For 20 years, the M3F music festival has been an oasis for music lovers in the Phoenix area, as well as a benefactor of local charities. Since its inception in 2004, M3F has donated 100% of its ticket sales to different charities in Arizona – accumulating about $5.2 million in total donations.

Tired of galas and auctions, John Largay of Wespac Construction wanted to give back to the community in a creative way. So, in 2004, the McDowell Mountain Music Festival was born. The festival would change over the next two decades, including its name, nonetheless, M3F has continued its mission of bringing people together through music and support of local charities that foster arts, community, education and environment.

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This year’s festival was held at Steele Indian School Park in Phoenix last month, featuring about 30 artists in genres of electronic dance music, or EDM, R&B and indie rock over two days. The festival also hosted multiple charity booths where attendees could talk to representatives from some of the charities involved in the M3F Fund, the festival’s funding arm.

Free Arts for Abused Children of Arizona

Free Arts for Abused Children of Arizona hosted a booth at the festival where volunteers and staff offered festivalgoers the opportunity to make Bravery Beads. Guests put together bracelets using different colored beads, each representing a different emotion.

“Bravery Beads is more than just arts and crafts. It is designed to help participants explore their emotions through colors,” said Tenneille Choi, Free Arts development officer.

Choi said the team chose this activity as beaded bracelets are also the hallmark of many music festivals, especially those with EDM, which M3F featured plenty of.

“M3F attendees were ecstatic to learn they could create their own free bracelet. … One repeat visitor appreciated having a calming space where they could take a break from the high-energy festivities,” Choi said.

Free Arts – one of about 30 nonprofits M3F partners with – brings art therapy and mentorship to about 7,000 participants each year who have experienced some form of trauma or abuse.

“We use art as a medium for active skill-building and trusting relationships between a child and mentor,” Choi said. “A lot of our programs involve sharing what went into your artwork, talking about it and being able to open up to someone.”

The organization takes programming to foster care group homes, homeless shelters and domestic violence shelters to give kids a way to express their emotions through a range of art forms from painting, poetry, music and dance.

“It gives them an excuse to learn vocabulary,” Choi said. “There’s a lot of ways to describe your feelings, and it takes time to learn how to do that.”

She said among corporation donations, M3F is a top donor. Proceeds from last year’s M3F led to a $10,000 donation. Choi said Rachel Blanchard, M3F festival manager, had a discussion with Free Arts about different programs to find out which one aligned with M3F’s values to sponsor. The program chosen was Free Arts Days.

Free Arts Days are group trips to different art centers in Arizona, such as the Phoenix Art Museum and the Musical Instrument Museum. At the Free Arts Day in January, the organization hosted youth from three shelters for unaccompanied minors, most of whom did not speak English.

“The whole (Musical Instrument) museum is humongous and is divided into continents. Some of the boys found exhibits about their home countries and were just so excited, saying, ‘Oh my gosh that’s where I’m from!’ They recognized the instruments and were dancing to the music being played in each room,” Choi said.

In addition to a $10,000 donation, M3F donated 10 guitars for the organization’s arts programs.

Rosie’s House

M3F started its investment in Arizona arts through its partnership with Rosie’s House, a Phoenix-based nonprofit that provides free after-school music lessons and meals through a needs-based program. The two share similar values and have partnered since the festival first began.

Becky Bell Ballard, Rosie’s House CEO, explained the various ways M3F has donated to the organization.

“They have supported us financially through monetary donations, which in turn allows us to provide more free classes for kids. They have purchased instruments for us, which allows us to loan them to kids who don’t have instruments, and they have also helped us by amplifying our mission and brand to a community of supporters that love music and who are philanthropically minded,” Ballard said.

Earlier this year, M3F asked Rosie’s House what instruments it needed, and soon after, 25 instruments worth about $10,000 were donated to the organization.

“Because of partnerships like this, we can continue to have a 100% free program and level out the playing field for kids in our community. There’s so much research that shows how important music education is for kids, but it’s not as prevalent in school systems anymore. Unfortunately, families who are facing economic challenges often are the families that don’t have access to music education,” Ballard said.

According to data from the Arizona Commission on the Arts’ Arts Education Data Project, about 14% of Arizona students did not have access to arts education in 2023, a 5 percentage point increase since 2019.

Many studies have shown a strong correlation between music education and higher performance in classrooms. According to a study conducted by authors from the University of British Columbia of more than 110,000 students, highly engaged instrumental music students who began music classes during childhood were, on average, “academically over 1 year ahead of their peers.”

Zenobia Hubbard, a parent with two children in Rosie’s House music programs, claims music education has positively impacted her son in school.

“For him, his math! His math has really gotten a whole lot better, and his focus in school is now a lot better than what it was,” Hubbard said.

Rosie’s House anticipates it will offer 30,000 free music lessons next year with the help of donations from M3F.

“It’s a very long process, and we like to split it (donations) up by quarter. The charities might have something coming up, so we will plan around their schedule,” Blanchard said.

She communicates with the charities on their upcoming projects to coordinate donations. She looks at the vision the charity has for its event or project, how it aligns with M3F’s funding categories and what it would take to make it happen.

“I have a pretty good idea of the different projects we are going to be working on this year, so now it’s just starting to plan and schedule.”