Digital Strategy for Arts Enterprise

Like many non-profit organizations, Arts Enterprise has operated on a tight budget since incorporating a year and a half ago.  With a tight budget comes the ever difficult decision of where to spend our limited resources.  From an operational standpoint, the AE Central team has established three goals in order to help us grow in the most effective way possible:

  1. The central organization should be small and flexible, allowing us to address our most pressing organizational issues in the most efficient and effective manner possible.
  2. AE must be sustainable. Our central team has set high level goals, mission, and vision for the organization. From there, it is up to our chapters to lead the charge. In a perfect world, we want to set the basic parameters of the org. and let the chapters and members continue to grow the network with little to no interference from the central organization.
  3. AE must be scalable.  Providing a platform for a broad network of chapters and members that can operate comfortably from the ground level is imperative to the growth and vibrancy of the AE network.

With this in mind, it became abundantly clear to me that the best strategy for achieving each of these three goals—given our limited resources—was to develop a digital strategy that would provide the greatest impact for our growing organization.  What follows is an explanation of the path we took to develop AE’s online presence.

Website: (www.artsenterprise.com) In the words of our board chair, Chris Genteel “We need a top rate website.  We have $0 to pay for it.  How can we leverage the power of our network to accomplish this?”  Out of this mindset, we created a partnership with TwistUp Media to develop the AE site and we are thrilled with the finished product. Here’s the kicker….this website was essentially built at no cost to the Arts Enterprise organization.

How did we do it? Instead of saying to TwistUp that we want you to build a site for us for free and, in exchange, we will list you as a supporter of the organization, we said this: In exchange for your services we will give you access to our rapidly growing network of chapters, members and supporters. Instead of establishing a four year payment plan for the website, we have given TwistUp the ability to work directly with our chapters as they build their own websites. Additionally, we have provided a way to deliver TwistUp’s services directly to our membership…A membership that we predict will serve close to 1,000 students by the end of the year.

Social Media Strategy: (Facebook, Blog, Newsletter, Twitter) These four outlets have proven incredibly helpful to us as we continue to grow.  Looking at each of the four outlets, I decided that creating a large Facebook footprint was the best way to grow our social media presence.  Afterall, our blog, newsletter, and twitter feed can all easily be pushed onto our Facebook fan page with very little effort.  Target, target, target!

My strategy was simple.  After creating the AE fan page on Facebook, I asked for a donation of up to $200 from each board member to use as incentive for building our fan base.  Here’s the post I put on our fan page newsfeed:

ATTENTION: Over the next thirty days the Arts Enterprise board of directors will donate $1 to the organization for every person who “likes” the AE fan page.  Help our network grow by sharing this page with your friends.  At this moment we have 218 fans.  Our goal is to reach 1,000 members within a month.  Tell your friends!

It worked!  We didn’t make it to to 1,000 “likes” as I’d hoped, but we did increase our facebook presence by over 300%.  In turn, our newsletter membership was up by over 100% and our blog nearly quadrupled the number of hits because we were pushing each entry to the facebook fan page.  Since our big push to increase membership in the fall of 2010, we have been gaining, on average, 5-10 new likes on our AE fan page each week….with relatively little effort on the administrative side of things.

It seems to me that we need to think about ways in which we can make our partnerships more mutually beneficial in nature. Techies who volunteer to do this work are amazing people, however they are also strapped by time with their own projects. Further, there is often a lack of understanding on both sides of the aisle in regard to everything from mission of the organization to the effective utilization of the technology itself. Often, it seems that the partners on both sides of the aisle are not considering the menu of services that could be provided as a way to better leverage the partnership. Consider an incredible blog entry by Ayça Akin from Core77.com. In her entry she talks at length about ways Techies and Nonprofits can better work with one another. Here’s an excerpt:

These challenges should come as no surprise, since any designer/client relationship has its built-in (if clichéd) limits: Designers are asked to step outside themselves to see the world in a new way, but can never, by definition, be the client or the user. In pro bono projects—as time becomes expensive—paying attention to the unique perspectives of nonprofits is the only way for volunteers to develop sound working relationships toward making social change products effective and sustainable.

Here we have very different people trying to collaborate around a common goal, and points of friction are increased by differences in culture, language and preconceptions about one another. Like so many problems in the world, many of these differences can be overcome by simply trying to understand each other’s priorities and world views.

Her blog entry goes on to speak at length about the common issues these partnerships face. I might offer a few suggestions to organizations interested in entering their own mutually beneficial partnership:

  1. Mutually Beneficial Understanding—Take the time to talk at length about your organization. This is not just about your technology needs, this is about explaining your organization to your partner. Then, listen to what they have to offer. This seems all too simple, however it’s amazing what this small suggestion can do for your partnership.
  2. Find the Right Partner—It’s so important to find a partner who’s values align with yours. This will only strengthen the partnership. For us, TwistUp was the perfect fit. They too were a startup entity, they value entrepreneurship and they have an appreciation for the arts. We were aligning with one another practically before the partnership even started.
  3. What’s in it for them—Can you, as the non-profit, provide value to the partnership? For example, can you bring three to four good ideas to the table in exchange for the services you’re about to receive from the techies? This type of partnership can really help your organization grow.

So, what’s missing? What can cash strapped non-profits do in order to continue to generate mutually beneficial partnerships for their organizations?

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