Non-Profit Organization Software Support

Here at the fake agency, we are getting more involved with area non-profits. This has been going on for some time, actually, but it’s only recently that I’ve started to think about what goes into running an effective NPO.

Today I’m looking for software solutions that help with growing and maintaining the membership.

From what I’ve seen, there are four functional components to an NPO:

  • The people in the organization
  • The organization’s cause
  • Servicing the cause and the people in the organization
  • Paying for the organization’s expenses

Operationally, there are two main concerns for the small NPO:

  • Attracting people to the cause (membership)
  • Having enough cash to do something for the cause (donations)

I’m looking at the first concern, membership. I recently started attending the meetings of a local NPO, City Arts Nashua, so I could find out what was going on, and how it worked. I’m looking into the technology needs at the moment, seeing if there’s a way that I can help.

One challenge, I think, is to come up with systems that the NPO can “own” that offer the ease-of-use that non-technical volunteers need. The bigger challenge is probably painting the “big picture” of how the NPO attracts and engages people in service of the cause. So I’ll start with that.

Breaking it Down

The NPO’s has two audiences: supporters of the arts, and the artists. These are the people that need to be attracted.

The NPO has a singular cause: to promote the arts and artists in our local community. The main way that they do this is through an annual event, ArtWalk. It’s like an open studio that is held city-wide over a weekend. It spans multiple locations, and is well-known enough now that people know what it is.

So how does one “attract and engage people in service of the cause” in this specific instance? Hm.

First, I’d start with the cause itself: promoting the arts and artist. What does that really mean, and who are the people who care about it? Let’s start with some free association writing:

  • The Artists – Full-time artists have several material concerns: having the space to work, finding ways to support themselves through their work, finding an audience and a way to show their work, and finding support for non-artist chores like advertising and promotion. There’s also the identity element: a part-time artist may self-identity as an artist full-time, and there is the desire to be perceived as an artist by the community and by other artists.

  • Supporters of the Arts – These are people who, for one reason or another, value the very existence of artists and their contributions to the world. Some of them are aspiring artists themselves, or have found it more gratifying to experience the world of art as a patron or appreciator. Some people are consumers, seeing the Arts as a provider of tasteful goods for the home. For some, being seen as a supporter or patron of the arts is part of being a full citizen, with associated status among their peers. Others see the Arts as one of the ways for their business to reach a certain demographics by sharing their love of the arts with prospective clients.

  • The Arts – The Arts are often thought of something outside the everyday world of business and family life. For non-artists, its a source of leisurely enjoyment inspiration. However, because it’s not part of the everyday work world, it tends to have less priority in people’s minds than, say, the latest gadget or having a dinner out. It’s more important for people who have to manage their public image; their selection of what art to collect or show (which can include clothing) reflects on their good taste and by extension their credibility and reputation. For more culture and humanities-minded people, the Arts are the way that we better ourselves through the struggle to find personal truth and expression, and in this way they are indispensable even when we don’t have time for them. For artists-in-the-making, the Arts represent a rich field of possibility containing elements of community and identity-in-waiting, the sum of all human expression and experience waiting to be tapped in service of one’s own creativity. Destiny awaits!

  • Everyone Else – For these people, the Arts and Artists are like another source of goods and entertainment that they don’t particularly care for. They may be turned off by the use of the Arts for social status. They may just not have an appreciation for variety of personal expression, turned off by what they see as self-indulgent expression that has no relevance to their own lives. These people do not have the desire to deal with anything they don’t agree with or find useful. These people may prefer functional activities or sports, or have more of a civic interest if not a personal one. Such people may enjoy being part of a large event, or being associated with a successful one, or being perceived as being a good citizen.

That’s enough to start with. Each of these groups has a particular set of needs and desires, and the NPO can address them in their mission statement and supporting communication. Let’s distill each group into its dream version:

  • Artist’s Dream – Artist finds a wonderful space with wonderful people. People regularly comment on his/her work positively because they are exposed to it daily or stumble-upon the work through other venues. They form an attachment to the artist, and spend money to buy pieces or attend performances. The Artist doesn’t mind selling them either, and the money is good enough to help make the day-to-day living bearable, even enjoyable. No one gets in his/her way or tells him/her what to do, but excellent advice and opportunities constantly present themselves from external sources.

  • Supporter’s Dream – The city thrives with the energy of a diverse range of practicing artists, each producing work of laudable quality at a variety of price ranges. The artists, a quirky and fascinating bunch, are easy to find at a number of locations around the city; many an afternoon is lost chatting with artists on break, who share works in progress and the latest cultural gossip. There are open studios every one or two months, with a few other open locations near the center of town. When one wants to know what is coming up, they can easily find the information online; there is always something going on. The cultural and artistic landscape can be clearly visualized and mapped to the city in one’s head, thanks to the supporting organizations and media outlets that maintain this information. Not an artist themselves, they discover other ways to be part of the vibrant cultural community as a volunteer or by providing a service; they are pleased and delighted when the arts community shows their appreciation in return.

  • Everyone Else – The Arts are a part of the environment, noted but avoided. However, when the need to find Arts or Artist comes up at work, it’s easy to remember where to go. There’s the main arts section in the newspaper or city website, or typing in “Arts Nashua” brings up the main website where this is all happening. It’s easy to email the link to whoever wanted it, reaping the aura of being a Cultured Human in their eyes.

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p>I think the above descriptions speak to the ideal benefits of the Arts NPO. There are probably other interpretations, but it’s good enough to identify the specific benefits that an arts-promoting organization can illuminate to prospective members. It’s a vision of a strong arts community, and everyone can work toward making that happen. The NPO’s role is to gather those people together and make a few of them happen. To make that effective, now we get into organization tools and structures.

Which is what I’ll look at next.