Congratulations on your development of a software which can make the process of ranked-choice voting and IRV accessible to more organizations -- and hopefully municipalities. It was great to see your software as the #1 listing on the FairVote.org website. You decisions to maintain the open nature of your software will be welcomed by their members.
Obviously there are many ways to support the development of the software in a models while ensure that there are sufficient resources to sustain the development (and the developer). All organizations have the option of finding a
The trick it to find a level that allows you to meet your personal goals, your business objectives, and support your valuable mission of sharing the tool of ranked choice voting.
Defining Non Profit Options
In your question you specifically mention "non-profit." This usually means an organization that does not distribute its surplus funds to owners or shareholders, but instead uses them to help pursue its goals. In colloquial language this usually also means filing with the IRS to be tax exempt.
This should not be confused with the plethora of startup organizations especially in the high tech space that have hard to understand business models that grow enormous perceived valuations without ever putting a penny in the bottom line, or the struggling bootstraps that are barely keeping their heads above water and feel worse off than many so called "non-profits"
Becoming a 501c3 Non-profit
The most common type of IRS classification for your goal of promoting the options of Single Transferable Vote and Instant Runoff Voting would be the 501c3 classification. This would allow you to receive tax-deductible donations. It would also allow you to solicit and receive philanthropic funding from foundations and government entities.
Leveraging Philanthropic Support and Government Grants
There is a wide diversity of funding options for nonprofits. These include philanthropic organisations -- foundations, family funds and government entities which act like of venture capital firms investing in the development of new technologies and businesses. In other ways they can be the actual ongoing customer paying for services delivered to a core constituency.
With the mission you propose there could be many local, regional and national foundations which would fund educations, advocacy, and promotion of single transferable vote and instant runoff voting around a specific software platform. Start your search for these at the Fund Finder managed by the Foundation Center. Also look for similar organizations through Guidestar and review their 990's to see where they have received funding.
Steps to Launch as a Non-Profit
The steps to launching a non-profit start-up are fundamentally very very similar to those for a for-profit entity. You need to incorporate properly. You need to understand your core value proposition. You need to iteratively develop your product/services in partnership with your customers and stakeholders.
Here are the good basic steps for launching a 501c3 non-profit. To this add your own sensibilities about lean start-ups and focusing on the Minimum Viable Product. I would add to this that it is essential to understand who the customer, constituency and stakeholder group are -- and the fundamental distinction between these different entities.
Finding a Fiscal Agent
One of the best practices for launching a non-profit is the development of a relationship with a fiscal agent. Many larger nonprofits have board policies which allow them to mentor or nurture a new non-profit. They bring the new entity under their wing, allow donations and grants to be made to their agency and allocated to the new entity. Some charge a fee, others don't. Here is a nice balanced explanation from someone who writes grants.
I believe that finding a great fiscal agent can be like finding a powerful business incubator.
The Social Entrepreneurship Model
A strong trend in nonprofits is the social entrepreneurial approach. There are several aspects of this trend that overlap your efforts with OpenSTV.
The first is for non-profits to diversify their sources of revenue by maximizing "earned income" -- many of the ideas you mention are great examples of these. Examples for you might include: Workshops, Training, and Sponsorships/Advertising.
The second trend is for non-profits to approach solving social issues with the for-profit mentality. Many of these actually strive to achieve revenue that exceeds expenses so they can reinvest in the mission without external philanthropic support. There are many organizations that provide great support. My favorite is the Center for Social Innovation at Standford. Closer to your home there is a Meet-up group of folks in Boston that have some very well connected participants.
When there are clear business opportunities to build real equity in a traditional business sense hybrid of for-profits and non-profits can emerge funding by Program-Related-Investments (PRI). these can be a powerful tool. I don't think that you should overlook this option for your effort. See my comments on the drive for certification below.
Challenge of the Proposed Funding Models: Know Thy Market
I believe that there are significant challenges of the models that you propose. It is the market. By and large who facilitates the type of voting targeted by your software? My estimate is that there are basically two groups -- non-profit associations/organization and municipalities.
Municipalities use certified voting hardware and software. they pay 100,000K for hardware, software and support. They are not going to be downloading low cost software, nor are they going to be using hosted solutions.
The non-profit organizational market lives on donations. By and large they like to do things cheap. When they spend money it is customer facing (think getting donors) or service delivery. Rarely do they spend money on operational overhead items. I am not seeing your software solving a critical pain -- so they would be adopting it because of a value alignment, and thus would want it free. Then you want to appeal to their value alignment to encourage donations.
The Best Donor Campaign Ever
To this extent I think that you want to make it extraordinarily easy for folks to donate both directly and indirectly. You want to copy the very best of practices of donor campaigns. Have one click simple donations built into the tool. Make specific asks to accomplish specific functions. Provide them tools to solicit donations from their users. Without violating voter secrecy and avoiding perceptions of a poll tax -- allow individual voters to easily vote in support of the platform. Solicit donations from users to underwrite the use of the tool by other uses from communities that would greatly benefit from adoption. Have an annual appeal with a target and flash the goal until it is reached.
Owning the "Adoption IP"
For most of the earned revenue options -- and even the secondary funding from philanthropic partners associated with the 501c3 approach -- I believe there will need to be a wrapping of the software with a certain degree of positioning of intellectual property around adoption of the IRV model. Become an expert on the adoption of IRV. Not just on the use of your software, but how an organizations shifts its culture to make the most effective use of the opportunity the voting methodology provides. This expertise will underpin the trainings, speaking, consulting, and educational resources that will add tremendous value to the earned revenue strategies.
Partnering with Advocacy Organization
The best way to fund your effort will be to partner with established and well funded organizations that share your mission.
From Fair Vote national to affiliates around the country there are grassroots organizations introducing our Democracy to alternatives to the "winner take all" model of voting. Like a built in distribution network, these organizations provide you a network of potential members to fund your development. Reaching out and hosting a webinar with them to discuss your desire to ramp up development to meet their needs "in the field." Inviting them to form a steering committee to develop a plan. And then building a plan that has each of them sell it back to their own memberships for support would be a natural. Working with a volunteer grant writer samples grants could be written to help the local organizations secure
There are many other organizations that would fit this approach as well. For example -- how about the League of Women Voters. In many municipalities the LWV has taken on the role of promoting and facilitating healthy democracy including the promotion of alternative vote tabulation methods. From Maine to California, the League has commissioned studies on IRV and come out in support of its adoption. In fact, the LWV in your own backyard has been supportive of it since for 6 years. Perhaps with your software they could start to adopt it at their own board meetings and in their own elections. This could be done in a way initially designed to be presented at their national conference and adoptions by other chapters around the country.
There are also many Church denominations (mostly those on the more progressive side) that have come out in support of IRV that would make great partners. One such progressive group in your backyard is the Unitarian Universalist. They were very active in the advocacy and support of the approval of use of IRV by Minneapolis and St. Paul in Minnesota. Earning their support of the software for church decisions across the country would be a powerful platform to develop the organization.
Drive for Certification
I think that there is a powerful business opportunity for your software to enter the certification space. As you know, all software used in municipal elections must meet specific certification. There is both Federal and State rules. Many municipalities also have rules. One of the challenges for municipal adoption of the use of IRV have been the lack of functional software to work on the hardware they have invested in. The add-ons are dominated by solutions which run in the $15-40,000 range. A well organized non-profit would be well positions to develop the software which could carry the certification and integrate with the default software of the voting machines these cities have all ready purchased.