Merit School of Music

Chicago, IL   |


MISSION: Merit School of Music transforms the lives of Chicago-area youth through removing barriers to high-quality music education. CORE VALUES: Inclusion & Excellence Growth & Sustainability Awareness & Engagement Learning, Collaboration & Support

Notes from the nonprofit

At the Merit School of Music, we believe our students tell our story better than anyone else. Here are some quotes directly from them on the impact Merit and our programs have had on their lives: “Merit's community is something akin to a close-knit family, and I can always rely on the faculty of Merit or my own friends in Merit to give me help when I need it. Everyone is super friendly and open to new people, and I find that the students build each other up inside Merit, rather than try to get an edge over everyone else” “My favorite part about attending Merit is the progress I can see in myself. Every week I learn new pieces and techniques to better myself as a musician and as a human being.” “I like Merit because it's a safe community where kids get inspired to be a better version of themselves not only on an instrument but as a human.”

Ruling year info


President and Executive Director

Mr. Charles A. Grode

Main address

Joy Faith Knapp Music Center 38 S. Peoria St.

Chicago, IL 60607 USA

Show more contact info

Formerly known as

The Merit Music Program, Inc.

The Merit Program



NTEE code info

Arts Education/Schools (A25)

Music (A68)

Scholarships, Student Financial Aid, Awards (B82)

IRS filing requirement

This organization is required to file an IRS Form 990 or 990-EZ.

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Programs and results

What we aim to solve

SOURCE: Self-reported by organization

Merit was founded in 1979 to address an immediate, specific need when Chicago Public Schools (CPS) dropped music from the curriculum. While the arts, in general, have made intermittent, inconsistent returns to the curriculum, the overall need for access to affordable, rigorous, continuous music instruction for children remains. Research highlights the urgency of this need showing compelling correlations between early, ongoing music instruction and an array of significant and lasting cognitive benefits above and beyond the acquisition of specific musical skills. Students who receive continuous, in-depth music training (as opposed to mere “exposure") at an early age, develop a skill set that contributes to lifelong success. Self-discipline, self-expression, persistence, collaboration, empathy, leadership—these are markers for personal, academic, and professional achievement regardless of whether music itself becomes a life path, or remains a hobby.

Our programs

SOURCE: Self-reported by organization

What are the organization's current programs, how do they measure success, and who do the programs serve?

Alice S. Pfaelzer Tuition-free Conservatory

The Alice S. Pfaelzer Tuition-free Conservatory provides advanced music instruction for grades 4-12 and represents the best of Merit’s talented student musicians. All new students interested in the Conservatory must pass an entry audition in order to enroll. For 26 Saturdays during the academic school year, Conservatory students receive instruction from Chicago’s finest music educators in large ensembles, instrumental and vocal technique classes, music theory classes and a variety of elective classes, including chamber music, composition and piano as a second instrument—all tuition free. At noon each week, the entire student body comes together for Live from Gottlieb, a concert series featuring world-class musicians from Chicago and beyond.

Population(s) Served
Economically disadvantaged people

In 1984, Merit responded to requests from Chicago Public Schools to create an in-school music education program, resulting in the formation of Merit Music in Communities (formerly The Bridges: Partners in Music program). Today, the program serves more than 2,000 students each year, bringing the highest caliber music instruction to dozens of public and private schools, and community centers throughout Chicago and Northwest Indiana. Merit teaching artists work within these sites to offer group instruction in strings, band, choir, piano, guitar, early childhood, and general music.

Population(s) Served
Children and youth
Economically disadvantaged people

The Instrumental and Vocal Music Program provides group instruction for beginning and intermediate musicians in grades K-9. The program features programming for String, Band, Piano, Guitar and Voice. In each of these five divisions, students participate in a group instrumental and vocal music class where class where classes are large enough for students to play as a group, but small and nurturing enough for students to receive individual attention. The band, voice, and string programs also feature large ensembles where students come together to prepare and present diverse repertoire at concerts.

Population(s) Served
Children and youth
Economically disadvantaged people

Private Lessons offer weekly 30, 45 or 60 minute lessons for students of all ages. Private lessons provide a potentially transformative benefit for students who have demonstrated that they have the dedication and abilities to reach high levels of musical achievement. Access to private lessons can be a key factor in determining whether a student progresses beyond the intermediate-level to more advanced levels of musical study.

Population(s) Served
Children and youth

Early Childhood Programs offer weekly day-time music exploration classes for newborns to age 7.  Merit's early childhood programming supports young children’s first steps in a lifetime journey of musical appreciation in a learning environment that is playful, developmentally appropriate and musically rich.

