Since launching an IndieGoGo Campaign for Strum It Forward social media has been a regular stop during the down times in my day. Time spent logged into Facebook watching Grumpy Cat wish everyone were dead is only slightly more entertaining than watching my Twitter feed populate itself with bits of other peoples conversations but both of them seem to hold more meaningful content than Instagram’s stream of pictures. Having covered the big 3 of social media and including Google+ in at times was the plan to get maximum exposure. I was ready to hit my friends, family, and followers with this wonderful idea of mine like a one-two punch and watch it catch fire as I poured my passion into the project. Not exactly.
One aspect of social media that I seem to forget is that it isn’t a two way street. On Twitter I follow several hundred people, less than 140 follow me. Roughly one third of the people I follow will ever see anything I post unless they are tagged in a Tweet. Facebook is a little different but one post among the billions that are posted everyday is easily missed. Maximum exposure requires impeccable timing or constant posting and setting up a non-profit doesn’t allot time for either when your building the foundation alone.
I’ve come to terms with the fact that I won’t hit the goal of the initial fundraiser. I would need to generate $100 per day to do that and it’s not feasible to expect it after two weeks of post after post after post not getting a large response. It seems that I need to build a larger social presence in order to host a successful social media campaign.
For the better part of two weeks the push to get through actually starting a non-profit has been carrying me late into the night. As a sole proprietor what is it that sets that bar for reaching that goal. Have you actually started a project when it’s legal, the forms are filed and you start working toward the stated mission? Could you have already started by making strides in promoting your venture or does that matter if the details aren’t in place?
Finding balance is key in many aspects of life and business but splitting up time between aspects of a project is a project in and of itself. Wading through the 1023 form, constantly referring back to the instructions, amending bylaws and creating a budget are very important. Even a packet submitted offers you a pending moniker. It is possible to build a name for your non-profit, raise some capital, and start making a difference without lifting a finger toward the formality of it but many opportunities are out of reach without an EIN, a registered company name, and permission to fund raise.
The biggest challenge is not throwing money at these problems. Setting a goal to stay out of debt while starting up is near laughable but it is possible with a solid network of friends, family, and hundreds of loose connections that may get behind your advertised cause. Those connections can’t be curated by completing a Schedule H, they have to be engaged on a near daily basis to keep your specific project from simply scrolling down their social media streams. Setting aside time to branch out, connect, be accessible, and actively promote is just as important as researching what your specific state laws cover so you won’t have to add everything to the company bylaws.
Recently I haven’t scheduled enough time to promote and relied far too heavily on social media. I knew it wouldn’t be easy but I did place unrealistic expectations on the reach of my few friends, followers, and circles. To date social media has resulted in roughly 1 contribution per 100 views for a grand total of 1 contribution. All other donations have come from me actively promoting and reaching out to friends directly. Clearly I haven’t spent enough time branching out, being accessible and connecting with the community. Live and learn, make mistakes and then make corrections. It’s all in the name of spreading the seeds but you can’t forget to save some time for doing the deeds.
Getting started opens to door to an extensive to-do list. The early stages of any business, not just non-profits, are hectic and often disorganized. Think back to when the light came on for you. If you are like me it triggered a brainstorming session, a period of serious contemplation, then things started to take shape. Or did they?
After Strum It Forward had a mission and a rough plan in place the focus shifted away from theoretical work and on to laying the foundation. That was a very tangible set of objectives with actual results. Applying for an EIN resulted in a completed form and a checked box on my list. Working through the forms was tedious but when they were completed there was a stack of completed work. Mission accomplished.
The next step in my pre-arranged master plan was initial fundraising. This started the entire process over again. Days were spent brainstorming and researching, scrapping ideas and pursuing others, and finally deciding on the best course of action. A lot of work went into planning to start doing more work but one intangible goal was met that set up a push toward another tangible goal. The fundraising venue was selected, IndieGoGo, the campaign was written, a video was produced, and finally it went live. Along the way it was easy to see the progress. Register an account on IndieGoGo, check. Write the fundraiser goals, company mission, and perks, check. Buy webcam, set up a background, write the script, and run through 44 takes before nailing down the final video, check. Upload everything, make final corrections, then sit nervously for a few hours before launching the campaign, check. All of those steps created tangible results, and each earned a check off of my list.
