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:

  • Rent booth space at your local community events, and – in addition to providing information and offering fun, engaging activities and merchandise – ask people to sign up for your email newsletter.
  • Ask all of your board members to provide a list of their friends and contacts. Don’t be shy —seriously, if your board is not willing to send a letter to their friends asking them to consider becoming a member, then you have a real problem. People can always opt out of an email subscription to your newsletter.
  • In every communication you send out (digital or printed), be sure to include a request for the reader to become a member, along with a link to your website’s membership page and/or a membership form.

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:

  • A personal statement from the Board President about their interest in and passion for preserving the resource(s)
  • The organization’s mission statement (what you are trying to accomplish, generally)
  • The plan for what you’re trying to accomplish in the next year
  • How membership fees will be used to advance the organization’s mission
  • A statement that the donation will be tax deductible or, if you’ve applied for 501(c)(3) but haven’t received a response, a note to that effect, explaining that you expect to have the tax-exempt status determination letter from the IRS in hand soon, and will be able to provide a tax-deductible donation then.

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.

3. Programming

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:

  • History of the family or people most closely associated with the historic resource(s)
  • History of the property and its place in your state’s architecture. If the property is designated as a local or state landmark, or listed on the National Register, ask your speaker to talk about what the relevant designations mean.
  • Something interesting about preservation, such as a presentation by someone who can talk about how a similar property was successfully preserved, adapted for reuse, incorporated into a new development, etc. It’s helpful to show people that there’s a precedent for doing what you’re trying to do, and making it work, so I’d look for someone who could speak to that process and what it took to get it done.
  • If you are working with architects to do an Historic Structures Report, Master Plan, etc., you could build their presentation into this programming series.

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.

4. Publicity

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:

  • The organization receives an award
  • The organization receives a large gift or grant
  • The organization holds a successful event
  • The organization accomplishes a major goal

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.

5. Fundraising

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.”