Population(s) Served
Infants and toddlers

Merit School of Music offers a wide variety of fun summer musical experiences for students of varying ages and levels of experience. Camps and classes vary in length ranging from weekly evening classes or day-long one or two week summer camps. Band and String Ensemble Camps offer a choice of electives, while other camps also include field trips. Many camps conclude with an informal concert.

Population(s) Served
Children and youth

Where we work


National Top 10 Music Organization 2018

Charity Navigator

Ruth D. and Ken M. Davee Excellence in the Arts Award 2018

Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra

Affiliations & memberships

National Guild for Community Arts Education – Member 2022

Chicago Musical Pathways Initiative – Lead Partner 2022

Enrich Chicago – Partner 2022

National Instrumentalist Mentoring and Advancement Network – Member 2022

Our results

SOURCE: Self-reported by organization

How does this organization measure their results? It's a hard question but an important one.

Number of clients served

This metric is no longer tracked.
Totals By Year
Population(s) Served

Children and youth

Type of Metric

Output - describing our activities and reach

Direction of Success

Holding steady

Total number of students participating in private lessons

This metric is no longer tracked.
Totals By Year
Population(s) Served

Children and youth

Related Program

Private Lessons

Type of Metric

Output - describing our activities and reach

Direction of Success


Total dollars received in contributions

This metric is no longer tracked.
Totals By Year
Population(s) Served

Children and youth

Type of Metric

Input - describing resources we use

Direction of Success


Number of program graduates

This metric is no longer tracked.
Totals By Year
Population(s) Served

Adolescents, Preteens

Related Program

Alice S. Pfaelzer Tuition-free Conservatory

Type of Metric

Outcome - describing the effects on people or issues

Direction of Success

Holding steady

Goals & Strategy

SOURCE: Self-reported by organization

Learn about the organization's key goals, strategies, capabilities, and progress.

Charting impact

Four powerful questions that require reflection about what really matters - results.

Merit School of Music has achieved something outstanding and unique among community music schools by creating a dynamic programming pathway that offers its diverse student body sustained access to the highest-quality musical instruction.

This pathway, or continuum, begins with entry points across a network of community-based partner sites (known as Merit Music in Communities) as well as introductory experiences at Merit's West Loop home, the Joy Faith Knapp Music Center. It progresses through intermediate and private instruction and culminates with the audition-based Alice S. Pfaelzer Tuition-free Conservatory.

In its first 40 years, Merit has transformed the lives of tens of thousands of young people. As it looks toward its 50th in 2029, Merit's vision is to become the Chicago-based national model for inclusion and excellence in music education.

To realize this vision, Merit will pursue the following goals growing out of its core values:

INCLUSION & EXCELLENCE: Remove barriers and deliver excellent, sustained musical instruction to an increasingly diverse student body.

GROWTH & SUSTAINABILITY: Expand its financial and organizational capacity to deliver its mission.

AWARENESS & ENGAGEMENT: Increase local and national awareness and civic engagement.

LEARNING, COLLABORATION & SUPPORT: Create an engaging collaborative, nurturing place to learn, work, volunteer, and grow.

• Provide transportation, subsidized tuition and/or staff resources to aid student recruitment to on-site programs
• Establish mutually beneficial partnerships with other educational and cultural organizations
• Develop and scale student mentoring program to promote college and career readiness
• Sustain and build community and school-based programs in predominantly low-income African-American neighborhoods
• Strengthen existing relationships in target communities and invest appropriately to expand student participation and quality of instruction
• Identify one new school or community partner in a predominantly African-American and low-income neighborhood to offer an intensive, instrumental program by 2020
• Recruit highly-qualified staff, faculty and board members representing our diverse student body
• Refine Merit's curriculum; improve student assessment and data collection practices; modify curriculum and programming accordingly
• Expand professional development for faculty and program staff
• Plan and deliver a biennial tour (regional, national or international) to motivate our most advanced students)
• Grow earned revenue
• Maintain a balanced budget with sustained positive cash flow
• Find efficiencies/savings to decrease expenses
• Deepen Board engagement in cultivation, development and stewardship activities
• Engage Civic Advisory Council members, gaining their expertise and helping to build Merit's donor networks/relationships
• Engage consultant to develop case for support and fundraising messages in order to expand donor base
• Develop fundraising events that engage participation by all stakeholder groups, as well as a general public audience
• Restructure and launch a planned giving program
• Announce 40th Anniversary campaign publicly in FY2019
• Create multi-year Marketing and Communications plan
• Increase investment in Merit's Marketing and Communications team as well as advertising and public relations campaigns
• Deepen engagement of key constituent groups in using social media to grow awareness about Merit
• Engage all key constituent groups in effort to attend and invite others to attend major Merit student performances each year
• Deepen relationships with cultural, educational and philanthropic organizations to enhance impact and visibility
• Seek opportunities for Merit to host events that draw leaders in arts, education and philanthropy
• Seek and secure high-visibility, off-site performance opportunities for Merit students
• Maintain active membership in West Loop community organizations with student performances at West Loop community events
• Celebrate and support tenure and quality of service
• Build community and commitment across Merit
• Support Quality of Life

