Aren’t startups amazing? They’re born of passion and energy and they’re scrappy in all the best ways. I love them and love working with them often. However, looking for ways to save money, get discounts, and still get the services they need is part of the startup territory, and it’s usually not easy.
I’m regularly asked how new arts nonprofits can prioritize what they should be spending their limited time & funds on and how to find the best deals on those things. So, in response to that oft-asked question I’ve put together a “greatest hits” list of advice for our startup friends.
- Keep the staff small. Contract out the rest.
When you’re just getting started you may need to have any staff, including the ED, volunteer their time in order to get off the ground. However, this shouldn’t be a long-term strategy as nonprofit staff deserve to get paid for the time and effort they put into the job just like any other worker. Having said that, once there’s a little cash in the org’s coffers don’t go crazy and hire every position you can think of.
Rather, think strategically about what positions will benefit the organization the most in terms of fulfilling its mission and creating steady growth. Ask yourself if these positions are best as full-time staff positions, part-time staff positions, or if good results can be achieved with a contractor. Make thought-out, strategic decisions about who you hire, how you do it, and throw the rest of your money into programming and investments (like an endowment fund) to help safeguard the org’s future.
Although all nonprofits are different, typically you get the most bang for your buck by having a full-time Executive Director, a program director (who may be FT or PT depending on the situation), and a development director.
That last suggestion about hiring a development person is where you may have the most flexibility. If you can swing it, by all means hire someone full-time to fill this role. But I have also seen immensely successful part-time development directors and many startups do well at hiring a consultant to contract for them for a period of time. Contracting allows you to by-pass many of the costs associated with hiring staff, such as benefits, taxes, office space, and more. And having a contractor oftentimes allows you to hire someone with much more expertise than you could afford to hire in a staff role.
You can find great consultants and contractors via referrals from nonprofit colleagues, from the Association of Fundraising Professionals, the Grant Professionals Association, and a myriad of other professional associations for specific niches of the arts community.
2. Put in place checks & balances to combat Founder’s Syndrome, rogue board members, & well-meaning saboteurs.
Checks and balances aren’t a sexy topic. But you want to know what is sexy? When things run so smoothly that you don’t have to spend money and precious time fixing issues that could have been easily presented. Or maybe ‘sexy’ isn’t the right word at all, but I’m super nerdy so you get what you get.
Take the time to decide how you will safeguard the essential functions your organization will need to complete. Who will handle bookkeeping, accounting, and deposits? How will you ensure everything is accurately accounted for and no one has any opportunity for dishonesty (including the ED)? Who will plan events and campaigns and how will you make sure the planning process goes smoothly without a board member or community member going all ‘bride-zilla’ over the details?
As already mentioned, with startups there’s usually a lot of people involved with plenty of passion for the project and just as many opinions on how things should go. However, no one person should be a driving engine behind what a nonprofit does. Rather, the staff and board (and to some extent, the community) should operate as a team to determine what is in the best interests of the organization both now and in the future.
To do this, everyone must be dedicated to rooting out Founder’s Syndrome and steering well-meaning or overbearing staff, board, and community members in a healthier direction where everyone can collaborate productively.
To do this, I recommend reviewing best practices for your type of nonprofit to see how your organization can best shape its processes and procedures. Once everything’s been decided, make sure you commit it all to writing in an operations manual (and in by-laws for your board if you don’t already have those in place).
You can find a great resource on locating best practices for orgs in your state and/or specific niche at the National Council of Nonprofits website.
3. Have a donor management program in place from Day 1.
Donor management is soooo incredibly important. Don’t be that guy (or gal) who uses spreadsheets to organize donor data for years. It’s not a good system and will leave you unable to grow at the pace you otherwise could.
Instead, start with a free solution that can scale, such as Bloomerang. Bloomerang offers 3 levels of pricing for small startups, including a free version. Once you outgrow the free version, simply upgrade to a higher plan. Once you’re ready, you can even use my link to get 10% off your monthly dues.
Regardless of which donor management system you ultimately choose, making this small investment will pay dividends by helping you grow your donor base more quickly and saving you tons of time on data entry as well as the hassle of moving from a spreadsheet system to a donor management system (which can be a nightmare).
4. Don’t neglect the boring stuff.
We already talked about processes and procedures a bit in #2, but take things a step further and really make sure your nonprofit crosses all its t’s and dots all its i’s. Check best practices, talk with other successful local and regional nonprofits with similar missions, and then make sure you address the following items:
a. Filing Systems
A good filing system can make your life a ton easier. It will save you time and you will also look much more organized to donors and funders.
You need to have secure storage in place for hard copies of all accounting, human resources, and grant files. You should also have storage space allocated for necessary program files, program data, marketing pieces, and extra room when you inevitably outgrow your existing file storage space.
However, I would also suggest that you get set up with an electronic file system. Many nonprofits choose to purchase a server and set up a shared drive to accomplish this. But I would argue that this is no longer the gold standard. I recommend setting up GSuite, which comes with a ton of space to store your files in the cloud. GSuite is offered through Google, is incredibly affordable for nonprofits, and it allows you to scale your storage as needed, all while collaborating with anyone you need to (and in real time).
