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Posted on Tue, Jul 2, 2013 : 10:41 a.m.

Keeping it free: A volunteer's-eye view of the Ann Arbor Summer Festival

By Richard Retyi

A2SF Volunteer Tent.JPG

The volunteer tent at the Ann Arbor Summer Festival

Rich Retyi | Contributor

“We’re hoping really hard that we can stay open.”

Volunteer coordinator Sara Sanders takes me into the lobby of the Mendelssohn Theatre to escape the rain. The weather has been terrible the last few days. Basements flooding, U-M athletes mobilizing into street-team heroes—and canceled music and twilight movies at Top of the Park, the outdoor component of the Ann Arbor Summer Festival. Sanders and her volunteer crew are optimistic that today’s Friday showers will stop, the clouds will part and the show will go on.

The Ann Arbor Summer Festival is in its 30th year—bigger and better than ever. And that costs money.

The costs of the Ann Arbor Summer Festival

The festival’s annual budget for 2013 is approximately $378,000, which includes direct program expenses, not administrative or overhead costs. Costs include: seasonal staff ($98,000), special outdoor attractions ($60,000), artist fees ($50,000), staging, audio, tents and equipment ($47,500), security ($35,000), movie licensing ($4,500), etc.

Though more than 50 percent of the festival’s total revenue comes from ticket sales and concessions, two factors keep Top of the Park—named for when it was held on the top deck of the Fletcher Street parking structure—free and fabulous: volunteers and individual donations.

Someone has consulted the weather and makes the call: The festival will go on. Sanders and I return outside, the rain has stopped, and the sky is a lighter shade of gray than it was 15 minutes ago.

When she’s not coordinating some of the 300 seasonal volunteers at the A2SF, Sara is a Girl Scout troop support specialist. She is one of a handful of paid staff brought on each year to organize A2SF volunteers, who serve as ushers for indoor shows as well as staff to collect donations, answer questions, distribute information and be all-around helpful souls.

Volunteer roll call

Volunteers range in age, occupation and background. Corey Fellabaum is a 19-year-old student studying meteorology at Ball State in the fall. He grew up in Ann Arbor and decided to get involved in the A2SF after volunteering for years at the Ann Arbor Art Fair.

Fellabaum generally works as a greeter, standing near the entrance of the festival to answer questions and solicit donations. If you’ve visited Ingalls Mall during the A2SF, you’ve no doubt seen the smiling folks in green aprons standing next to 7-foot-tall donation boxes.

“Give three to keep ToP free,” is the elevator pitch the greeters are given to tug at the heartstrings of attendees. Fellabaum estimates around 30 percent of people give when walking into the festival.

“It’s easier to rove,” he says.

Fiona and Addie, age 15 and 16, respectively, are Ann Arbor natives who are on their very first volunteer shift this year.

“It’s nice to get out of the house and do something fun,” says Fiona.

The duo wear red aprons and carry clear donation boxes. Their instructions are to roam around the grounds, connecting with people and asking them to contribute to the cause. I ask what tips they were given to improve their chances of a successful donation, and they each pull a crumpled handbill from a pocket in their aprons. Rain-soaked secrets to sales.

The suggested donation program started in 2009 as a way to bring greater awareness to the costs associated with producing three-plus weeks of outdoor entertainment. Previously, a single kiosk at Top of the Park had a donation bin and occasional volunteers would work the crowd and pass the hat for cash. These efforts typically brought in around $5,000 per season.

The move to Ingalls Mall brought with it increased costs and more need for support. The “Give $3” program started in 2009, with suggested donations of $3 per individual and $5 per family to help support the festival. In 2012, volunteers collected $51,258 from on-site donations. This year, the goal is $60,000. Good thing the A2SF has Bill Henderson, Susan Henderson and Jill.

Bill and Susan Henderson.JPG

Bill and Susan Henderson are just two of the hundreds of volunteers at the A2SF

Popcorn is for closers

Bill and Susan Henderson have a background in retail and a passion for the A2SF. You don’t stand a chance. Susan is a retired new-ish resident of Ann Arbor, volunteering for her fourth season at the festival. Her husband, Bill, is the manager at 10,000 Villages on Main Street and the duo stand at the entrance to the A2SF on Washington Street, near the beer zone.

