"Should I start a nonprofit?" If you’re flirting with this question, consider the following…
In the arts world, the decision to start a nonprofit is a significant one that requires careful consideration.
While the nonprofit structure offers advantages, it also comes with unique challenges and responsibilities.
As a performing artist or other creator, you have a great idea. You are used to bootstrapping and bringing ideas to reality. You may have invested a lot of your own time and money into your idea or project. Others may be telling you to go for it, but you’re not sure what all goes into it, or if it’s right for you.
In this article, we'll explore key factors and questions for artists to consider when deciding whether to embark on the nonprofit journey.
1. Personal Motivation
Before diving into the intricacies of nonprofit management, performing artists must reflect on their personal motivations.
Starting a nonprofit is more than a legal structure; it's a commitment to a cause. Consider what drives you as an artist and whether your goals align with the mission-driven nature of nonprofits.
Be aware that once your organization gets 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, that entity no longer belongs to you, even if you are the main founder and leader—it belongs to the greater community and is stewarded by a Board of Directors alongside the Executive Director.
In other words, you will not be able to sell that business no matter how much of your own time, money, or energy you put into it; it can only be taken over by other leadership or dissolved.
If your primary motivation is to create social impact, educate, or promote cultural diversity, a nonprofit structure may be the right fit.
It’s important to know why you are pursuing this and what you want out of it, otherwise you risk personal and/or professional misalignment.
2. Board Structure
One of the cornerstones of a successful nonprofit is a dedicated and knowledgeable board of directors, who are all volunteers. Assess your ability to assemble a diverse and committed board that shares your passion for the arts and your organization's mission.
A well-rounded board can bring valuable expertise in areas such as finance, legal matters, marketing, and community engagement. Ensure that your board is not just a group of supporters but strategic partners invested in the long-term success of the organization.
Nonprofits have a model of shared leadership (like twin engine jets, as my nonprofit mentor likes to say), particularly between the board president and executive director.
While some founders start out as both board president and executive director, it’s unsustainable to keep it that way long-term (in other words, there's a major risk of burnout trying to do it all).
All potential nonprofit leaders must understand they're walking into an environment of shared leadership and interdependence.
Nonprofit organizations heavily rely on fundraising to sustain their operations and fulfill their missions. Performing artists must be prepared to navigate the complex landscape of grant writing, individual donations, and corporate sponsorships.
Yes, as a nonprofit, you are now able to receive tax-deductible donations, and that also means that you (and your board) will need to be actively fundraising and directly asking people for money. It’s a skill that can be learned!
Your nonprofit may also be eligible to apply for government and foundation grants. That means investing time in researching and applying for grants, which can be time- and labor-intensive.
Just remember, an entire career field of nonprofit fundraising professionals exists around this effort. You don’t necessarily have to do this all yourself, but as the leader, you will be actively involved.
The fundraising cycle for nonprofits can sometimes feel exhausting and never-ending, but it can also be highly rewarding, especially if you’re a natural relationship builder and storyteller.
👉 If fundraising is your primary concern, I’ve got you! I’m currently writing a series of articles on nonprofit fundraising in collaboration with arts fundraising expert, Brian Williams of Dandelion Consulting.
4. Reporting Responsibilities
Nonprofit organizations are subject to various reporting and compliance requirements. Artists transitioning to a nonprofit structure should be ready to embrace transparency and accountability. This includes regular financial reporting, filing annual tax returns (Form 990 in the U.S.), and meeting any regulatory obligations in their jurisdiction.
The ability to manage these responsibilities ensures that your organization maintains credibility and trust with donors, stakeholders, and the public.
5. Impact Measurement
Beyond financial reporting, nonprofits are expected to demonstrate the impact of their programs to their donors, the public, and to funders. Define clear metrics for success in line with your artistic and social objectives. Track your outputs and more importantly, your outcomes for strong grant applications and reporting.
Effective impact measurement not only satisfies reporting requirements but also helps you refine and enhance your programs. It helps you demonstrate the tangible difference your organization is making in the community as a public benefit.
Deciding to start a nonprofit as a performing artist is a complex and personal choice. It requires a commitment to building a strong support network and a willingness to navigate the challenges of nonprofit management.
By carefully considering factors such as your motivations, shared leadership with a volunteer board, fundraising, reporting responsibilities, and impact measurement, you can make an informed decision about whether starting a nonprofit is right for you.
While the nonprofit path may be demanding, the potential for positive change and artistic fulfillment makes it a worthwhile endeavor for those with the passion and dedication to see it through.
Want some additional support figuring out if the nonprofit structure is right for you, and/or what your other options are? Send me an email and we'll chat about it!
Cheri Jamison is an Arts & Nonprofit Management Consultant with over 12 years of experience in strategic planning, streamlining operations and community outreach. As a Renaissance woman with a diverse skill-set, Cheri is known for her ability to spearhead new initiatives and bring visionary projects to life. CheriJamison.com
Cheri Jamison is an Arts Consultant with over 12 years of experience in the arts and nonprofit management. Cultivating a non-judgmental, solution-oriented environment, Cheri meets her clients wherever they’re at with their business or creative career. The focus of Cheri Jamison Consulting LLC is strengthening organizations from the inside out through capacity-building, executive coaching, board training, and professional development. CheriJamison.com