Paul Cothran – Executive Director of the VH1 Save The Music Foundation

Paul Cothran is Vice President and Executive Director of VH1 Save the Music Foundation. In his position, Cothran oversees The Foundation, which is a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the quality of education in America’s public schools by restoring music programs in cities across the country, and raising awareness about the importance of music participation for our nation’s youth. Since VH1 Save the Music Foundation’s inception in 1997, nearly $47 million worth of new musical instruments have been donated to 1,750 public schools in 100 cities, benefiting over 1.6 million children.

Before accepting his position at The Foundation, Cothran served as Director of Health and Community Programs for The Big Apple Circus from 1997 to 2004, where he provided administrative oversight of the Circus’ community outreach programs. He was responsible for strategic planning, budget preparation and management. While there, Cothran significantly expanded the scope and reach of all programs nationally.

From 1992 to 1997 Cothran served as Director of Corporate and Foundation Relations at Pace University where he cultivated support from local and national corporate and foundation prospects. He also drafted grant proposals, stewardship reports, and developed and implemented solicitation strategies in conjunction with the University Officers, Trustees and Deans.
Before his employment at Pace University, Cothran was Development Director for the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund where he managed the national fundraising program, including corporate and foundation solicitations, major donors, direct-mail, bequests and special events.

Cothran also served as Director Development for the Community Research Initiative on AIDS and Director of Corporate and Foundation Relations at Fordham University.

Previously, Cothran was Development Director for National Medical Fellowships and Senior Account Executive for United Way of New York City/Tri-State. He is also Co-Founder and current Vice Chair of the AIDS Treatment Data Network, a case management treatment access and advocacy organization.

Cothran attended Fordham University, Bronx, NY and currently resides in Manhattan.

What is the VH1 Save the Music Foundation?

The VH1 Save The Music Foundation is a nonprofit 501c3 organization dedicated to restoring instrumental music education programs in America’s public schools, and raising awareness about the importance of music as part of each child s complete education. Since 1997, the VH1 Save the Music Foundation has successfully restored and sustained instrumental music programs in 1,750 public schools in more than 100 cities across the country, including Memphis, Houston, Chicago, New York, Denver, Baltimore and Milwaukee, raising $47 million and impacting the lives of 1.6 million children.

What are you working on right now?

Right now we are working on finishing out this calendar year, trying to bring in as much money as we can and laying out our fundraising plan for 2011 as the last few years have been down and we are looking to rebuild contribution revenue.

How do you bring ideas to life?

A lot of ideas actually spring up from our staff. It is really a team effort. We will discuss everyone’s ideas debating the risks, the opportunities, what we want to achieve and how we plan to make it happen. It is never really me saying “I have an idea, lets do this,” everyone is contributing.

What has been the most rewarding part of creating and building your organization?

While I didn’t create the organization, I would say the most rewarding thing is going into a school in a disadvantaged community where kids may have been fighting with each other or not working together and seeing how having a music program has enabled them to work as a team.

What has been your greatest challenge and how have you overcome it?

Our greatest challenge has been educating people about the importance of music education because so many times people will say, “why is music important I don’t want my child to become a rock star” but that’s not what its about. We aren’t looking for the next rock star; it’s about ensuring that kids get a well-rounded comprehensive education that includes music. If students are studying music we know it will keep them more engaged and give them the creative and critical thinking they need to succeed in life.

What inspires you?

I would say, seeing kids who have an opportunity to go on and succeed in their lives inspires me. When we talk to students and they tell us their story, how they may not have been doing well in school but because they are playing a musical instrument now, suddenly math makes sense to them and they are more focused and more disciplined. That is extremely rewarding and definitely inspires us to work even harder.

What are 3 trends that excite you?

The current interest and focus on reforming our education system is exciting and a great opportunity…. I just hope we get it right. Another exciting trend is technology in the classroom, just seeing where we are going; things like the iPad and how our students use these items to further their education. I’m jealous I didn’t have them as a student! Thirdly, I am excited by a renewed interest in the arts. Not just in music but in dance, live theater etc. It seems like there has been a recent renaissance in the arts.

What is one mistake you’ve made and what did you learn from it?

One mistake that I made, fairly recently, was underestimating the current recession. Just as we entered the recession I thought that it would be a down year, one maybe two years tops, and that was a mistake as it has been much deeper and broader than I ever anticipated. The lesson learned is to hope for the best and plan for the worst.

What is one book and/or tool that helps you?

One book I rely on is House Corino by Brian Herbert, who’s father wrote the Dune chronicles. It is a science fiction novel but it is one of my favorites because it is a very political book and their concept of how they look at politics I find very useful on a day-to-day basis. A tool that I rely on is definitely my smart phone…and I rely on that heavily.

What made you decide to start your non-profit organization?

I did not start the organization but I decided to join the VH1 Save The Music Foundation for a couple of reasons. One, I’ve always wanted to work in non-profit for an organization that is doing something to make our community, the nation and the world a better place. I was drawn to this non-profit in particular because it deals with education, which is something I am very passionate about. Growing up my parents always emphasized that I should get something no one can take away from me: an education. I loved school and it opened a lot of doors for me so I thought that if I am able to help other kids achieve that same passion then that is something I would want to do and the Foundation gives me that opportunity.

Who would you love to see interviewed on IdeaMensch?

I’m a technologist so I’d love to Steve Jobs interviewed. Another one would be Condoleezza Rice because she has been Secretary of State obviously, a Stanford professor and a concert pianist. All around a very impressive person.

How can members of our community help?

The first way is visiting our website,, and donating. Any gift large or small is appreciated as they all add up to advance our efforts to ensure that every child has access to a well-rounded education that includes music. Also, looking into their own communities and seeing what is available. Making sure their children have access to music education.

What is your vision for the VH1 Save The Music Foundation?

My vision is that we will continue doing what we do to ensure that every child has access to instrumental music education. That’s going to take a while but I hope for a day that the Foundation won’t be needed. Unfortunately I feel that just as we finish our work in elementary and middle schools we’ll have to take a look at high schools, so we will be around for a while. There is still a lot of work to be done.

What instrument did you play in school? Do you play an instrument now?

I studied piano, I loved playing piano but I can’t say that it really stuck. I quit because I wanted to play something “cooler” so I started playing guitar but I always said that I wanted to go back and study piano again. Unfortunately I do not play now but I still promise myself I will go back to piano someday!


VH1 Save The Music Foundation