Together, in accordance with Merit School of Music's strategic plan, Merit's staff, boards, faculty, donors, students, alumni and families will create a future that builds on the school's distinguished past, charting a course toward deeper, more sustained impact.

Merit's efforts are supported by new but deeply experienced senior leadership, a highly skilled and engaged board of trustees, and a deeply committed, highly qualified faculty and network of teaching artists. In addition, Merit's 40-year track record of successful growth, prudent management, and effective, innovative programming has enabled the school to build a strong base of individual and institutional supporters who understand and believe in Merit's core mission as well as its current strategic plan. A significant number of foundations have demonstrated their confidence in Merit's direction and the specifics of its strategic plan by increasing their commitments over the last two years from single-year to multi-year gifts.

Finally, there is the incalculable contribution of the “Merit family" of students, parents, and alumni who are deeply invested in its work—the curriculum, teaching methodology, and overall environment—and contribute at every level, from direct giving, to fundraising, to event planning and staffing, while also embodying the ethos of the institution and transmitting it outward to new students and families, as well as down through multiple generations of their own.

Additional support comes from a wide network of pro bono partners and providers on a project basis. Together, these elements comprise an organization very well positioned to meet the challenges facing all nonprofits in the current fiscal and political environment and to meet and achieve the goals it has set for itself.

The strategic plan was adopted in July 2016. Merit has made progress across a number of fronts:

Merit has established a new partnership between its Merit in Communities program and Chicago Youth Centers, increasing the percentage of African American students participating in programming

Merit has increased the number of children in the Merit in Communities program who receive fully subsidized tuition and transportation to participate in more intensive Merit programs, which aids progress both toward demographic goals as well as the goal of increased participation across multiple programs in Merit's continuum of instruction.

Merit has successfully increased multi-year commitments from several foundations, improving stability and the ability to forecast and plan for the future.

Merit has increased involvement by its Associate Board (young professionals), thereby expanding the number and diversity of its network of individual donors and increasing and diversifying special events which decreases historical dependence on a single annual Spring Gala.

Merit has established a permanent, multi-departmental Data Gathering and Performance (D-GAP) task force which meets monthly to improve data quality and integrity, data collection and analysis, benchmarking, and all processes related to program and student assessment in order to better understand and improve program effectiveness, student retention, and overall student experience across all programs.

Merit completed an all-faculty survey in order to get a clear, picture of Merit's culture and work environment and to better understand faculty interests, needs and concerns. The survey has already resulted in specific professional development events, improved employee recognition, and other improvements.

How we listen

SOURCE: Self-reported by organization

Seeking feedback from people served makes programs more responsive and effective. Here’s how this organization is listening.

done We shared information about our current feedback practices.
  • How is your organization using feedback from the people you serve?

    To identify and remedy poor client service experiences, To identify bright spots and enhance positive service experiences, To make fundamental changes to our programs and/or operations, To inform the development of new programs/projects, To identify where we are less inclusive or equitable across demographic groups, To strengthen relationships with the people we serve, To understand people's needs and how we can help them achieve their goals

  • Which of the following feedback practices does your organization routinely carry out?

    We collect feedback from the people we serve at least annually, We take steps to get feedback from marginalized or under-represented people, We aim to collect feedback from as many people we serve as possible, We take steps to ensure people feel comfortable being honest with us, We look for patterns in feedback based on demographics (e.g., race, age, gender, etc.), We look for patterns in feedback based on people’s interactions with us (e.g., site, frequency of service, etc.), We engage the people who provide feedback in looking for ways we can improve in response, We act on the feedback we receive, We tell the people who gave us feedback how we acted on their feedback, We ask the people who gave us feedback how well they think we responded

  • What challenges does the organization face when collecting feedback?

    We don't have any major challenges to collecting feedback


Merit School of Music

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The people, governance practices, and partners that make the organization tick.


Connect with nonprofit leaders


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  • Analyze a variety of pre-calculated financial metrics
  • Access beautifully interactive analysis and comparison tools
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Connect with nonprofit leaders


Build relationships with key people who manage and lead nonprofit organizations with GuideStar Pro. Try a low commitment monthly plan today.