“If you can make eye contact, you can get something,” Susan says.

“Her percentage is better than mine,” Bill laughs. “Being comfortable enough to say hello to them is the first step.”

Both are aware of the people who spot them in their green aprons and create a wide berth around the donation boxes. Neither takes offense. They attempt to divide and conquer their stretch of the street by standing wide apart and doing their best to engage festival goers, stay friendly and of course solicit donations. They’re extremely nice and pretty good at what they do.

The first time I spot Jill, she’s walking from the concessions area, swaying her hips to music and munching on a big bag of popcorn. She’s a receptionist in the VP of Government Affairs office on campus and has been volunteering at the A2SF for the last five or six years. We meet at the volunteer tent and she trades her regular green apron for a red roving one and we hit the circuit. A few people avert their eyes when she approaches, but most at least hear her pitch.

Night A2SF.JPG

Night settles on the A2SF

“Give three to keep ToP free,” she says. A lot do. One young lady eating a sno-cone comes out of nowhere and dumps a $5 bill and some singles in the slot. Another family stuffs bills in her container. A father and son wearing “I Gave” stickers engage Jill in conversation, with the father lamenting the fact that his son has just chosen to attend Syracuse University rather than U-M. Jill: receptionist, volunteer, donation taker, therapist.

“I love all the local bands that play here,” Jill says. She checked out tonight’s act on YouTube before heading down to Ingalls Mall to apron up. She gets a few more hits, her box filling up, and as the band kicks into its first song and kids and brave souls start dancing up front, Jill shimmies along the aisle and keeps raking in the dough. One person specifically seeks her out, reaching over the white picket fence of the beer area which separates the tipplers from the tipple-nots, putting bills in the box.

The A2SF runs through July 7. Stop by and say hello to Sara, Fiona, Addie, Susan, Bill and Jill and give $3 to keep ToP free. Or avoid eye contact at all costs. Because seriously, if you lock eyes with these people, you’ll do anything for them.

Richard Retyi returns to with his new column Hidden Ann Arbor. Rich will write about the hidden side of Ann Arbor and the things locals take for granted. In his day job, Rich is a social media director for a digital marketing agency in Ann Arbor. Read more of his stuff at or follow him on Twitter.



Wed, Jul 3, 2013 : 3:03 p.m.

to all the people that claim this is a free event, please think of it this way- If it is truly free, then everyone can choose to not donate/pay a single penny to the top of the park event...if that happens, i guarantee you they will start charging admission the following year or cancel the whole thing. Therefore, it is NOT free, it is conditional (meaning there is a price people have to pay, maybe not you but those who donate are paying the price for this event to be held every year) and it is not fair for those people that do donate (which are a lot of the people that go) to claim that this is a free event. If you call it free, there will be those people who normally might donate but are those kind of people that like to take advantage of free things and its a thrill for them to seek out all the free things as a hobby and not donate to this event.

EMU Prof

Wed, Jul 3, 2013 : 1:53 a.m.

I don't think it is the semantics of the word free that rankles. It is being put on the spot. It reminds me of those fresh faced youngsters that approach you on the street in places like New York, clipboard and pamphlets in hand, and say something like "excuse me sir, do you have a minute to spare for civil rights?" For the record I donated and will always do so. But not because someone in a red apron locked eyes with me and flashed me a slightly maniacal smile as I headed towards the entrance with my kids.


Wed, Jul 3, 2013 : 1:03 a.m.

1. I love Top of the Park, and feel that $5 for a family is an incredible bargain. 2. Perhaps a new slogan that indicates the optional nature of the fee will appease the semanticists. "Pay $3 Jerry, keep it voluntary"? 3, I liked the original venue much better as well. Closer to the band, better sight lines, and those that came just to socialize stayed well off on the periphery. 4. I'm having a tough time reconciling the following two parts of the article: "a handful of paid staff brought on each year to organize A2SF volunteers" with the largest expense of the festival being "seasonal staff ($98,000)".


Wed, Jul 3, 2013 : 12:45 a.m.

