UNISON Benevolent Fund Springs Into Action

To quote Unison Benevolent Fund co-founder Jodie Ferneyhough, “It was something that had to happen.”

Although the idea has been operational for seven years, it’s only since May 2015 that the Unison Benevolent Fund – a non-profit, registered charity that provides counseling and emergency relief services to the Canadian music community – has been able to incorporate financial assistance into its mandate.

The delay had been a necessary one: in order to sustain themselves financially, Unison had a target amount of $1 million that needed to be raised in order to reach sustainability.

And although the Slaight Music Group and Music Canada ponied up $500,000 immediately to set the ball rolling, with later donations by The Canadian Music Publishers Association and other contributors swelling the charity coffers to $800,000, the final $200,000 took a number of years to realize.

“It was frustrating,” admits Catharine Saxberg, Unison co-founder and Chair, Board of Directors, “because Sheila Hamilton, our executive director, was quite frequently getting phone calls from people who were having a distressing financial emergency. To turn around and say, we weren’t fully operational yet was truly heartbreaking.”

Yet it was necessary. “We didn’t want to launch prematurely, help people for a limited amount of time, and then tell them we couldn’t help them,” adds Saxberg, who is also SOCAN’s Vice President, International Relations.

Prompted by the tragic motorcycle accident suffered by beloved Jacksoul singer-songwriter Haydain Neale, and later his passing from lung cancer, music publishing executives (at the time) Ferneyhough and Saxberg realized there was no safety net for the independent musical community and resolved to make a difference.

“This isn’t just for songwriters or musicians, this is for everyone in the music business.” – Jodie Ferneyhough

They sketched out the details on a napkin over an afternoon, and then set about the inordinately daunting task of organizing the details.

“It’s a lot of work,” says Ferneyhough, past-Chair of Unison’s Board of Directors (also a former member of the SOCAN Board of Directors).

“Getting people initially on board, getting people to buy into the concept, building the concept, finding enough money to do things like just set the company up, applying for charitable status, and finding the time to do it while we had our own jobs. Before we had executive director Sheila Hamilton on board, Catharine and I were the ones who were doing all the heavy lifting.”

Today, The Unison Benevolent Fund is fully functional, with only a few parameters set to ensure the right people qualify for funding – including SOCAN members.

“This isn’t just for songwriters or musicians,” says Ferneyhough. “This is for everyone in the music business, from the riggers to the roadies and everyone on down. All anybody has to do to take advantage of this is be in the music business. Our by-laws stipulate that you have to make the majority of your money, 55% of your income, from being in music, and that you’ve been doing it for at least two-and-a-half years.”

SOCAN members in need of assistance should visit the organization’s website and register.

“There are no fees, no dues,” says Ferneyhough. “Now we know who you are and God forbid, if something happens, all you have to do is call up and say, ‘I need assistance.’ That assistance is given discreetly and/or completely anonymously, depending on what kind of assistance you need, and Bob’s your uncle.”

Due to limited funding, the cap per applicant is set at $5,000 yearly. But just because they’re finally giving out money doesn’t mean that Unison doesn’t need more of it, especially donations.

“It’s an ongoing process,” notes Ferneyhough. “It’s a lot of continuing to reach out to the industry and asking [them] to be generous on their own behalf.”

So there will continue to be fundraisers to support the financial needs of Unison, and in turn, provide emotional and emergency economic relief to those in Canada’s music community.

“We’re extremely proud of Unison and incredibly grateful for the hard work, efforts and the contributions of so many people that have made it possible,” says Saxberg. “And we’re confident that with all that assistance, we’ve built something that will be sustainable.”