  • Analyze a variety of pre-calculated financial metrics
  • Access beautifully interactive analysis and comparison tools
  • Compare nonprofit financials to similar organizations

Want to see how you can enhance your nonprofit research and unlock more insights? Learn More about GuideStar Pro.

Merit School of Music

Board of directors
as of 02/28/2024
SOURCE: Self-reported by organization
Board chair

Charles Huebner

RCP Advisors, LLC

Term: 2019 - 2022

Julie Baumeister

ITS Transactions, Ernst & Young

Jeffrey Breslow

Jeffrey Breslow Gallery

Huan J. Chang

University of Illinois-Chicago, Jessie Brown VA Medical Center

Ryan DeVore

Director, Private Client Advisors, William Blair

Thomas Leopold

Senior Vice President (ret.), Bank of America

Thomas Linguanti

Partner, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP

Jennifer Montague

VP, NiSource

Michael J. Powers

Partner, Howard and Howard Attorneys, PLLC

David P. Thomas


Thaddeus Wong


John F. Young

President, CleanLaw PC

Elizabeth Williams

&Minds Partners

Catie Wloch

Davis Bancorp

Michael Andrews

CFO, Tableware, Reynolds Consumer Products

JeNyce Boolton

VP, US Bank

Binta Brown

Omalily Projects

Carol Clavadetscher

Consultant, Five Keys Consulting

Jason Gatchell

Business Operations Director, JP Morgan Chase

Marisela Lawson

Partner, Sagence, Inc.

Cynthia Muffareh

Founder & Managing Director, CAM Comm

Nishad Parmar

Partner, Loud Capital

Abiman Rajadurai

Senior Counsel, McDonald's Corporation

Julie Stapel

Partner, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP

Susie Sultan

Advocate Health Care

Sonia Antolec

Illinois Court of Claims

Jennifer Vianello


Board leadership practices

SOURCE: Self-reported by organization

GuideStar worked with BoardSource, the national leader in nonprofit board leadership and governance, to create this section.

  • Board orientation and education
    Does the board conduct a formal orientation for new board members and require all board members to sign a written agreement regarding their roles, responsibilities, and expectations? Yes
  • CEO oversight
    Has the board conducted a formal, written assessment of the chief executive within the past year ? Yes
  • Ethics and transparency
    Have the board and senior staff reviewed the conflict-of-interest policy and completed and signed disclosure statements in the past year? Yes
  • Board composition
    Does the board ensure an inclusive board member recruitment process that results in diversity of thought and leadership? Yes
  • Board performance
    Has the board conducted a formal, written self-assessment of its performance within the past three years? No

Organizational demographics

SOURCE: Self-reported; last updated 12/14/2023

Who works and leads organizations that serve our diverse communities? Candid partnered with CHANGE Philanthropy on this demographic section.


The organization's leader identifies as:

Race & ethnicity
Gender identity
Male, Not transgender
Sexual orientation
Heterosexual or Straight
Disability status
Person without a disability

Race & ethnicity

Gender identity

Transgender Identity

Sexual orientation


Equity strategies

Last updated: 03/10/2022

GuideStar partnered with Equity in the Center - an organization that works to shift mindsets, practices, and systems to increase racial equity - to create this section. Learn more

  • We review compensation data across the organization (and by staff levels) to identify disparities by race.
  • We ask team members to identify racial disparities in their programs and / or portfolios.
  • We analyze disaggregated data and root causes of race disparities that impact the organization's programs, portfolios, and the populations served.
  • We disaggregate data to adjust programming goals to keep pace with changing needs of the communities we support.
  • We employ non-traditional ways of gathering feedback on programs and trainings, which may include interviews, roundtables, and external reviews with/by community stakeholders.
  • We disaggregate data by demographics, including race, in every policy and program measured.
  • We have long-term strategic plans and measurable goals for creating a culture such that one’s race identity has no influence on how they fare within the organization.
Policies and processes
  • We use a vetting process to identify vendors and partners that share our commitment to race equity.
  • We have a promotion process that anticipates and mitigates implicit and explicit biases about people of color serving in leadership positions.
  • We seek individuals from various race backgrounds for board and executive director/CEO positions within our organization.
  • We have community representation at the board level, either on the board itself or through a community advisory board.
  • We help senior leadership understand how to be inclusive leaders with learning approaches that emphasize reflection, iteration, and adaptability.
  • We engage everyone, from the board to staff levels of the organization, in race equity work and ensure that individuals understand their roles in creating culture such that one’s race identity has no influence on how they fare within the organization.