Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Six Strategies for Nonprofit Shoestring Budgets

Do you feel a pressing need to help your community transition to a more sustainable and resilient economy and agriculture, but don't think you have the money needed to fund a Transition project or nonprofit organization?

If you are willing to work for free, fear not! You can start your own Transition initiative - workshops, film screenings, networking events, and permablitzes - with only a shoestring budget. There is one vital prerequisite: you need a core group of dedicated volunteers, ideally people who have a variety of community connections and are willing to donate their time to organize and market the group's events and other offerings. These people are the foundation of all your efforts and the heart of your organization.

Six strategies that will help get you started with a minimum budget include:

1. Partner with an established organization

In the United States, nonprofit organizations can obtain special 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status from the IRS, which has obvious money-saving benefits, but requires an extensive amount of time and hassle to achieve. If you have a vision and mission aligned with a nonprofit organization that already has 501(c)(3) status, and they agree to sponsor your efforts, you will have avoided a lot of delays and paperwork headaches. These groups often have a budget to get you started, and resources are available to 501(c)(3) groups that are not available to other organizations (for example, discounted software and special bulk mailing rates). Additionally, if your sponsoring group has an established membership, you will automatically have a pool of contacts to notify of events, projects, and volunteer needs.

If you do decide to partner with an established 501(c)(3) or other organization, be aware that part of your efforts will likely go toward maintaining communication with their board, supporting their efforts (fundraising and otherwise), requesting permission for expenditures, and may require some compromises on your part. In most cases, if your relationship is collegial and the board lets you operate autonomously, the time spent is well worth the rewards.

2. Take advantage of free and low-cost marketing

You can design and market workshops, film screenings, fundraisers and other projects using Facebook, Twitter, and Constant Contact. Facebook allows you to create "events" and invite your friends, who can then invite their friends, and so forth. Constant Contact enables you to e-mail attractive event invitations to hundreds or thousands of people without automatically being relegated to the spam box. Facebook is free, while Constant Contact has a free starting promotion, which you can upgrade once you reach a certain number contacts.

Find your local listservs, which are e-mail groups that allow people to share information and ask questions about common topics of interest. There may be local food, environmental, peak oil, health, emergency preparedness, gardening, permaculture, or sustainability listservs in your area that you can use to spread the word about your group's offerings.

Note that online marketing will inevitably miss a portion of the population. If you are marketing to older people, or those who can't afford computers, be sure to include alternative marketing strategies such as posters and fliers in appropriate places, announcements in printed newsletters, etc. However, if you are not using Facebook to market, you will most likely be missing out on the younger (under 30) population, who may expect that all experiences will have an associated Facebook event.

3. Get free training or help from community or government organizations

Organizations and even governments in cities across the nation offer training, printing services, and help writing grants to small nonprofits. The organizations usually have names like "Community" or "Neighborhood" in them. Your state Department of Environmental Quality or city Sustainability Office may be able to provide you with materials, supplies, printing, or other helpful resources. Find these organizations and departments and use them.

You can also contact a group with a similar purpose (such as a Transition group) in a nearby city to see if they will help you get started, either via sharing resources (like marketing materials or presentations) or simply by helping you find the local government and other associations that assist small nonprofits.

4. Co-sponsor, co-sponsor, co-sponsor

Does your 501(c)(3)organization have limited funds? If you are organizing an event, try to find co-sponsors with common interests who will help pay for food and supplies, provide free space, loan you equipment, or help you market your event. Co-sponsors may also be willing to serve on your event team or help design the event. Co-sponsoring not only offers a way to obtain resources and supplies, but also increases the "reach" of your marketing, as your co-sponsors will be invested in helping your event achieve a successful turnout.

Volunteers in your core team will likely have contacts at art galleries, local co-ops, government groups, other nonprofits, universities and schools, and religious organizations and schools, all of whom tend to be sympathetic to the needs of other small nonprofit groups. Ask for the ideas and contacts of your group, and take advantage of them.

5. Easy fundraising

Fundraising often invokes images of gala events. But if your organization only requires a little money, you might not need something so complicated. If you, your core team and co-sponsors can front the money needed to pay for a film screening, or for event food / alcohol, you might be able to recoup much or all of your investment via a donation jar, especially if it is labeled "Funding Future Events," or by simply charging a small fee ($15 - 50) for workshops. This type of small donation could meet your funding requirements until you need and are able to get grants, larger donations, or hold larger fundraising events.

6. In-kind donations

If you have already gathered a dedicated group of talented volunteers, they are usually eager to contribute their talents - writing, graphic design, web design, organizational skills, and teaching skills such as permaculture or canning.

Volunteers or board and committee members are also often willing to "potluck" events by loaning the equipment and supplies necessary (such as glasses and tableware, tables, audiovisual equipment and laptops, etc.) and bringing a small item such as food, wine or beer, flowers, etc. This strategy allows each person to provide a small expenditure to fund an event - rather than having to spend time and effort fundraising to make the event possible.

And, of course, your group can request in-kind donations such as food, plants, prizes for raffles, space for meetings and events, and services from the very local businesses that you are likely promoting. This generosity is usually rewarded with ample recognition during your events or on your marketing materials, as well as a nice thank-you card and, hopefully, patronage from your core team members.

Transition OKC

We have used all these strategies at Transition OKC to be able to hold a training, informational events, several film screenings, over a dozen presentations, several workshops and networking events, and fund an e-newsletter, website, Facebook page, brochures and other marketing materials, with only a few hundred dollars of out-of-pocket expenses (paid by our sponsor Sustainable OKC as well as donations from the local Sierra Club Cimarron Group).

As we grow, we may need greater funding to accomplish our goals and may need to dedicate more effort to obtaining grants or donations. But up until now, through the dedication of my co-chair Shauna Struby and the generosity and ingenuity of our core team of volunteers and sponsors, who have donated their time, talents, resources, connections, in-kind donations, and money, we have been able to focus our energy on grass-roots education, awareness and networking rather than needing to spend inordinate amounts of time fundraising or writing grants.

Viva la volunteer!

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