Now that is underway the next step is making a clear (well, clearer) budget of where exactly the money is going to go if the fundraiser exceeds its goal. Back to brainstorming and intangible results. I’ve detected a pattern here that resonates with a lot of what happens in business, and life. We work through intangibles as a means of prioritizing real and acting towards real results, then the plan is set in motion until something tangible emerges. The problem arises when you have to justify what you do and all that has been completed is intangible. In essence some days I don’t “do” anything but I’m still making progress. Those are the days I feel the least accomplished and get down on myself to work harder the next day. Once I started setting my intangible goals along with tangible goals and keeping track of the progress I was able to show that the work I had done was building toward another tangible goal.
Everyday I get something accomplished. It may not be a video, or a proposal, or a completed tax form but progress is made. Even when I feel like I’ve wasted an hour jotting down notes and ideas that will hit the cutting room floor its good practice to remember that a pile of crumpled paper or failed ideas is better than never starting. First plans aren’t always best plans. In life and in business evolving is key to success.
So far the progress on starting a non-profit has been steady. Sure, I stay up a bit too late working on forms and researching what is and isn’t required to stay within the law as a non-profit but it isn’t all nose-to-the-grindstone. Yesterday I was thrilled to hear back from a good friend that she was on board to help and become the second member of the “board”. It was a huge weight off of my shoulders just knowing that I had more support to get things done. Time to celebrate!
Not really, but I did take some time to revel in the fact that my vision of what “doing good” has translated in such a way that someone was motivated to help. It was also the first night in over a week that I just sat down and didn’t do anything. Not being lazy or procrastinating, but I needed a mental break.
The desire to GO, GO, GO, is hard to ignore and I absolutely hate not seeing meaningful progress. This week the nights have been stretched into the AM hours and the morning alarm clock seems to be sounding earlier and earlier. I’m worn out. I get headaches. I feel stressed. It was my body, and my mind telling me I needed a break. Last night, in light of the good news, I took a break. I played guitar with my son, I let him play the electric guitar (don’t tell my wife, shhhh!), and after the kids went to bed I sat on the floor and played Skyrim.
My conscience was pointing its finger at me and tapping its foot in disappointment but that’s just too bad. Being the main decision maker means I have to have a clear head and positive attitude. When I’m tired and its late neither of those things are my strong point so it was my professional duty to Strum It Forward to take a night off and let things simmer. Today I’m more awake, the headache is all gone, and I am no where near as stressed as I had been. Mission accomplished. Sometimes not doing anything is the best plan, taking time to take care of yourself is more important that risking health issues or inviting poor decisions into the planning phase by burning yourself out. There is still a lot to do and technically I lost a night but I’m better prepared to confront what lies ahead now than I would be had I pushed on.
Last night I was confronted with a question I didn’t have a fast answer to. Who are your competitors, what about them do you like, dislike? Hmm?
When I started working through my initial plan, that naive informal outline I didn’t have any provisions for competitors. Sure, there are plenty of charitable organizations out there, even a few local to Baltimore. When I looked for a market niche to fill I wasn’t specifically looking at competitors just other do-gooders with a mission and a plan. I’ve reached the point that a more comprehensive Strategic Analysis should be done.
Today, tonight, tomorrow will be dedicated to generating that strategic analysis along side of getting things ready for the fundraiser. (That I hope to kick off on Saturday or Sunday.) The easy part will be a SWOT analysis where Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats are identified and plans are put in place to reduce or enhance each. That really is step one in the process. Next will be to decide on how to position Strum It Forward within its competition. That will take some planning, I think.
