Congratulations! You just established a new, volunteer-led non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of one or more historic resources. So now that you’ve officially done all of your state paperwork and sent in your application for tax-exempt status to the IRS, what’s next?
Here are some ideas for first-year activities that will start you off on the right foot. Since it’s important to have goals for your organization’s growth and success, in each of the following sections, we’ve suggested a goal that you might set for your first year. It’s not important that you use these goals, specifically – just that you set some. (Don’t be afraid to be ambitious!)
1. Build Awareness
It’s important to establish a broad base of community support, particularly one that you can document through membership. This starts by making people aware of what you’re doing.
Begin by building an initial email-newsletter mailing list:
GOAL! See how many people you can sign up for your newsletter in the first three or four months, then try to double that number in the next eight or nine months.
Once you have established your mailing list and communicated with people a few times …
2. Hold a Membership Drive
In your first year or two, this could substitute for an annual appeal or annual fund drive.
I would send this letter out over the board president’s signature. Be sure to include:
If you haven’t already done so, you’ll need to decide what “benefits” to offer your members. This does not have to include giveaway items like tote bags or coffee mugs. In fact, the more creative your member benefits are, the better! Experiences, rather than products, can make excellent member benefits and may be accomplished at little or no cost, as well. Examples include member-only events, such as a hard-hat tour of the building in its current condition (after they sign a waiver of liability); a commemorative tchotchke, the cost of which is sponsored by a local business; or a cocktail party or other celebration when you achieve an important milestone, for which the food/drink/etc. has been donated by a local business or sponsored by a donor.
GOAL! Two possible goals for your membership drive include (a) to convert more of your existing email newsletter recipients to members, and (b) to increase your membership numbers overall.
It’s important to set your goals in writing, think through how you will measure your success, implement your plans accordingly, and debrief afterward to explore what went well and what could be improved in the future.
Even as a young organization, you should have some sort of regular programming that helps to build awareness for the historic resources that you want to preserve. Having a schedule of regular programming also gives your organization more credibility and legitimacy. It’s not too early to begin!
Here’s an example of an easy, inexpensive program for your first year. It should not be too difficult or time-consuming to schedule four or six lectures a year about topics that are relevant to the historic resource. If you have four core board members, each of you could take one quarter of the year and be in charge of one of these lectures — finding a speaker, scheduling a space, publicizing it to members and the public, etc. (Be sure to work together as a group to coordinate the topics.) You should start planning this early so you can publicize them — and also give your speakers lots of notice. (I’d find and ask all of them immediately! Then follow up to make sure they remember about it, two months before the event — two weeks before — and then two days before. You can’t be too careful. People are busy.)
Topics might include:
Recruit volunteers to provide refreshments, ask a local donor or business to sponsor newspaper ads for the events (after you find out how much those ads would cost), and be sure to have membership forms for everyone who attends – don’t by shy, ask everyone to join!
Each event should include a sign-in sheet with a volunteer there to make sure people sign in and provide their contact information, if they’d like to receive your monthly newsletter. The program could start with an introduction by the board member who’s in charge of it, talking about the organization and its mission, and introducing the speaker. At the end, the same person could manage a short Q&A and then ask everyone to become a member.
GOAL! Hold one programming event or activity each quarter.
If you can just manage to accomplish that much programming in your first year, fantastic! Remember: don’t be too ambitious about what you can accomplish with a small volunteer board. Under-promise and over-deliver.
It’s important to do two things in terms of publicity: a) Communicate regularly, and b) Be prepared for big opportunities.
The first part is easy: You need a newsletter that goes out at least quarterly and preferably monthly, so that your organization is in front of people all the time. You do not need to have a ton of news in it, nor does this need to be fancy or expensive. I suggest using something like Constant Contact so that people can sign up online but also manage their own subscriptions through SafeUnsubscribe technology. You can also format the same content as a PDF and print it for those people who prefer a paper copy.
Try to create a committee of three or four volunteers who are good at this sort of thing and who could just be in charge of the newsletter. If you don’t have anybody in mind, go out and recruit them! Ask everyone who is already a volunteer if they know a friend who has those skills and could volunteer a few hours a month to get that done. In many cases, people will volunteer for something that’s straightforward like that, if they know the time commitment isn’t going to escalate.
Second, you need to get someone with professional public relations experience to help you prepare for big milestones. You probably know what big events are likely to happen, at some point:
You may be able to find a volunteer from your local chapter of Public Relations Society of America who can help you develop press releases for things like this ahead of time, at their leisure, and also advise you on how best to position your organization to capitalize on media opportunities, with a media kit, interview-able people (who are well prepared!), and a strategy for using the announcement to build your membership base and position you for fundraising success.
GOAL! Establish a regular schedule of communications, including with your local media, and make a friend who is a PR professional.
Everyone asks me, “How do we get big grants?” I think the best strategy is to first establish that broad base of support (in this case, financial support) from the community, then apply for a few small grants. Demonstrate your ability to complete projects successfully, then ask for more money.
Let’s begin by talking about “community support.” Your membership fees provide a good start, and you can make another appeal for contributions in your newsletter and on your website. Be sure to explain how much money is needed, how it will be used, and what part of it you are hoping to raise from members.
Next, your Board must contribute over and above their membership fees. Many foundations ask specifically how many Board members donate and the amount of total annual Board Giving – because if your own Board isn’t committed enough to give or raise funds for your cause, why should the foundation give? Consider setting a modest but impactful goal for a Board Challenge. For example, you might ask the Board to contribute or bring in 25% of a total project or program budget.
Employer matching gifts can make a big difference, so don’t forget to remind your potential donors about those!
You should also go to local businesses and organizations and make a personal appeal for help. You might make a list of local businesses and divide that up between board members. Go to the business/organization, meet with the owner or manager, and be prepared to leave behind information about the project (a one-page project description with membeship/donation form and return envelope).
Once you have funds coming in from your board/members/local businesses, make relatively small grant requests — mentioning, of course, that your community has already donated X% of the cost. Be sure that you are capable of doing what you propose to do, if you get the grant, and don’t create programming or projects just because money is available. Focus on delivering your mission!
After the successful completion of a fundraising campaign, consider taking out an ad in your local newspaper to thank everyone for their donation and list your business donors by name, if that’s all right with them. This demonstrates that your organization is successful and enjoys strong support.
GOAL! You should always have a fundraising goal, whether it’s to raise the money you need for a special project or for some percentage of your annual operating needs. As with membership, evaluate and debrief afterward so that you will know how to improve in the future.
If you can accomplish these five things in your first year, you will be off to a great start! Just remember to “plan your work and work your plan.”
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