It's not free if they are aggressively asking for donations. Charge an entrance fee and stop the passive/aggressive "asking" for a donation, which puts people on the spot. Not a good way to get money from people by embarrassing them into donating. Just charge an entrance fee. We are personally tired of being asked for money at every turn. We stopped going to the Michigan Theater years ago when they "passed the bucket" around the theater before shows. Very tacky and crude, not to mention dumb. What's to stop anyone from grabbing a bunch of bills from the bucket as it's passed? Just charge admission fees to cover costs and run professional fundraisers that don't include passing the bucket. We also give "wide berth" to the Hendersons when we see the green aprons at the ToP......same approach as we use at Costco when they are upselling exec memberships at every turn. Very obnoxious.


Wed, Jul 3, 2013 : 2:29 a.m.

The exec memberships are a good idea, just like dropping some dollars in the kiosk!

EMU Prof

Wed, Jul 3, 2013 : 1:55 a.m.

Hahaha Costco... I knew it reminded me of something. Good call


Tue, Jul 2, 2013 : 11:05 p.m.

I appreciate The Top of the Park, it is one of those things that makes living in AA special. I went with my kids in the early 90's, then without them as they got to go alone and meet up with friends. Now I go with them and my grandchildren. I have been there 4 times this summer and have never run into any aggressive requests for donations. If I only give $5.00 it is like "free" considering the price of entertainment other venues.

Richard Retyi

Wed, Jul 3, 2013 : 3:13 p.m.

Awesomeblue: I have a suggested tweak to next year's donation campaign. Let me know how this sounds. "Give three to keep top free for those who don't care to donate but an inexpensive entertainment option for those who do donate anywhere from three to five dollars!" Problem solved.


Wed, Jul 3, 2013 : 2:40 p.m.

vocab lesson: that is called 'inexpensive' compared to price of entertainment to other venues, please go look up the definition of will always be defined as paying $0.00


Tue, Jul 2, 2013 : 11:01 p.m.

We are so lucky to have the Summer Festival each and every year. There are festivals in other towns, but the length, diversity, and the quality of ours helps to make this the fine place to live that it is. Hats off to the wonderful volunteers that help make this event possible. I man a kiosk every year and never ask for money, some folks do. All you have to give them is a smile and a thanks, it's as simple as that.

Richard Retyi

Tue, Jul 2, 2013 : 8:49 p.m.

There's a lot of semantic haggling going on. Only in Ann Arbor (and maybe Portland) can the majority of comments on a story about volunteers for one of Ann Arbor's coolest annual happenings get mired in negatives and semantics over a slogan. "Give three to keep Top free" is a catchy slogan. Top of the Park is technically free to all. Except for the indoor shows, which, MADDENINGLY (amirite, haters?) cost money. And you can't even bring your own food into the Michigan Theater. But you have no obligation to donate. I haven't donated once. CLEAR CONSCIENCE! You too are not obligated to contribute a single dollar, but have full access to music, film and general social activities for three weeks. The beer isn't free (grumble grumble) nor is the ice cream (SERIOUSLY!) or the t-shirts (that's it, I quit!) but for nearly every day a week for three weeks, you can walk downtown, kick a toddler out of a white folding chair and sit front and center while the Ragbirds blow your hair back or Young Frankenstein reminds you of a time when you were young and unburdened by the trappings of semantics and curmudgeonly opinion. I've written articles expressly to draw out the gumble-saurs in this town and THIS is the topic you choose to plant your flag on? An amazing free concert that my recent out of town guests were SHOCKED ran more than a single weekend. You got it easy, Ann Arbor. Now can we focus our semantics on the definition of "sidewalk" again, please, and leave the fine volunteers of Top of the Park out of this?


Wed, Jul 3, 2013 : 3:22 p.m.

I agree it's not bad and totally worth what ann arbor gets out of this. However, I'm only trying to point out that they are wrong in using the term free in their slogan, for their own sake of getting more donations and for those people who do donate like I explained above. That is my main point, nothing against what they are doing currently with how they ask for donations or whether you choose to donate. I feel good about donating once every year even though I go many days but I want this event to continue and I hope everyone understand that this is not free for everyone, only those who do not donate.

Richard Retyi

Wed, Jul 3, 2013 : 3:12 p.m.

