Welcome to our new board members. First order of business, we just checked the mail for the first time in a year and we need to pay our taxes or we may be held personally liable. By the way, we have just enough money in the bank to cover what it will cost to take care of this.”
This was a great start to my most recent (and ongoing) stint with a small nonprofit. I stuck around because this particular organization helped to put me through college, and I felt like they had the potential to do great things for the community. What follows is a timeline of how we turned things around from April, when we had a few hundred dollars and a dream, to September, when the group’s annual event left them with a healthy bank account balance and a path forward for further growth and development.
The first thing, of course, was to take care of the back taxes and paperwork. It didn’t really matter what the cost was going to be, because we had two options: 1) get things straightened out or 2) cease to exist as an organization. After failing to rouse a tax professional in the days following tax day, we were stuck. But with a good amount of pestering, we convinced the retired CPA that sat on the board to do the paperwork for us. Takeaway: just because someone can do something (and can do it well) doesn’t mean they’ll help you just because they’re on your board (or because they’re your employee, volunteer, or other affiliation). It isn’t an employee’s obligation to find their purpose within an organization; it’s the organization’s obligation to show the employee why their work will matter.
The organization has just enough money to pay for expenses through September, and each September they host a fundraising concert which nets just enough revenue to pay for the concert, the charitable work of the organization, and operating expenses until next September. In other words, if the concert attendance goes down by one year, the organization goes bankrupt.
So, proposals to make major changes to the concert in an attempt to increase attendance were stifled, because the risk to the organization was too great. We did, however, move the event a week earlier to coincide with a larger event that ours falls into the route of.
The board made strategic decisions to bring on new board members, move the meeting locations to a more professional setting, and delegate the functions of marketing and fundraising to board members that had the skills and the willingness (see April) to carry out these functions without much oversight from the board.
With these small but important pieces in place, the organization mounted two major efforts: one to convince bands to donate their performances to the cause, and another to secure sponsorships from businesses to support the concert. All of the bands got on board, in part because the board member asking them was a fellow musician that understands the value of live music. Sponsorships went extremely well as we brought in board members with connections to high-revenue, privately-owned businesses while also securing smaller local sponsors.
On the marketing side, the organization had three Facebook pages, of which one was active. We took the active page and made sure branding and messaging were consistent with the new, more professional, image we wanted to convey. From a positioning standpoint, we began sharing all the local live music we could find, whether it was related to us or not, and in fact strongly advocated for events and groups that some would consider the competition. We did this not to increase likes, follows, or even event attendance. We did it because it was important and valuable to the community and in line with our values as an organization.
While we didn’t have access to the defunct Facebook pages, we made sure to post on them and respond to others who had posted questions about when the concert would happen and if we still existed!
We also secured a June and August slot at a local street fair stage and quickly assembled a jam band to play and hired volunteers to pass out 4-to-a-page flyers with our event and Facebook info on them.
With sponsorships coming in, we began to feel more confident that the concert would be a success and that we would at least break even (rather than go into debt until the concert was over).
We were able to gain access to one of the old Facebook accounts and merge it with the current one which put us from ~100 followers to over 4,000. We continued posting about upcoming music events and took advantage of the one or two $10 credits Facebook offered us to boost posts, making sure to target local fans of the concert genre. At this point we had tickets for sale online and at select sponsor locations, and we printed and distributed 11×17″ full color posters. We pinned the poster and a short CTA for ticket sales to the top of our Facebook page and shared it at a ratio of roughly 5:1 (sharing the poster once for every five times we shared another event or other engaging post).
Although ticket sales were HORRIBLE, we knew that most tickets were purchased at the gate. Still, we were a little nervous. We decided to purchase some shades for the dance floor and some large, professional-looking banners to place on the main road leading to the concert, which was slightly off the beaten path.
Crunch time. On the day before the concert, during set-up, I did a Facebook live post showing everyone around the venue and letting them know how great it was going to be. My focus was not on the features of the event, but the benefits. Features included a beer truck, food truck, live auction, music, nice atmosphere, etc. while benefits were things like “you’re going to feel so relaxed sitting here under the shade and listening to the most popular band in town play on the back of this ’57 Chevy flatbed.” My goal was not to simply inform them of why they should come, but to spark some emotion about how they would feel if they came the next day.
During the event
I posted updates throughout the day, did a couple more Facebook live posts (they’re super effective!), and managed to capture some really touching moments as well. I also checked in with the gate about once per hour to monitor ticket sales, combined that with merchandise sales, and at one point during the day, give our executive director the good news that we were going to break even.
The most important thing I did was to carry a giant donation box around the venue and personally thank and shake the hand of every attendee. Ok, I didn’t shake every hand, but I probably made 80% and I thanked 100%. This didn’t net a lot of donations, but that wasn’t the point. I wanted them to feel appreciated (because they are!) and the box was only to get their attention. In fact, most people didn’t realize it was a donation box because I had the label faced the wrong way. No one asked about it. And I had some great conversations that led me to think we had pulled it off.
Ticket sales: about the same as last year
Last year, however, ticket sales made up approximately 55% of revenue; this year, they made up approximately 30%.
Sponsors: last year= $0
This year, we focused on this and brought in board members who had the ability to do some great fundraising. This made up approximately 20% of revenue.
Donations: ~100% increase
Excluding a large, specific-purpose donation from last year. We brought in a couple of high-dollar donations as a direct result of our efforts at presenting the board and organization as more professional, and by communicating our vision more effectively in our conversations
Auction, raffle, etc.: ~100% increase
This made up ~20% of our revenue this year.
After all was said and done, we ended with a healthy account balance that will allow the organization to continue and offer more programs in the coming year. Most importantly, we had an obvious impact on the community and on our most engaged supporters, which will lead to future revenue (and, therefore, good things).