Three Lessons Salt Institute Has Taught Us

When the dust settles and Salt Institute’s fate is sealed, this story will make one heck of a case study.

Let me introduce you to Salt Institute for Documentary Studies (Salt). Information from the About page on its website says that Salt is:

salta non-profit school in Portland, Maine offering semester-long intensive programs in documentary writing, radio, photography and new media with a focus on powerful and responsible storytelling. We also exhibit documentary work in our gallery and host documentary-related events.

Students come from all over the US and other countries for fifteen weeks of intensive field research, workshops and seminars. Throughout the semester, students gather cultural materials and develop their craft to create documentaries of professional caliber.

What Salt does has been called ethnography, storytelling, cultural journalism, oral history, folklore, qualitative sociology, documentary photography, visual anthropology, non-fiction writing, NPR-style radio and long-form journalism. But we are less concerned about what to call what we do than how we do it.

Salt’s Board of Directors announced in mid-June that Salt would be closing its doors. The Portland Press Herald reported that the decision was based on the organization’s financial status and the inability to find a replacement for the executive director who had indicated she would be leaving the institution. Alumni were notified by letter after the decision was made to close Salt. A group of those alumni quickly formed Save Salt! and prepared a proposal which they presented to Salt’s board in an attempt to keep Salt from closing. Maine College of Art also reached out to the board to investigate some options available to Salt.

A month and a half later, The Boston Globe reports that “Maine’s Salt Institute may have found a saving plan.” And, hold onto your shorts for this one: Salt’s executive director and board chair “acknowledged that the school’s skeleton staff has had no time to seek corporate sponsorships or conduct fund-raising drives.” Say what? A nonprofit educational institution found no time for an annual campaign? Oh. My. Goodness.

Yes, I can be called a Monday morning quarterback and criticized for simplifying the situation. I wasn’t involved with the day-to-day decisions that had to be made at Salt. I’m relying on news reports and alumni comments for information in this post. And, of course, it’s often much easier to look back on a situation and see where the train went careening wildly off the tracks. That being said, Salt has offered up a variety of lessons for nonprofit staff and volunteers. Let’s take a look at three of those lessons.

  1. Put the structure in place to ensure sustainability of your organization. That structure includes staff, volunteer committees, plans to support the organization’s mission and vision. While this sounds simple enough and logical enough, Salt really missed the boat on this one. (Unfortunately, Salt is not alone on this one.)
  2. Identify and stay connected with your supporters. There are lots of “what ifs” to take a look at here:
    1. What if they had created a sense of urgency rather than a sense of desperation?
    2. What if they had connected earlier with alumni?
    3. What if they had reached out to the business community?
    4. What if they had reached out to the community that visited their exhibits?
    5. What if they had implemented robust fundraising and marketing campaigns?
    6. What if volunteer committees (in addition to the board) had been formed?
    7. What if tuition had been increased (currently at $10,000/semester)?
    8. What if they had reached out to collaborate with other arts organizations?

I’ll stop here, but you get the point. This is a quick list of low-hanging fruit.

  1. Ask for what you need. Whether it’s volunteer hours, donations of equipment, or the mighty dollar that will ease your organization’s burden, you won’t get it if you don’t ask for it. When your community knows what you need, it’s amazing what they’ll do to support nonprofits. Again, there are so many ways to connect with your community and let your followers know how they can help your organization. Those fundraising and marketing plans mentioned above – they come in handy here.

The announcement that Salt was closing its doors was met with surprise and shock by its alumni. Instead of accepting closure as Salt’s destiny, however, alumni are putting their storytelling skills to work as they rewrite the next chapter of Salt’s history. I look forward to seeing the stories that future storytellers of Salt will share with us.

do good work | share your story | advance your cause

About Deb

Deb Nelson, principal of deb nelson consulting, is a creative storyteller. She designs and implements communication plans that leverage strategic partnerships and provide innovative solutions for her clients. You can find her on twitter at @nelliedeb.


