What Can Non-Profit Leaders Learn from DIY Entrepreneurs?

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Audience members at the DIY Business Association’s “Creativity is Good Business” event on December 4

What insights can the “do-it-yourself” business movement offer arts non-profits?  The connections between for-profit and non-profit strategies aren’t always clear, but at a recent event organized by the DIY Business Association (DIY BA) in New York, three start-up entrepreneurs shared their stories about success and creativity, with lessons that can be applied across a range of sectors.

Below are my three takeaway lessons from the event and my thoughts about how these entrepreneurs’ ideas can be applied to an innovative non-profit arts environment:

#1. Emphasize your expertise through thoughtful design.

Deep domain expertise is essential, according to Nora Abousteit, founder of Kollabora, a website where crafters can sell their wares and buy supplies. She defined this kind of expertise as demonstrated, deep knowledge that could help a business prove its authenticity and capability and, as a result, garner respect within its community.

These values also apply to arts non-profits, whether they are producing organizations, museums, or service providers. Organizations can innovate, and be recognized and respected as innovators, when they are also recognized as experts in the specific niche they occupy.

Nora Abousteit (L) and Anastasia Goodman (R) - courtesy Eleanor Templeton
Nora Abousteit (L) and Anastasia Goodman (R) – courtesy Eleanor Templeton

For an arts organization, it’s important to carefully curate not only the performances and exhibitions they present, but also what they offer their community in terms of digital content and educational programming. In all their offerings, their expertise should shine through and be showcased by good, functional design that enables a user to easily access the content and understand the organization’s expertise and mission.

#2. Adopt a sustainable growth strategy – and communicate it to your funders.

Grow slowly and organically, and have funders understand that approach as a strategy, insisted Laurel Touby, the founder of Mediabistro. By nature of limited funding, arts non-profits are often in the position of growing more slowly than they may like.

Although it is aimed at those looking to raise investment in a start-up businesses, Touby’s advice can help non-profits be proactive about their growth instead of reactive. Innovative non-profits can build a strategy for growth that is sustainable and makes sense for their specific organizational circumstances. Rather than forcing an audience to grow in numbers, an arts non-profit might think about the value that an organization can offer the audience they serve, define how that value can drive growth, and articulate and demonstrate that value to funders.

#3. Brand yourself!

Create a personal brand and platform for yourself and put yourself out as the expert, advised Anatasia Goodstein, the founder of Ypulse, a site dedicated to trends and news about marketing to teens. For organizations, my takeaway was that when your mission is easy to grasp, you can focus on positioning yourself as the “experts” in delivering your mission—whether it’s cutting edge performance or engaging arts education.

What other events have you been inspired by or found good ideas at even if they are not specifically geared towards arts or non-profit organizations? What how did you adapt those ideas to your organization? 

About

Eleanor Whitney is a writer, educator, arts administrator and musician raised in Maine and living in Brooklyn, New York. She has also worked at the Rubin Museum of Art as the Coordinator of Educational Resources, the Brooklyn Museum as the Academic Programs Coordinator, and at POV/American Documentary as a development assistant. She is completing her Master of Public Administration degree at Baruch College and received her bachelor’s degree from Eugene Lang College in Cultural Studies and Education.

  • Erinn Roos-Brown

    The phrase “less is more” seems to sum up Eleanor Whitney’s advise for non-profit arts organizations and I have to say that I agree. This phrase probably came to me because I have been hearing it preached in the non-profit sector for years, but have seen little evidence of its implementation and I think it’s time that all of us in this industry start incorporating these ideas into our organizational thinking. As someone who has worked in arts programming, I have to admit that I’m guilty of moving from project to project in a flurry of planning that doesn’t always promote well-rounded programming that is truly focused on emphasizing a brand or fully integrating our audience. I vote that all of us in the arts make an effort to define our niche, become experts in it and take our time to build and grow. Anyone to second that motion?