Like filing systems, a solid budget can often be overlooked. Especially in the early days of a nonprofit, so much is up in the air that the prospect of putting together a budget can seem extra daunting.
My challenge to you is to reframe it in your mind and in your discussions with board members and staff. Approach creating your budget as you would a brainstorming session. You are going to put on paper everything you would like to see your organization do this fiscal year. Now, attach a realistic number to each of these items, representing how much money it would take to get it done. Don’t forget to add in everyday operating stuff like salaries, office space, utilities, office supplies, etc. Now match it up with what you think you can realistically fundraising from donations, grants, and sponsorships as well as revenue streams like ticket sales or class registrations.
Do a little trimming to cut back on anything that probably won’t happen and voila! You have your first budget and a good guideline to help you navigate big decisions this fiscal year. And don’t forget that if things change (and they probably will) you and the board can always vote to change or tweak the budget.
For a deeper dive, check out this article from the National Council of Nonprofits on Budgeting. They have lots of good info and some resources to help get you started.
You need to have your financial statements audited once per year, every year. There are some nonprofits which admittedly by-pass this, but I would urge you not to join their ranks. Audited financials are crucial to being an ethical, transparent nonprofit organization and 99.9% of funders are going to require you to submit audited financials to be eligible for a grant. Just do it.
d. Bank Accounts & Investment Plans
I urge you to think and discuss strategic, long-term finances and investment with your board. This may be the single most important priority for your nonprofit if you want to fulfill your mission and still be around in 10 years to talk about what the early days were like.
Not sure where or how to get started? Check out my blog post from earlier this year on Endowments and Investments.
e. Marketing & Communication Strategies
Smart marketing and communication strategies are imperative if you want your nonprofit to grow and hit the financial and programming benchmarks you’ve hopefully set for it.
Great marketing can be as fancy and expensive or as simple and affordable as you make it. However, there are some targeted ways to get the most bang for your buck in this area. Check out my last blog post, A Marketing Primer for Arts Nonprofits, to get the lowdown on some insightful strategies you can steal.
f. Program design & evaluation plans
Last, but definitely not least, is program design and evaluation. When my clients are working on creating or designing programs, I like to tell them to begin with the end in mind. What outcomes do you want to achieve as a result of your program? Do you want to fund this program with donations, sponsorships, or grants? If so, how are you going to show those who invest money that your program is achieving its goals?
You need to become familiar with best practices and successful models for programs like the ones you want to implement. Pair this up with data and information about the population you want to serve so you know you’re implementing something that is both wanted and needed. Build in ways to collect data and evaluation materials from the outset and you will be much less frustrated later.
If you aren’t quite sure where to start with this, I recommend checking out Anchoring Success. Anchoring Success is a consulting firm run by my good friend Morghan. She helps nonprofits design and implement great programs and even has a Program Refresh Kit that helps nonprofits to think through the design of existing programs (but I think it would also be useful to designing programs from scratch as well).
5. Automate, automate, automate.
Automation can save you time and money, but it’s not always obvious what in a nonprofit environment can be automated. I have seen nonprofits automate social media, certain bookkeeping functions, data entry, and more. If you want to automate, it’s all about getting set up with the right tools. Check out this list for some ways you can automate some of your daily tasks:
HootSuite – automate your social media
Wave – automate your daily bookkeeping data entry for FREE
Zapier – automate literally hundreds of tasks
ConvertKit (now known as Seva) – automate marketing emails and newsletters
6. Know which programs require a small investment, but can yield greater productivity with less headache
a. Asana – Free up to $9.99/mo+ – Project management software to help keep teams on track, delegate tasks, and collaborate quickly.
b. Slack – Free up to $12.50/mo+ – Chat and file sharing for your team with dedicated threads for projects, programs, and anything else you want to categorize. Makes working with your team from anywhere a snap.
c. Evernote – Free up to $70/yr+ – Save your notes, brainstorm sessions, screenshots, articles, press clippings and more in handy notebooks you can organize by subject and tags. Invite others to share notebooks and/or notes and access it all from anywhere.
d. G Suite – $5.99/mo + (special nonprofit pricing available) – If you don’t do anything else from this article, do this. G Suite is super affordable, easy to use, and will replace your old server/shared drive, all of Microsoft Office, and your email. Plus it has killer collaboration and sharing tools for your entire team, team and individual calendars, and 30GB (you can upgrade for more) of space to securely store your org’s files in the cloud and access them from anywhere you need.
e. Canva – Free up to $12.99/mo+ – Use it to create professional-looking graphics and marketing materials without the need to hire a graphic designer. This is a no-brainer.
f. HootSuite – Free up to $129/o+ (special nonprofit pricing available) – Schedule and automate all your social media so that you maintain your digital presence without a huge time commitment. HootSuite also gives you handy analytics to measure engagement and impact.
I hope you find these tips helpful. If you’d like a deeper dive on getting more done, in less time, with way less stress download my free Nonprofit MasterMind Cheat Sheet by clicking on the button below.
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