  1. My sense is this is probably something that happens to many learning institutions who don’t act quickly enough once they know the ship is sinking. Or don’t put the right people in the right positions to avoid it all together. And it happens to high-priced private schools as well, as they don’t necessarily have the forward thinking staff to look after something as basic as their financial health and longevity. It sounds like the alumni and hopefully the local press and business owners are rallying together to save SALT, although wouldn’t it be better to do this proactively, rather than reactively when almost all is lost. You make some great points, Deb, on how to avoid this kind of “unexpected” and premature demise of a school that is offering something so necessary in today’s world! Hopefully SALT will be saved and many students will enjoy it long into the future!
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  2. One more thing to add to an already insightful list, Deb. When stakeholders (i.e. alumni) offer assistance and expertise (professional fund-raising, grant-writing, alumni giving campaigns), say YES, thank you! Embrace passion and commitment and channel the energy into what’s best for the long-term, sustainable future of your organization.

    • All good points, Tavia. Yes, when someone is lending a hand to get you out of a jam, be gracious and say thank you. So many missteps along the way here. Best of luck to you and all of the Save Salt members!

  3. There are some really important lessons in there for any business or person. I think for me, it is keep in constant touch with people and be open to receiving help when required but more importantly, have a plan, review it and tweak as required to be sustainable.
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  4. Hopefully, The Salt Insitute will be rescued. Maybe incorporated into the local college. It sounds like a uniue program and it would be sad to see its demise.

  5. That is great insight for any business, not only non profit. I’ve worked with many non profit and they have difficult grasping or focusing on the business side of things. Making money and having the plan to keep things going. Recently a local skills school went out of business without notice, leaving student days away from graduating because of poor management and fund raising.
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  6. We have the same situation here at times with some really worthwhile non-profits not being able to get their heads around the business side of things. Just recently I offered my help to one with some online branding and marketing, at no cost to them, and they knocked it back because they had their own ideas from the management and didn’t need outside help. Unfortunately, that organisation doesn’t exist any more as the people they relied on had zero marketing knowledge or skills. The best tip for places like this is to accept help when it is offered. Hope your institute manages to be saved. Cheers, Ian
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  7. Robin Strohmaier

    Hi Deb,

    I’m sorry to hear this about the Salt Institute. There are important lessons to be learned for any business or nonprofit. Having a plan and reaching out to others – and accepting that help is a great three step action plan to ensure solvency, I hope that the efforts of the alumni will be rewarded and Salt with be saved.

  8. As many other people here said, we can learn from this. It’s very important to put structure in place, and having a plan and reaching out to others are equally important to keep our business moving forward. Thanks for sharing Deb!
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  9. Hi Deb,
    This sounds like a fantastic institute! So much structure and tons of lessons that are taught 🙂 We can learn from this!! Thanks for sharing!!!!
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  10. Hi Deb, we have a high school, my Alma Mater, that is going through a similar situation and had to be “bailed out” by the University of Rochester. They came in an changed teachers, curriculum, etc. The did a decent job of keeping the community involved and even asked for partnerships. Many offered their skills, services to mentor the students; while most did nothing but complain that the school was closing. They are open for now and an organization I volunteer for, SCORE, may be partnering with the U of R for an entrepreneurship program to be given at the school for the students to consider running their own business. Organizations definitely have to ask for what they need and keep open lines of communication with hard, yet honest discussions.
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  11. Wow. First, I hope that SALT comes through and remains in place. Second, I cannot believe that a nonprofit organization did not find time to raise funds. Maybe they should have had a department specifically for that purpose? I understand how time flies, and it can be extremely easy to fill a calendar with important events, but I think keeping my job would rank somewhere up there (I know every time I stop focusing on retaining and attracting more clients, my business falters). It sounds like such a wonderful program. I wish them the best of luck.
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  12. As a member of a non-profit organization who faces this situation yearly, this post is well timed. Thank you!
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