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Incubating nonprofits: The experiences at arts incubators provide insight into the business assistance needs of the 501 set

by Meredith Erlewine

June 2000

No matter how purposeful, a nonprofit organization’s mission is not what will bring it success. Whether an organization’s work is to save whales, preserve cultural heritage or find a cure for cancer, to flourish it must build organizational capacity by proactively securing funding, projecting a professional image, garnering community support and building a strong base of funders, volunteers and customers or members. Building that capacity involves adopting many of the best practices of successful for-profit businesses, such as marketing strategies, personnel development and forging strategic alliances.

Incubation can be an effective way to help nonprofits master those proficiencies, but some of the issues inherent to nonprofit organizations aren’t covered by the corporate model. It’s donors vs. investors, zero-based budgeting vs. initial public offerings, volunteers vs. staff and building organizational capacity vs. taking a product to market.

And although a nonprofit organization’s goals may not include taking a product to market, “the underlying issue is product,” notes Suellen Burns, executive director of ArtsBridge in Chicago, Ill. “For a nonprofit arts organization, its product is art vs. paper towels or accounting service. The driving force is less often revenue and more often the opportunity to create the product. And what it takes to do that are creative forces plus an infrastructure and tools to support the product.” Enter arts incubation – which has been incubating nonprofit arts organizations for more than 10 years.

Though the following examples of nonprofit assistance come from the world of arts incubation, the insight is valuable to anyone called on to help the nonprofit community.

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Keywords: arts incubator, accounting/financial management -- client, board of directors, social entrepreneurship, strategic planning, volunteer management

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