By Erica Jamison
One of the most difficult challenges emerging nonprofits face is breaking out of the “small organization” mentality—where they feel conflicted or uncertain in how to increase capacity and budget while remaining accessible and community-oriented. Though it may come from a place of humility, this mindset can hamper an organization’s growth and longevity.
As founder of MINT, I’ve performed that delicate balancing act, and along the way I’ve gained rich insights that have massively shifted my perspective. Attending leadership seminars, receiving mentorship from brilliant arts professionals, and facing challenges that strengthened our small organization have all contributed to our progression. MINT began over 10 years ago, but our mission remains the same today: to serve as a space for emerging artists and patrons to find their voice. But what that space looks like, how that space is facilitated, and the ways that space is supported have evolved.
First, consider how your organization can be opportunistic in its programming. Look for partnerships that stretch your reach to new audiences, support more constituents, and provide new ways for sponsors and donors to engage. Are there RFPs that align with your mission? Is there a community project that has space for an arts component? Do you see a project with an overlooked arts component that your organization can fulfill?
Additionally, consider self-imposed boundaries to force new perspectives and shifts in thinking. In 2015, MINT moved out of the space that we’d called home for three years. It seemed crazy – how could a small nonprofit with very defined programming that relied on a physical location survive without a permanent address? Incidentally, being without a space forced us to get better about speaking our mission, to improve how we share our vision, and to get creative with our programming and outreach. We hosted exhibitions at commercial gallery spaces, collaborated with neighborhood groups to bring programming to new communities, and partnered with a brewery to host one of our biggest and longest-running annual shows. None of these opportunities could have happened if we had a permanent location to staff and manage.
Don’t be afraid to pause key programming if your organization is stretched thin. It will give your team the opportunity to reevaluate, to update criteria, to fundraise, and to maximize your impact. It can also offer a much-needed respite for your staff to research other programs for best practices, and to learn new skills.
Diversity is your organization’s best asset. Seek partnerships with peer organizations that look different than yours, and that serve audiences that look different than your own. Let your partners take the lead, and let their communities define their needs, then evaluate what your organization can offer as an outside voice.
Have meetings with EVERYONE. If you don’t know someone, ask your networks for an introduction. This is literally why LinkedIn was invented, but if your network exists on Facebook or Instagram, ask there instead! But—and this is key—do not come to those meetings with a hard sell. Certainly have context for the conversation; perhaps you’d like feedback on a new program or revamped mission statement. These are all small asks that can support rapport-building and trust, and can transform into deeper connections in the future. Once the relationship is more established, you can make the bigger asks – for donations, to join the board, to sponsor an event, etc., but first start small with friend-raising as your only goal.
Engagement with civic leaders is critical. Meet with your city council member, attend NPU meetings, attend budget hearings, invite community leaders to your events. Learn what’s important to them: is it transportation? Is it infrastructure? In these meetings, bring ideas for partnerships and collaboration, not just asks for support.
Lastly, surround yourself with board members and staffers who support your efforts while also holding you accountable. Hire and engage with people who look different than you, who speak differently than you, who have different expertise than you. Lean on them, give them credit, and let their input guide you. Diverse perspectives that guide impactful programming are critical to a thriving arts ecosystem.
Many of us are drawn to the nonprofit sector because we believe in the power of being service oriented. But, that same attitude is also what makes it difficult to advocate for ourselves and for our organizations. While MINT continues to face many obstacles, being strategic and thoughtful about how we program, how we network, and how we shape our outreach, has greatly improved our programmatic outcomes, the fulfillment of our staff, and the growth of our budget.