If you're in the early stages of forming a nonprofit and struggling to find your footing, you may be in search of people or organizations to help you along the way. One option that some new nonprofits pursue is the assistance of a nonprofit incubator, which helps to guide you at the time when you need support most.
To discuss the intricacies of how nonprofit incubation works, we held a workshop at our library/learning center on July 24 titled Nonprofit Incubators: Nurturing Your Organization Through Its Infancy. The panel featured Robert Acton, executive director of the NYC Taproot Foundation; Matthew Klein, executive director of Blue Ridge Foundation of New York; Mary McCormick, president of the Fund for the City of New York; Cynthia Rivera Weissblum, president and CEO of the Edwin Gould Foundation; and Rhea Wong, executive director of Breakthrough New York. Based on their discussion, here is some background information on what incubators can offer a nonprofit.
What is a nonprofit incubator? A nonprofit incubator is an organization that helps to nurture and facilitate the development of a young nonprofit through the provision of resources, services, and seed funding. The use of an incubator improves the chances that a new organization will be able to remain sustainable over time, and also provides strong opportunities to build relationships with other organizations in the sector.
What benefits can nonprofit incubators offer? Here are some of the primary benefits that can be reaped from the use of an incubator:
Start-up funds: The beginning stages of the nonprofit lifecycle tend to be the most difficult for securing funding, as funders are reluctant to be the first to support a new, untested organization. An incubator can help solve this problem by offering seed money to help you get off the ground, start some programs, and work fulltime on the project.
Office space: Obtaining an office can be unattainably expensive for a lot of start-up nonprofits, along with acquiring the equipment necessary to run the office. Incubators will frequently provide you with an office for your operations, so that you don't have to resort to running a nonprofit out of your own home. Often this will be a shared office space with other incubated nonprofits.
Networking opportunities: Becoming an incubated nonprofit comes with a chance to work among other incubated nonprofits, frequently facilitated by the aforementioned shared office space. By developing bonds with other new nonprofits in the field, there are opportunities to share ideas and create alliances with these groups, which will in turn build the strength of your own organization.
Management assistance: A brand new nonprofit can make a lot of missteps while getting started, whether it's choosing the wrong board members, not understanding how to formulate a strategic plan, or neglecting to conduct proper program evaluations. Part of the incubator's job is to offer guidance on all the most essential areas of management that comprise an effective organization.
By receiving this extra guidance and mentorship, new nonprofits can get a leg up over other organizations whose work may be stalled by common beginner's mistakes, and can make major strides toward becoming mature, independent organizations in the future.
What are incubators looking for in an applicant? Four out of our five panelists in our July 24 workshop offer incubation services, and all agreed that what they most want to see in their applicants is an effective program. Because your project is new, you may not have a ton of data collected on your program's impact, and since the organization is in its early experimentation phase, incubators are not necessarily going to lock you into specific metrics for measuring outcomes.
However, they will at least want to see that you are well-informed and have done your research before jumping into this endeavor. Be aware of the landscape in which your project intends to operate, and be able to make a strong argument for why your organization's services are needed, why they will work, and what makes your project distinctive from other similar programs already in operation.
All of this information should come across in your application, which should include a clear, detailed budget, a thorough program description, and the resumes of all people involved in heading the project.
What are the challenges of using an incubator? While four of our panelists represent incubators, the fifth, Rhea Wong of Breakthrough New York, represented an organization incubated by the Taproot Foundation. She noted that the use of shared office space might pose a potential challenge for some incubated nonprofits, as these groups will have to work together closely with pooled resources and equipment.
The key to making the situation collaborative rather than combative, she says, comes down to organizational culture. Remain open, communicative, and understanding of other nonprofits' needs, and the use of shared offices can result in a strong partnership between groups.
Rhea also notes another potential challenge can arise out of the fact that while incubation does typically come with much-coveted start-up funds, the nonprofit will still be operating on a strict, limited budget. This will impose limits to what you can ask for. Your program budget may not be extravagant, nor will your equipment and supplies be plentiful around the office. But this is all part of learning how to be creative and flexible, working with the shoestring budgets that are inherent in the realm of innovative start-up nonprofits.
The benefit is that while your budget will be tight, your incubated organization will be standing on more stable financial ground than most other young nonprofits, thanks to the backing of your incubator, and the mentorship to guide you toward more successful fundraising in the future.
Where can I learn more about nonprofit incubation? The Taproot Foundation, the Blue Ridge Foundation, the Fund for the City of New York, and the Edwin Gould Foundation all offer incubation services, so any of these organizations can be an excellent source of additional information. Furthermore, the Nonprofit Law Blog has a helpful post titled, "Incubating a Nonprofit Social Enterprise", and the International Society for Third Sector Research's paper, "Nonprofit Incubators: Comparative Models for Nurturing New Third Sector Organizations" also features lots of good information.
Finally, to learn about some additional places that offer incubation services, Quora has been collecting a list of organizations both around the country and internationally that offer incubation for start-up nonprofits.