Thanks Nurse, lynel and musicnerdsftw. Awesomeblue, I understand what you're saying, and the economics bear out that donations are an important part of keeping Top above water, but isn't eye contact and someone handing you a program (and potentially saying "Give three to keep top free") worth it for all Ann Arbor gets in return? These people aren't stopping you to fill out a survey. They aren't bullying you by asking, "Don't you care about the future of the manatees?" They're, for the most part, pointing to big branded boxes and seeing if you'll pitch in a few bucks. I need to restate this, even if it makes me a bad person. I'VE NEVER DONATED. EVER. And I'm fine with that. You should be okay with that as well. Or if you do give a few bucks, feel good about pitching in a little.


Wed, Jul 3, 2013 : 2:55 p.m.

if it is truly free like you claim it to be, then everyone can be like you and not donate a penny to top of the park...if that happens, i guarantee you they will start charging admission the following year or cancel the whole thing. Therefore, it is NOT free, it is conditional (meaning there is a price people have to pay, maybe not you but those who donate are paying this price for this event to be held every year) and it is not fair for those people that do donate (which are a lot of the people that go) to claim that this is a free event. It takes away from their donations by saying this is a free event.


Wed, Jul 3, 2013 : 11 a.m.



Tue, Jul 2, 2013 : 11:23 p.m.

Richard, you are so right, SOME Ann Arborites, will grumble about the word "free",it is free to those that can't afford to donate. To those that can afford to, please donate. Simple as that.

Ann Arbor Nurse

Tue, Jul 2, 2013 : 11:10 p.m.

I agree! Ann Arbor is lucky to have such a cool summer festival with so much to offer. There are very few places you can go for an abundance of free entertainment. I will gladly "Give three to keep top free"! Thanks for the great article.


Tue, Jul 2, 2013 : 8:10 p.m.

Whatever Bob Henderson is selling....I'm buying :)


Wed, Jul 3, 2013 : 1:11 p.m.

Bill that is, but I see your point!


Tue, Jul 2, 2013 : 7:23 p.m.

I visited with my family this past weekend. We gave. I wish the volunteer at the kiosk we stopped at would have been paying attention instead of flirting with about 4 or 5 boys standing around her (she was probably a teenager and so were they). They were all very engrossed in their own conversation and she didn't notice us donating which meant she didn't give us stickers which meant we kept getting asked for donations. I love the sticker idea because it makes the volunteers asking for donations less of a hassle if you've already donated and they can recognize that. But the volunteers should be focused on their volunteer work and not socializing in a clique. It was definitely not the same as when they kindly make conversation with visitors.


Tue, Jul 2, 2013 : 7:19 p.m.

We mostly stopped going when we were "ticketed" for bringing our own food. I would much rather pay an entrance fee and be allowed to bring food. I get that they need to raise money, but it's no longer nearly as fun an casual as it used to be. They really do think they need to revisit the donation system - I think it makes a lot of people feel uncomfortable even if they have no problem with the "donation" itself.


Tue, Jul 2, 2013 : 6:30 p.m.

I think in years to come it would be more honest to drop the "keep it free" phrase. Just state a suggested donation. That would be a more honest indication that these donations are a necessary part of the festival's fiscal reality. Stating that the Top of the Park is free implies that donations are less a piece of the fiscal equation that this article implies (to me, anyway). Despite what seems to rankle some people about the tone of awesomeblue's relies to EMU Prof, I think he/she has a very valid point.


Tue, Jul 2, 2013 : 6:37 p.m.

Thank you,this is exactly what I'm trying to get at, I'm not saying donations aren't important, I'm just hoping they would stop saying it is free when it's not technically free for all those people who are donating.

Bob Needham

Tue, Jul 2, 2013 : 6:11 p.m.

I've always felt the requests for donations were pretty low-key. It's pretty incredible that Ann Arbor hosts this for three and a half weeks every year, and it seems to me that politely asking for a few dollars strikes a fair balance between charging everyone and not asking at all.

Susan Montgomery

Tue, Jul 2, 2013 : 11:28 p.m.

It has been low-key in the past, generally walking around and announcing their presence. This year I've found them more aggressive, going up to individual audience members and asking for a donation.


Tue, Jul 2, 2013 : 4:40 p.m.

