Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Nature of Non-profit Incubators

As the Tango Center fills with dozens of projects, approaching six events a day and a thousand people a week, it's worth looking at what it took to incubate all these inventive, educational, popular, autonomous, self-funding, non-profit community projects.

Making Space,
Making Suggestions,
Making Sacrifices

There's an important distinction to keep in mind -- the incubator doesn't make the projects, it makes space for the projects. It provides opportunities, it organizes resources, and it makes suggestions. But any newly incubated project will only exist if the people doing the project really want it to succeed. [Note: a 'project' might be independent, and only renting the incubator's space, or it might be within the institutional umbrella].

If the project is suggested repeatedly by community members, then the incubator will try to organize it, by passing the suggestion to the larger community, over and over again, until it succeeds -- eventually, that means the right people, who really like the idea, or some variation on it, will volunteer to make sacrifices.

The infrastructure of mutual aid:
shared resources
& systemic facilities

A successful incubator needs the right resources for new and existing projects to survive. A resource is typically built by one project during its gestation, sometimes with the help of other projects that would also benefit. Often, the resource is simply too large to be launched by projects in a start-up stage, so the incubator needs to bring the larger community together, to help out, "barn-raising" style.

Infrastructure consists of physical structure, regular volunteer work, regular staff work, organizational relationships etc. These are the real pieces of furniture, in the house of mutual aid.

At the Tango Center, we had to build all of this from scratch, or repair it, and maintain it: the dance floor, the ceiling restoration, the ever-growing sound system, the public Mac computer and its music library, the broadband connection and wifi, the public linux machine and printer, the office supplies, the whiteboards, the tables, the chairs, the couches, the bulletin boards, the website, the community-projects software that runs the website, the facebook group, the e-mail lists, the tool library, the materials room, storage, the lost & found, the lighting system, the security system, the copy machine, the fax machine, the bathrooms, the kitchen supplies, the microwave, the fridge, the water cooler, the mailing address and mailbox, the street windows and poster displays, the exhibition equipment, the music directors, the calendar manager, the event managers, the instructor pool, the organizer pool, the visiting instructors, the site manager, the general manager, our 8,000 ft space, our tax-exempt fiscal sponsorship, our ability to sponsor visas, our non-profit status, our legal and accounting help, our one-call center of dance opportunities, our advertising, our media relationships, our referral network, the decorations, the paintings, the poster collections, the murals, the sheet music collections, the piano, the music stands, clips, lights and mikes, the heating systems, the online "creative commons license" graphic, photo and video library, the live music digitizer, the tango store and preview system, etc, etc.

And none of this could have come about, were it not for the work that came before the incubator was even considered ...

Happily, almost all the incubator's projects benefit from improvements to the multiple levels of infrastructure. In fact, it is these "systemic facilities", which positively influence the whole, that are most likely to happen.

Even better -- the fact that the quantity of projects is increasing itself helps the whole, by offering diverse exciting opportunities to the community, holding its interest and swelling its numbers. The more the merrier.

How it happens

If you listen, you can hear the ideas bubble up.

Some are contentious -- especially when they threaten to replace something that's well-loved. But those tend to die off, and that's almost always for the best, probably. Improvements should be incremental, preserving, respecting and enhancing the good things that already exist.

Most good ideas develop momentum on their own. Sometimes, people with a reputation for doing something good, on the outside, want to do their work inside the center. More often, people develop a good reputation for fixing or improving things inside, and so it's easier to get community help for their next project.

Initiation happens in a number of ways, with people playing some combination of inventor, project evangelist, community advocate, problem solver, recruiter, facilitator, and worker. Usually everyone who wanted to do the project, works on it. If the incubator is over-staffed, or if the staff is too self-sacrificing, it often makes the mistake of doing all the projects that are suggested, rather than advertising the ideas and facilitating their exposure to the community talent pool and body politic.

How it fails

Projects fail to start, fail to maintain, or fail to finish, for so many reasons, that it's important, for the incubator, not to become too attached to any one project in particular. However -- keep records. The specific lessons can be very useful for the next generation.


If there is one thing that the incubator can help with, it is longevity. A project can succeed with the public, be loved by the community, and still die from attrition -- people move on.

The incubator staff needs to learn how to tap much larger institutions: governments, school, utilities, corporations, communities etc. In that way, it can create or collaborate with institutional programs that feed the incubator's projects for years. Maintaining these institutional relationships becomes one of the major roles an incubator can play in the long term.

Of course, the incubator itself is an institution, and its longevity needs regular attention, in the same way that its projects do. It needs to join in larger coalitions with other institutions to maintain viability on the larger scene.

The incubator's strength, however, lies in its community, and continued focus upon acting on its behalf, on behalf of all its people, in the broadest possible way, will ensure a long and exciting future for everyone involved.


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