Where do you position a non-profit? I can’t really set out to be a cost leader like a standard product producing company. There are no values to be had or supply chains to manipulate in the normal sense. Innovation is another avenue to pursue but that doesn’t initially stand out as a solid starting strategy. With little experience trying to reinvent the process seems like a bad idea. Perhaps down the road some process or offering will emerge that can truly set SIF on the cutting edge but that isn’t where I feel resources should be used at this time. What I’ve found so far is that most non-profits utilize a Differentiation strategy to stand out and define their niche within the jumble of other organizations.
Examples of differentiation are relatively easy to spot based on how the different organizations present themselves. One company is very donation driven and has focused a lot of effort into putting their virtual hand out on every tab of their website. Generating funding is key but it doesn’t seem like the right foot to lead with. Another company I looked into had a great story of how they came to be but their mission wasn’t clear. Their plea for funding and support was very heart-felt and I was moved by the story but it didn’t compel any type of giving reaction. There are many other companies that I have looked into recently. Some help large groups of kids, some only provide instruments, one raises local funding to support music in villages in other countries, one even holds fundraising events to put local bands on tour. After those my search started to get more abstract and less about base education and more about subsidizing music recording, providing better equipment or offering production services to distribute albums. The line starts to get blurry between non-profit service and an actual business venture after that and I don’t want to go down that road.
Strum It Forward will have to stand out in the crowd, not a huge crowd but definitely an intimate group of other musically focused organizations. In able to do that our site will have to convey our mission, goals, and services clearly and in a way that reaches out to a specific target audience in a way that will also attract contributors. I have a plan for that. Our message will have to be clear, precise, and attainable. That will require a bit of careful wording but I also have a plan for that. The actions that the organization will take to pursue the mission and achieve the goals set are critical to putting the words into practice. Staying on board and focused may limit the reach but doing something different and doing it well is the only way to stand out. I have a plan for that.
As the planning continues and my organizational folder bulges I’m happy to see progress and proud of myself for being able to generate a plan for the questions that arise. So far nothing has left me floored, or lost, or unable to move ahead. Sure there have been speedbumps but no complete roadblocks. When they do emerge, I’ll work on a plan for that too.
It’s by no means time to sit back and say that all of the work is done. That’s hardly the case! What it is time to do is figure out how I’m going to pay for this grand vision. Should I pull my savings out and use that? Should I hit up friends and family? How about getting a loan? I’d either start in debt to myself, to everyone around me, or to an investor. None of them seem like a good idea. If I can’t generate the funds needed to start a donation based organization how would anyone expect me to run it successfully?
Not to put the horse in front of the carriage but what is it that makes a non-profit great, the purpose it serves or the administration that sets the purpose into motion? The short answer is both. The grandest of plans are useless without the right team to execute.
The current issue that Strum It Forward is facing is generating the administrative funding necessary to cover start-up costs. It’s easy to justify to a donor that their money is going toward the company mission but it is difficult to ask for money that will ultimately be spent on filing fees, website creation, business cards, and the other necessary sunk costs of starting an organization.
As the person taking ownership of the non-profit it falls on me to generate that funding. Instead of going into debt I’ve decided to offer things that I value as incentives to donate to the organization. That’s not quite the same as selling off personal items but it is similar. Auction sites, like eBay, take close to 20% in fees to list and sell items and often the items are in competition with other sellers looking to profit for their own reasons. Local sales, like yard sales or raffles, limit the audience and rely on single day events with severe time constraints. Neither appeal to the altruistic side of the organisation and it won’t generate the kind of buzz that is needed to really raise the funds required to get this project off the ground.
Enter Indiegogo, a fundraising site that offers many options to get projects funded. There are still fees, but we’re talking 4%-9%, nowhere near 20%. However, the benefits of working with them is that it the donor base is looking for projects to back not just products to buy. That pairing of willing donors and incentives to give will go a lot further than selling off items and hoping to profit enough to cover the start-up costs.
I’ve already started to draft the Indiegogo campaign and have pulled several items of value to offer as incentives to contribute. That is this weeks goal, get the campaign created, kick it off this weekend, and get the project funded by next month. Lofty, I know, but it sure beats splitting up donations to primarily cover admin costs.
