Many of the best nonprofits are not ones you know about.
The ability to market, tell a story, and convince you of the importance of a cause do not necessarily reflect an organization’s ability to complete their mission. Unless their mission is about educating the public.
But for the rest of the organizations… arts organizations and human service providers and small grassroots groups? Often the ugliest communications and least emails from an organization with badly designed brochures and a few misspellings in their news letters are part of organizations who help the most help to the desperately needy. Their clients are very much not ready for prime time.
Perhaps, give these organizations a different type of consideration. They lack the resources to create flashy campaigns, but did they fund an independent audit this year by an outside accounting firm? Are they spending a few thousand dollars this year on professional exterminations to prevent the shelter or thrift store from having roaches? Do they spend money for staff and subscriptions for a good database? Is continuing education a budget line item available to staff? These are questions which reveal whether decision making is conscientious and strategic.
I’m not advocating for the end of professional fundraising or marketing. I’m simply arguing that if you want to do GOOD, don’t ask the nonprofits you want to support to spend 15 or 20 cents per dollar raised by creating flashy marketing materials, paying outreach staff, or expecting intense fundraising recognition projects. Those signs on the wall? They cost a lot of money. And no, the sign makers cannot just donate them to every nonprofit trying to thank their donors. And finding a donor to fund that sign? That takes staff time. Yeah, basically, I’m trying to point out to you that each of the clever little ideas of “reduce our overhead” … we have thought of those, and weighed the costs – which include staff, printing, materials, and often enormous amounts of time. By the way, have you ever tried to demand a vendor get every detail right? Now imagine that negotiation when you are NOT PAYING for that contract.
Right. It’s hard to hold people accountable when we also have to keep them happy so they will keep giving us their service. That’s why nonprofits need BUDGETS to pay for vital services – we cannot afford to lose our donor software because some company’s “strategic giving plan” changes or they have a bad sales quarter.
SO, please consider this: if an organization reaches a budget of a million per year, it should be spending $200,000 on administration, marking, fundraising, human resources, financial processes, and public relations. How much can a business do on $200,000? Because these are services and products which may be discounted, but nonprofits must pay for them too. We do not get free websites, database software, technology, electricity for our offices, rent, workers compensation insurance, general liability, health care, paper, or office supplies simply because we have a 501c3 determination letter and a great cause. At the very least, we have to invest enormous amounts of staff and board time to keep getting those discounts or thanking those in-kind donors.
So we stretch our people, our supplies, our limits. We work 60 hour weeks on $11 per hour. We skip lunches, answer texts at 11am, pinch pennies. I can’t tell you how many of my co-workers (across six organizations) make a habit of “failing” to submit receipts for reimbursement on parking for donor events or city hall visits; how many purchase their own pens, pencil cups, three ring binders for work. How many have bought food for their staff, birthday cards for donors, or even paid for their own conference registration to present on an organization’s work.
Did you volunteer that one time and the event felt disorganized and like you were not getting what you wanted out of the experience? Did you wonder why you didn’t walk away with that great big glow of satisfaction which comes from touching and changing a life. Well, the volunteer coordinator probably worked three evenings last week and met with four other groups. He is frantically trying to help connect people to our mission who might not show up at the last minute, leaving him scrambling to cover the lost labor.
So, when you walk into a nonprofit which looks disorganized, or are disappointed that the letter isn’t amazing, stop and imagine how hard people must be working to have not been able to plan for you. Ask a staff person “what is stressing you out this week?” and “what have you accomplished?” To find out what’s really driving their time.
Before you think “oh it’s so much more fun to donate things than dollars!” stop and consider the among of a time a nonprofit has to spend processing your “fun” donation. We must count, inventory, store, and find a STRATEGIC use for whatever you’ve given. “but you asked me” you said. Yeah, well, we know that you or another participant MIGHT give us in December, so when you acted excited about a clothing drive, we said yes. But what we really need? $35 to pay for unemployment insurance, health insurance, or pay the water bill that provides showers to our homeless clients.
SO, yeah, Hold the toothbrush drive AND host a fundraiser too. YES, that is more difficult for you. But when it gets hard, tell yourself this:
• My stress at this very moment means there is a case manager who can focus more fully on the homeless LGBTQ youth in front of their face.
• My frustration permits a job training mentor to spend an additional twenty minutes with a person in recovery who is trying to get their life together.
• The $50, $5, $500 dollars which I raise from this irritating moment is going to pay for a database that impacts HUNDREDS of clients a year, and makes sure they are getting what they really need, not just what is convenient to give them.
• Every time I call a friend to ask for support, an angel gets their wings. (In this case, wings = a meal cooked by a volunteer who knew when and where to go because the volunteer coordinator emailed and reminded them to show up with spaghetti for 25 tomorrow at 11:45.)
So, THANK YOU. Because you really DO make it possible for us to build the world we want to live in.