Community Supported Art: What Nonprofits Can Learn From Adapting Working ModelsBy Kate McGovern |
When an arts organization was looking for a new way to engage its community, it noticed that a strong local food community already existed. The artists figured that if area residents wanted to support local farms through community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs, they might want to support local art in the same way.
As it turns out, they were right.
Springboard for the Arts, located in Minnesota, was the first organization to attempt community-supported art, a program that has been replicated nationwide, with a few programs already up and running in Philadelphia.
Recycling a business model
A CSA is an arrangement between members of a community and a local farm. Members pay a fee before the growing season and later receive shares of the farm’s crops. These arrangements often mean that farmers receive better prices for their produce, are more financially secure and need to do less marketing, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
One thing that distinguishes this business model from the subscription model is the risk involved. Members share in the risks of farming, including poor harvests due to weather or pests, the USDA explains. There also is the risk that members may not like the produce included in a particular delivery. On the other hand, the exposure to new foods could be a positive experience.
This model lent itself well to the arts community, as Springboard’s program demonstrates. Their current “season” is sold out.
The program is almost identical to food CSAs and they’ve reinterpreted the acronym to mean community-supported art. A jury selects artists whose work is then delivered to members one piece at a time. The risk is very much the same as it is with the food CSAs: patrons may love the work they receive and discover a new artist. Or, they may receive art they don’t like.
The idea came about organically, according to Springboard’s executive director Laura Zabel. “A lot of our programs work at the intersection of other sectors,” she said. “It’s in our DNA to be looking at how other people do things.”
“As we would talk about how to build value or relationships for artists, the food community consistently came up as a community that had done that really well,” said Zabel, a long-time food CSA member.
Springboard repeatedly discussed how to implement something like a CSA, Zabel said. “We did spend a fair amount of time thinking of ways to overcomplicate it,” but eventually “realized that the model really worked.”
“We kept the model very much the same, including the name,” which turned out to be a big part of the appeal, Zabel added.
The nonprofit community has a tendency to try “to make things our own or over-adapt them,” she explained. Instead, nonprofits should consider existing models employed by other nonprofits or for-profit companies.
Many other organizations have since adopted the CSA model. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported recently that community-supported seafood is enjoying a trial-run at the Jersey shore. Even vineyards, bakeries, restaurants and craft organizations have built on the CSA model.
And it’s likely that more are on the way. Tom Kaiden, president of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, says that performance art can’t be far behind. “The future is likely to hold … multiple organizations packaging their experiences together, at multiple venues,” Kaiden said. “I think that may be something that’s coming soon.”
So what can nonprofits learn from this success? According to Kaiden, the lesson is that nonprofits should consider adapting to the needs and desires of their communities.
And if Springboard’s success tells us anything, it’s that you don’t always have to start from scratch. Consider borrowing and adapting ideas from other sectors, he said. The arts and agriculture communities likely responded to the CSA model because consumers no longer want generic delivery of products, said Kaiden.
In a similar effort to engage its audience, Kaiden’s organization took a cue from the airline industry and its reduced last-minute fares. Ten years ago, the local group started Funsavers, which connects area residents with half-price tickets for last-minute events in the Philadelphia area. It got locals engaged while nonprofits earned money on tickets that would have gone unsold otherwise, he explained. With 258,000 tickets sold and $4.2 million earned for nonprofits, it’s clear that the Cultural Alliance found something its audience wanted.
The takeaway is that to meet a community’s needs, organizations may need “to adapt to and borrow ideas from other sectors,” he said. But while looking at the big picture — your business model — don’t lose sight of your audience; according to Kaiden, “the operative word is ‘community.’”
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