IT'S THE "DOLLAR AND A DREAM SYNDROME" -- someone thinks getting up a community theater would be lots of fun or starting a museum about local history or gathering artists together to open an arts center. Great ideas, all. But how workable for the long run?
As with most small businesses, new cultural nonprofits can be pretty fragile, partly because they develop from personal desire that, ultimately must be shared by many people. As a result, they can live on the edge for long periods of time, surviving on the friendship and handouts of devotees. But one can hardly call that sustainable, right? Yet, new groups are forming -- getting legal -- all the time. In New York State alone, 20-30 new museums are green-lighted by state authorities every year (by the way, only a fraction of them legally go out of business each year).
If you were to create a checklist of what a group of people needed to have in hand before they got that piece of paper from the government making them a legal entity, what would be on that list?
Here's my short, but growing, checklist:
- No duplicating the mission or work of an existing organization in the community - if there's another organization that isn't active, don't start a new one, figure out ways to make the existing one active.
- Benchmark other similar organizations - know what's already operating in your future universe; know what's good, what's bad, what works, what doesn't. Use the best examples as models.
- Gather written and signed pledges from supporters totaling an absolute minimum $10,000 (could be more depending on what you're trying to start and where) -- consider this is seed money or the "rainy day fund".
- Obtain letters of support from local government, school superintendents, libraries and other nonprofit groups, peers in other nearby communities, other stakeholders and potential collaborators.
- Write a business plan that includes: a statement of need for the organization; understanding of the audience to be served; a mission impact statement, scope of work for years 1-5, specific targets in terms of numbers of supporters, programs, performances, exhibitions, etc.; scope of collections and collecting, if part of your dream; collaborations/collaborators; operating budgets for years 1-5; plan for raising endowment funds; and evidence that all legal requirements are being, have been or will be met.
- List of board members (or people who have agreed to serve on the organization's first board) with affiliations and what each brings in terms of skills, networks, and financial resources.
- A job description for the board.
- In addition to budgets, written plans for raising annual funds (membership, special appeals, fundraising events, etc.) that include lists of prospects, amounts to be raised, who has responsibility for raising it and by when.
- Write a technology plan that not only talks about hardware and software, but speaks to how the organization will build its profile and audience -- as well as its infrastructure -- by using it.