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From the General to the Specific: Managing a Small Nonprofit

Late last year, I started work as the part time Administrative Director of a small community arts organization in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston. I took the position because of a desire to ground my work locally and to dig in to a single organization rather than stay at the 35,000 foot level that consulting so often requires.

And what a revelation it has been! This mostly volunteer-run, financially hand-to-mouth organization is doing impressive artistic work, and has been for almost 35 years. But among its most impressive feats is the tight-rope act of making ends meet. The board bet that someone like me serving as “professional” staff could provide the grounding for a more stable operation. The jury’s still out on whether the budget can sustain that – and the current climate for nonprofits isn’t making it any easier.

For example, The Nonprofit Finance Fund just released its 2012 State of the Sector survey, which asserts, among many other interesting observations, that “…many nonprofits are still facing fundamental challenges that threaten the stability of the sector and the well-being of the people they serve.” Their data show that funding is tenuous at best for more than half, and many have trouble meeting community demand for their services.

The environment is challenging, no question. But it’s also true that arts nonprofits- even small, community-based ones- have a growing array of resources at their disposal. In addition to the financial advice and support of the Nonprofit Finance Fund, nonprofits have access to a number of business services organizations. Fractured Atlas, for example, provides a range of support services, like education and health insurance, to artists and arts nonprofits., for another, provides the Nonprofit Tool Box, a mix of services including free web hosting, a volunteer-run graphic design service, and online marketing assistance to all types of nonprofits.

Yes, I use these services, and they help. Yet, when I look around at my small organization and its small army of enthusiastic volunteers and supporters, I am struck by how much of a difference the passion of our artists make. The support services make it possible, but the artists make it worthwhile.

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