Up until this weekend I’ve been fumbling along the path to incorporation and non-profit bliss. My feeble little mind has kept everything that was needed stored away so I could refer back when needed. Nothing formal just an understanding that there was a lot left to do.
On a side note, I’ve been sleeping like crap. When I go to bed all I do is lay there and go over everything that could possibly be left to do. My mind wander to all that has been done and I find that even that stuff doesn’t seem finalized. Anxiety sets in. ’What have I been doing with my time?’ ‘Will I ever get it done?’ Eventually exhaustion sets in and sleep does happen.
This weekend I made strides to being more organized. I have a dedicated folder for notes, legal forms, and even a great book from NOLO about starting and growing a non-profit. Quite the little starter kit. One of the best papers downloaded recently is in fact a check list. It’s great and it is actually from the MD Association of Non Profit Organizations. Everything that needs to happen in order from organization, to State level filing, to the elusive 1023 form. Turns out there are 8 steps in Phase 1 of setting up a non profit and I’ve already completed 3 of them. With a little more work I can complete the rest. Things aren’t looking so overwhelming from this point of view. Now I know what I have to do and can work toward one item at a time.
Here’s a brief recap of the weekends activities:
- Registered domain name, bought hosting, and installed WordPress.
- Created Facebook business page.
- Downloaded and filled out Articles of Incorporation.
- Downloaded and filled out Bylaws.
- Obtained Federal Employer Identification Number (EIN).
- Started to develop preliminary budget and fundraising goal.
- Took over 300 pictures for Indiegogo fundraising campaign.
From the looks of it I was able to get a lot done. Even managed to take my Behavioral Econ final exam and attended my last group guitar lesson. Come to think of it I have had a very productive weekend. No need to stress out tonight and stay up until 1am scrambling to get something finished. Based on my checklist I’m doing alright, I think I’ll take the opportunity and go to bed before tomorrow comes.
I’ve been reading about all of the different types of non-profits. The “best” being a 501(c)(3) but why? Turns out there are over 20 different 501’s and each is very different from the others. The 501(c)(3) is considered the best because it allows tax exemption on some types of business income as well as allows contributions to be tax deductible for those willing to give. Seems simple right? It isn’t. Only some income is tax free, only some contributions are tax deductible, and the non-profit has to be very careful how it fundraises. Luckily I found a fantastic book on the subject with clear explanations.
Today’s dilemma: incorporate or not?
Sounds simple but it all comes down to what kind of liability I want, the kind of liability potential employees want, and what kind of liability the organization would be open to if something were to happen. On top of all of that consideration it turns out that incorporating, while time consuming and an added cost, shows that you’re serious. Contributors like serious, grants are available for the serious, there are benefits to showing that you are serious. It may be the best way to go but, again, it will add to the complexity of getting started.
On a positive note www.strumitforward.org is now officially the domain name of Strum It Forward and I hope to build a basic site for it soon. You, know, in all of my free time.
I’m making progress on Strum It Forward, a non-profit whose aim is to provide music lessons and instruments in the form of scholarships. Initially the idea struck me as a way to get more kids into music and give them instruments that they didn’t have to leave at school and could continue to play through the summer. All that was required was a measly $1,500 for two starter packs twelve months of weekly lessons.
The main problem that I’ve been working to overcome is making sure that it’s legal. Anyone can panhandle and scrounge up some money for a good cause but that won’t sustain a program. It will be rather expensive to create a corporation, list it as a non-profit, and then register on the fundraiser list. Keep in mind that those things need to happen on a State AND Federal level so fees are starting to add up.
My immediate concern has shifted from raising $1,500 to requiring nearly double to get the program going and then have enough left over for a single scholarship. In the near future, as soon as I can get some pictures taken and create a free website (or Facebook page), I will start a fundraiser on Indiegogo to help with the sunk costs associated with starting this entire project.
Most evenings will be used to work through this and then roll it out in a way that I hope will gain maximum exposure with my friends and social media contacts.
It has been very enlightening to see how far down the rabbit hole you need to go in order to provide positive change in a community. Barriers to entry shouldn’t be this high but, as the adage says, “if it were easy, everyone would do it.”