I like the "I Gave" sticker approach. Similar to the Med students "Galen Tag" days, you get asked once, you put the tag on your coat, and then for the rest of the week you walk around with people thanking you for your donation. It's non-agressive peer pressure for a good cause - then you get to be thanks for the rest of the time. Fantastic. Do miss the top of the parking lot, though. It was SUCH a better place to watch bands/movies/people.


Wed, Jul 3, 2013 : 12:50 a.m.

We too liked the top of the parking structure. It was sloping and like a theater to watch movies. No one solicited donations and we could bring our own snacks. More casual and MUCH better. But like everything else around here, it gets "upscaled" and more expensive, for no reason, and more commercialized and more rules, such as no snacks brought in, even though everyone sits on a lawn at a picnic. It's not a "free" event if you are asked for a donation, and given a sticker. I guess if you walk around without a sticker, you are a pariah.


Wed, Jul 3, 2013 : 12:38 a.m.

There was something very cool, aesthetically speaking, about seeing the top of the parking lot repurposed as an entertainment venue. The slope of the pavement did make for some good viewing angles. But all that concrete baked under a full day's sun sometimes made the place awfully hot. Seats in the lower half of the "arena" were also shielded from any breezes that might help cool things off. So while I have fond memories of the actual Top of the Park location, the Rackham Stage/Ingalls Mall setup works well as a substitute. There are more seating options, and much more space for dancing, and easier access overall. I get that the event is not technically free if I donate, but the Give Three to Keep ToP Free slogan is catchier than Give Three to Keep ToP Viable, or an even more agressive Give Five to Keep ToP Alive. Really, do you complain that Free Parking isn't really free because you have to burn your own gas to get to it?


Tue, Jul 2, 2013 : 10:45 p.m.

I like the new location. There is more shade and room to spread a blanket. More room for the little ones to run around without bothering others (too much)


Tue, Jul 2, 2013 : 8:04 p.m.

@Bob, the set up was better because of being able to sit on the ramp. It was like sitting in a theatre when you were watching the movie.

Bob Needham

Tue, Jul 2, 2013 : 6:07 p.m.

Interesting. I'm surprised to see the preference for the old location. How did you find it to be better?


Tue, Jul 2, 2013 : 3:37 p.m.

I deeply appreciate the festival, especially the Top of the Park. It's great that it's free. But it does seem to me that there's room for discussion about the best way to make these donation requests. There is a tipping point where the requests can feel a little aggressive. The volunteers (who almost without exception do a great, non-aggressive job) are vital to the festival, and are wonderful. But I suggest that a verbal request just isn't necessary. Their presence, the clear donation boxes, the aprons - along with a pleasant smile gets the message across just fine. A verbal request to make a contribution isn't necessary. Again, ,there's a tipping point where "free" doesn't quite mean free, if lack of a donation sticker means you're open game for repeated verbal requests to donate. Just saying...


Wed, Jul 3, 2013 : 12:52 a.m.

Agree. No need to be "asked" -- just have a box and an alert staff, not young people socializing with each other.

EMU Prof

Tue, Jul 2, 2013 : 2:54 p.m.

I'd much rather just pay an entrance fee than get the passive/ aggressive request for a donation.


Tue, Jul 2, 2013 : 6:13 p.m.

lol at all the people who don't like my comment but can't provide any logical argument against my statement of how giving any money does NOT make it free for that person anymore...


Tue, Jul 2, 2013 : 5:52 p.m.

i just don't like how they're advertising this as free but then desperately ask for money from everyone that goes..."hey it's FREE! oh but i really want you to give us $3 and i'll ask you again for more money when we come roam around in our red aprons"


Tue, Jul 2, 2013 : 5:50 p.m.

well if you're giving $3 it's not free anymore is it? its like starbucks telling you its a free cup of coffee if you give them $ why not just charge instead of making themselves seem like they're making this free when its not if they press you to give money at all entrances and have people with red aprons roaming the grounds asking you for money as well

Richard Retyi

Tue, Jul 2, 2013 : 4:57 p.m.

There are far more issues with an entrance fee than a voluntary donation. I'm sure 99% of Top goers would agree that being kindly asked to give three to keep Top free is a lot more palatable than charging $2 per person and issuing wristbands and hand stamps.