I don’t know about you, but ever since #45 was elected, I’ve been feeling a bit anxious about all the news coming out of the current administration alluding to budgets cuts to institutions like the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Corporation for Public Broadcasting—heck, anything that is good and hopeful in the world. He even wants to allow people to kill off tiny bear cubs and wolf pups in Alaska if they feel like it—because, you know, ‘Murica!
Seriously speaking, we artists and writers can’t afford to passively watch all the things we care about burn to the ground. Rather, we should be proactive in ensuring that the arts have a place to flourish and thrive in every town and community in the US, if only because we can’t afford to trust the federal government to support our efforts. How do we counteract this? By fiercely guarding a chunk of our time, each day, to creating art, as well as participating in outreach to our communities in the form of teaching or mentoring others—whether they be peers in the arts community or beginning artists or writers hoping to develop their craft. Here are some tips to do just that.
Have a Clear Mission and Objectives
Although it’s no small undertaking to start a not-for-profit arts organization, in most writing, music and arts-based communities, like attracts like; therefore, it’s not completely unreasonable to consider starting a nonprofit organization with the help of a few close friends or business associates in the arts. To keep focused, avoid mistakes and preserve your momentum (and sanity) during your early days, make sure you start with a clear plan. This usually starts with drafting and finalizing a mission statement that is both compelling and clearly defined. A clear purpose and objectives are essential to keep everyone on the same page and motivated towards common goals.
Arts-based organizations should target their audience based on the values they support.
Also be sure to give due attention to building an effective board of directors. Without a motivated and engaged board, a nonprofit is considerably less likely to succeed in advancing its mission.
In general, make sure to do adequate research before moving forward with building your organization. Seek out experts in the nonprofit world in order to gain valuable perspective. A lack of financial knowledge, logistical planning or patience can leave you caught off-guard and feeling overwhelmed. Rather, you should go into the process knowing that even if it isn’t easy, it will likely be worth the effort.
Tackle Filing Requirements
To be an official nonprofit corporation, you must complete the incorporation process in the state of your choosing: the National Association of State Charity Officials or The U.S. Small Business Administration are two good resources for filing information and requirements. It’s important to make sure you meet the requirements for your specific state which do vary from one another.
To obtain 501c3 tax-exempt status—the status that offers the most beneficial tax treatment and that many nonprofits want—you’ll need to file IRS Form 1023, which is a fairly lengthy application and sometimes a time-consuming process involving questions back and forth from an IRS examiner. Depending on your circumstances there may be other forms to file as part of the Form 1023 process, such as form 2848 if you’re being represented by an attorney. Once you’ve obtained 501c3 status your organization will need to file Form 990 (the Return of Organization Exempt from Income Tax) by the end of the 27th month after your organization has been formally incorporated.
Define Your Organizational Structure
How will your organizational leadership and administrative support be structured and put together? There are a number of management strategies that have proven themselves to be particularly effective for nonprofits. Do some research to figure out what will work best for your group.
Managers and directors should also be careful to make wise hiring decisions that select the best employee or volunteer for each position. This may mean, for example, resisting the temptation of simply promoting long-term volunteers—opting instead to open positions up to the general public, so as to ensure integrity and high standards for employment. Other ways to maintain momentum for your cause is to pay attention to both community outreach and internal volunteers and employees. Last, nonprofit coordinators should strive to ‘under-promise’ and ‘over-deliver,’ with regard to the use of funds pledged by donors and sponsors, so as to remain realistic and transparent, while retaining the organization’s goals and vision.
Consider Joining an Existing Effort
One alternative to starting your own nonprofit, espoused by Charlotte Cowles of New York Mag’s “The Cut,” is to join forces with another nonprofit already doing similar work. In her words: “This is also known as ‘fiscal sponsorship’ (a redundant expression, I know)…which is a great jumping-off point. If you want access to a broader demographic, you might want to look for additional partners moving forward.”
Choosing the fiscal sponsorship route will also relieve you of the need to apply for 501c3 tax-exempt status—a process that costs money and often takes quite a bit of time and expertise. According to Cowles, applying for the federal tax exemption alone can cost anywhere between $400 and $850 or more—plus you’ll have ongoing filing obligations.
Another way to support existing nonprofit efforts is to volunteer or apply for a job at an arts-based organization. This will not only earn you valuable experience, but it will also allow you to more finely hone your ideas and mission statement; moreover, you’ll gain a better sense of what is realistic and feasible, in terms of scope and focus.
Get the Word Out
As most of us are aware, it’s crucial to stay on top of the marketing game. Not-for-profit organizations can miss the ball on getting their name and brand out there, relying too heavily on their community ties and values-based following. Instead, make a point to devote adequate resources to marketing, including both money and time. The key to having enough funds available when you need them is to know your cash flow well. How? Estimate your expenses and income as best as you can, anticipate the future, and make frequent measurements and adjustments to your budget, as needed. By thinking ahead you can, for example, invest in extra marketing for a benefit event, fundraiser, or auction in the fall—before the inevitable holiday slow-down—and keep extra savings in reserve in case of a sudden loss of revenue or sponsorship.
Note that the marketing efforts of a nonprofit don’t need to stray too far from their community-based roots. In fact, arts-based organizations should target their audience based on the values they support: creativity, artistic vision, independence and self-expression. Tap into groups of people already interested in the types of art your organization espouses, and build a brand identity that’s based around a consistent message that people can associate with your products and services.
I’ve written about Radio Boise’s community-building efforts and how they are directly tied to their success and brand image. These efforts are grounded in social media and online networking, both of which are cost-effective ways to get one’s message out in a relatively efficient, catchy and user-friendly way. Events (like Boise’s First Thursday) are also a good way establish partnerships with other nonprofits and local businesses, while also supporting the local economy and reflecting arts-related values.
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What are some arts-related causes you’d like to support by starting or joining a nonprofit organization? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below!