Operating a Makerspace

This was posted on FB by Gregory Cohen, a member of the Nation of Makers. It isn’t perfect, but he makes some great points/suggestions:


Updated Version 1.1

I’ve been in a lot of non-profits, worked with a lot of volunteers, so I’ve tried to codify what I’ve learned and what basics everyone should pay attention to. Not everything will apply, all groups are different, but this might start a discussion. Oh, and I’m long winded.

Gregs list of what you need for a successful non-profit to work.

  1. BOD’s only should exist when there are paid employees to direct, otherwise you should have a traditional president, vice pres, treasurer, secretary, membership coordinator, etc. Non profit boards often want to come up with ideas, but people did not run for a board to execute them. This is a rule of expectations. If you use positions like a treasurer, people have the expectations of what they will be doing and what job they are committing to.

  2. Transparency is key. Opacity kills non profits, and creates political situations. Transparency lets people see for themselves what needs to be done. This can be as simple as posting the monthly P&L and a photocopy of the bank statement on a clipboard every month where everyone knows where it is, and can see it. Most people will never look at it, but it’s existence means that people can. Lots of other ways to do it, but keep it simple is my chant.

You can also post a jobs list on the board where people can sign up for a job, or just do it and sign that they did it.

  1. You are selling something even in a non-profit, remember that. In a makers space you may be selling the dream of doing things for yourself. The ability to show off your talents, or just a space to do things that you don’t have at home. If people can’t do what they think you are selling, (or more so, since imagination wins with us,) what they are buying, they will leave.

  2. You serve your members. If you don’t serve them someone else will (it might be them setting up a shop in their own garage, but competition is not just another makers space, it could be their own space, it could be them finding another place to be a volunteer in that is satisfying instead of frustrating. In any event you lose a paying member, and free labor.)

  3. A non profit company is still a company (Business). The bottom line counts. If you don’t make a profit, you close and you serve nobody. Do not be embarrassed for making sure you keep the doors open to serve your members.

  4. Membership prices should be driven by real costs. Don’t make up a number that you think people can afford, price it at what you need to keep the doors open and build a reserve based off the members you have. Grants are great, but can not be counted on. You can count on your members not grants. If people can’t pay this you are not going to survive anyhow, and if you get too much, you can always give a credit to renewing members or buy an X-carve.

  5. Volunteers are that. They do what interests them. If you are very lucky what they want to do will match your needs. This leads to two rules. 1. if they are not enjoying it you will no longer have a volunteer. 2. They don’t work for you, you can’t order them around, you can ask them to do things. If a BOD orders a volunteer too much you no longer have that volunteer or you might have a revolution that will drain resources faster than anything out. Look to the BOD of any Temple to see what this means (I’m Jewish, this is almost a joke). This is why they are not an employee. Does this mean that things won’t get done? Sure it does. You need it to get done, you need a paid employee. Can’t do that? Make due, there is so much someone on a mission can do, it’ll all work out, but not necessarily the way the BOD wants.

  6. If someone wants to give you money let them and make it as easy as possible. This extends to making it trivial to be a member, trivial to renew, trivial to quit. Do not make it hard for them. Communicate with them. Make membership automatic and easy to fix. Quickbooks is a horror. Do not use Quickbook billing. You are a maker build something nice, farm it out. Make sure you have cash flow. Better yet, tie it into your door lock and set it up so they can pay on line and unlock their expired membership while standing at the door.

  7. Consistent expectations are critical. In the case of a space this might mean predictable hours, equipment, and help (if help is available). Break this and you lose member. Never waste their time.

A big things that will kill membership: People coming to the shop and either not being able to use it (it’s closed when it should be open, it is so messy they can’t do their work, there are too many people there to use the equipment every time)

Now to go to my thoughts on makers space specifics in my option.

A. One of the diving forces of the space is most people don’t have room for big dusty tools, or once in a year tools so table saws, planers, Mills, oscilloscopes, solder stations and the like all in one place are a driving force. Space is important. If you don’t have the space to use the tools, the tools are wasted. This may limit what you can provide, or force you to be more creative.

B. Shops need to be used by more people at once. So a wood shop for example needs enough room for several members at once to work on a project at the same time without stepping on each other. If someone comes multiple times to find there is not room for him to work, or the shop is a mess and there is no space for him, then the shop is useless and he will stop being a member.

C. Tools need space to work. An example is a table saw, you need a clear 17 foot column of space for a table saw. 8 feet before and after the blade so you can cut sheet goods. I’ve seen a board that thinks the tool is all that is needed, but without the space it might as well not be there.

D. You are competing with home equipment. Now that great 3D printers are $150 each ( just got an Ender 3), the need for them in makers space are going down since folks can fit them in an Ikea end table in their house. I go back to wood equipment as an example (I am a wood worker so bear with me) but most folks don’t have space for bigger equipment. You will draw people with space to work and some big equipment that they can’t fit. It does not have to be top quality but it has to be functional.

E. Radial arm saws are amazing versatile machines but it seems I’m the only person under 80 who knows how to use them well. You don’t need one. A tool nobody knows how to use is useless. A laser carver no one can teach or use is not needed.

F. I think retired tradesmen are the key to a great place.

G. There needs to be a place to hang out. No place, no socialization and you have a shop and not a community

H. Keep it simple stupid. You don’t need a shop to start as a magic location. You need to start with basics, space, tools and imagination. People will come. It will grow organically.

I. Be clever. A makers space is an open source community. If the board lets the members run with their ideas, and gives rough, but not specific goals, magic can happen. If they hold them back, tell them to wait because the BOD is not ready, tell them that that is not needed and they should do something they don’t want to do, they will get frustrated, and go away.

J. The BOD does not own the space, or a company does not (if it’s a private enterprise) the members do. Perhaps not literally, but the soul is owned by them. New Coke is a great example of a firm that forgot who owned the product and the price they paid.

K. Art is play. There is no difference between creativity, toys and art that is not just forced on us by boring people. Don’t be boring, don’t tie the hands of the members. Let them figure out what the space is for without constraints of your limitations.

L. A Makers space is not an incubator. If people want to use it that way let them, but this is tying the hands of what you are. You are an open source space where people can decide what the space is, they own it’s soul. Don’t kill the soul by trying to be more than the means that allows you members to figure out their own ends.

M. There is no M. You should be happy of this.

Thanks for reading this far.



I really liked this one.


PLEASE PLEASE Please, everyone, read this and understand it.

Thank you for posting this David!

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With a new building coming up this applies more than ever when considering the future of our new space.

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Some grants require a volunteer board of directors.

If someone wants to give you money let them and make it as easy as possible.

This. I’m focused on fundraising, and I’d like to make it easier to give us money for all the things. I’ll bump the corporate matching thread, and we are working on getting a more organized plan.

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