On Making...Money

One of the most engaging conversations I had during the 'Building the Hive' events earlier this month was about the legal framework of The Hive. Is it a non-profit? A not-for-profit?* It's not? Really? Why not? Here's a long answer, followed by a short answer...

My professional background consists almost exclusively of working for schools and 501c3 non-profit organizations. I have intimately observed and participated in the process of seeking grant and foundation funding for projects. The intense focus on the application. The agony of waiting. The thrill of successful funding. The joy of beginning a new project. The pride of doing work that helps people and benefits the community. I have also watched good work stopped cold in its tracks by the end of a funding cycle. And in order to continue that good work I have seen existing projects shoehorned into a new funder's priorities like Cinderella's stepsisters fitting their feet into the glass slipper - an often painful, bloody and unsuccessful endeavor.

And setting aside for the moment the challenges of seeking/securing/sustaining funding through grants and donations, I want to take advantage of the opportunity to align the funding of The Hive with the community-oriented structure of the project. Therefore sourcing large amounts of capital from a few foundations, arts organizations or private philanthropists doesn't quite add up. I'm much more drawn to the idea of crowd financing (ie: Kickstarter) - essentially asking the community to put its money where its mouth is. If Bellingham wants The Hive to become a reality, hundreds of people will need to step up and contribute to the campaign. In this way, it truly will be a project of, by and for our community, and a mandate like a successful Kickstarter campaign will be an inspirational way to launch the project.

I've also encountered the assumption that non-profit organizations are set up in a profoundly different (read: socially responsible) way than for-profit corporations. Actually, the organizational structure is often very similar (a hierarchy headed up by a CEO or President who is accountable to a board of directors) with the main difference being that when a non-profit makes a profit (which it is definitely allowed to do!) it can only use that money to further its mission, whereas a for-profit can distribute the money to its shareholders. I choose to believe that there is just as much room in either type of organization for social responsibility, dedication to mission and betterment of the community - it all depends on the group of people who run the organization and the culture that is built up within/around it.

Right now, The Hive exists as an idea - a big idea which is gaining momentum toward becoming a reality. As such, it doesn't have many hard edges yet - no space, no hours, no budget. This is largely intentional - in our community, the projects that succeed are often built by and for a group of interested and invested people who hear about the project and get involved. I want The Hive to be agile enough to respond to any opportunities that pop up during this phase, and working with a board (a legal requirement of all non-profit organizations) even a dedicated, energetic and supportive one, limits agility. 

So here's the promised short answer: The Hive is being founded as a business. A simple transaction of member dollars in to services out. In time, I hope an advisory group of members will emerge to help steer the evolution of The Hive as it grows. Until then, this big-idea project will stay nimble and light - ready to respond and adapt to the shifting ground under its feet until it finds its place and gets to work.

* 'Not-for-profit' is a technically a tax term that refers to a hobby or pastime whose supplies/expenses are not tax deductible since the activity in question is not a business. It is often used interchangeably with 'non-profit,' though, which can be confusing!