year, in October, Mavis Staples is scheduled to headline.

The Mississippi River is only a few blocks from the festival headquarters in the center of the old river port city, which has been shrinking for the past couple of decades and now has a population of only about 10,000. The festival, which is run by a nonprofit board of directors, is the biggest infusion of cash for the businesses in the small downtown all year.

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Jordan was first hired in 1992. She retired in 1997 to spend more time with her first grandchildren, and returned around 2002 when the festival was foundering. She left about four years later. She came back again in 2008 and worked until 2013, and then returned yet again in 2016. There were different reasons for her departures at different times. Sometimes, it was family – a new grandbaby, the first time. In 2013, she wanted to give another executive director a chance to take over.

“There’s nothing wrong with what they were doing,” she says. But as board members, sponsors and staff came and went, nobody had the same set of organizational and fundraising skills she did. The festival today has a $825,000 annual budget, about $400,000 of which comes from sponsorships.

Munnie Jordan operates behind the scenes, raising about $400,000 a year to keep a festival and a … [+]

But the main thing is that Jordan has a passion for things not be forgotten. That includes the history of blues. Robert Johnson played in Helena, at a tiny club called Hole in the Wall. It was one among many that dotted the streets. In 1941 radio station KFFA launched King Biscuit Time, the earliest and longest-running Blues radio show.

“The passion I have for this town and festival I have for this country,” Jordan says. She also runs a tour company, one that (in non-pandemic times) takes people from the Mississippi cruise ships deeper into Helena, on a soul-food-and-gospel tour.

Jordan learned fundraising with her father, who was an inveterate entrepreneur, raised in the Great Depression, who eventually founded a bank and insurance company.

Munnie was his second child. The first being a daughter, Mary Helen, named after his wife, he insisted that the second should be named after him: Murray Otis Rasberry. It didn’t matter when out “popped” a girl – Murray she would be, on her birth certificate, Murray Rasberry.

Munnie was the nickname bestowed by Mary Helen.

“He used to set me down and he would put a little dish on the table,” Jordan remembers. “He would tell me: ‘Sell me this dish.’ ”

She learned the ropes from him. Given that fundraising is a key skill for nonprofit and social entrepreneurs, I asked her for a handful of tips:

• Persevere. “I can get my feelings hurt, don’t get me wrong. You’re too short, I don’t like your personality – people can tell me all kinds of things,” she says. “I’m going to just keep going.”

• Don’t fundraise, friendraise. “Before I ever go see anybody – I sit in a room alone, and I think about what would make them happy to give their money to this event.”

• Put it in writing. KBBF sponsor Slim Chickens has been a five-year sponsor. “If it’s my first year and starting an event, I wouldn’t ask for a five-year sponsorship. After you’re established – that’s a stability thing for the event.” KBBF also has clear levels, so that, for instance, a sponsor has to pay $10,000 for a sign on the stage.

• Just ask. In the early days of Jordan’s involvement, a friend suggested she go ask Splash Casino, on the other side of the Mississippi, for $50,000. “You have to understand,” she says. “I was asking people for $5,000 at the tim.”

“I invited them over to our city council and I did it. They gave it to us. That really is what kicked King Biscuit off. It said: ‘You can do it. There are people out there that will sponsor you.’ ”

Co-author with venture capitalist Seth Levine of The New Builders and founder of Times of Entrepreneurship, I write about turning points in the lives of entrepreneurs and

 

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