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Affording the Cost of "Free"

Nonprofits need varied and creative approaches to fundraising for the myriad of "free" services they provide to the public

By Robert Harrahill

At first glance, Hip-Hop and saving historic buildings might not sound like a natural match. Yet, in Seattle, two organizations were able to think outside the box to create a winning situation for both. 

For many nonprofits, delivering on their mission requires that a significant portion of their programming be free. Think of food banks or homeless shelters for example, that provide services at no charge.

“Free” can cost a lot of money.  It’s easy for organizations to become overly reliant on one particular funding mechanism – a large grant, auction or annual fundraising event – that they count on year after year to keep them going. Few organizations maximize all of the five revenue domains: individuals, foundations, corporations, government, and earned income.  Few even try.

For many executive directors and development directors, making it through the whirlwind of the typical day is their first priority. That Wildly Important Goal  (WIG), falls by the wayside as lead staff scrambles to keep up with immediate pressures instead of finding funds to make the big vision happen. In the end, some organizations just hope that this year’s auction will do a little better than last year’s.  

But 206 Zulu and Historic Seattle found a way to blend mission and revenue by working together in a dream partnership. It started with 206 Zulu, a Hip-Hop arts and culture organization with a fierce dedication to providing services to community and youth for free. The cost of “free” meant that they had to do some soul-searching and determine how they could make their vision work without being reliant on a single fundraising event.

Historic Seattle, meanwhile, has a stellar reputation for being the “developer of last resort” when architecturally significant buildings are at risk of demolition.   They carefully and thoughtfully redevelop the buildings, and then seek nonprofits as their key anchor tenants. 

Recently, Historic Seattle celebrated the completion of the Washington Hall remodel. The Seattle building, built in 1908, is part of the fabric of the Central Area, a historically African American neighborhood in Seattle. Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Jimi Hendrix and many more have walked its halls. Now, many more talented artists will play there again.  

Historic Seattle’s strength is in preservation; meanwhile 206 Zulu’s strength is community building through arts and performance. When both organizations began focusing on dreaming big, the partnership was born.  

Today, 206 Zulu manages the Washington Hall, and for their services, receive the rental revenue.  Historic Seattle is able to focus their energy on their next project – and the community wins by having a gorgeous, active space restored for community use. 

For 206 Zulu, the affording the cost of “free” meant thinking out of the box for new income. With combined revenue from individuals, foundations, government and earned income, they are now no longer reliant on one event to fund their organization and services to the community.

Rob Harrahill specializes in enrollment management and increasing philanthropic revenue in the independent school sector. He can be contacted at harrahill@altruistpartners.com​

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