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The Short End of the Stick

April 13th, 2011

I’ve never been an advocate of “selling widgets on the side,” to bolster a nonprofit’s income.  On the one hand, it detracts from the mission in a glaring way.  On the other, it steals valuable staff time from what we should be focusing on.

This is all too common, such as the Snowflake Animal Rescue website, which encourages not only online giving, but that you shop for Amazon and Food Lion via their site.  What do books, music and groceries have to do with animal rescue, though?

Even more conspicuous is the Ectodermal Dysplasia Society, where the ads for Amazon and buy.at are nearly more significant than the [Donate] button. Clicking the buy.at button then opens up into another entire world of retailers, waiting to take the constituents’ money and throw a small slice back at the charity.

A new study has come out, soon to be released in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, which shows that cause marketing actually leads to lower charitable donations.  This shouldn’t be surprising, actually.  First of all, when said actions or purchases are made, the consumer is led to believe that they have completed their philanthropic duty, which lessens further acts that they might have otherwise taken (of greater amounts).

In addition, many people donate to nonprofits out of a sense of giving to others, rather than receiving tangible goods in return.  The messaging changes from one of selflessness to more “selfish” giving, when there are always goods associated with donating.

I witnessed this phenomenon while tracking fundraising statistics at PBS years ago.  The average gift during phonathon hovered just below $100 – and then Suze Orman, financial whiz, came on the scene.  Stations everywhere were pitching her programs very successfully:  “And if you donate $___, you can get the Suze Orman DVD, or for $___, the CD, or for $___, the VHS …”

It was an undeniable correlation!  Almost in synch, as Suze Orman shows broadcast on PBS, the average gift skyrocketed above $100, systemwide.  Suze renewed with PBS for a few years . . . then she signed with QVC, to make real money.  When PBS stopped airing her specials, the average gift dropped below $100 once again.

It became all too clear that the mission of public broadcasting hadn’t been pitched nearly as much as Orman DVDs, CDs and tapes, and now that they were gone, it was a tougher sell, falling back on what hadn’t been spotlighted for some time.

Perhaps selling t-shirts, posters, mugs, hats, etc. with your mission, logo and so forth works well with your branding and interests your constituents, but if it doesn’t, why are you hawking and peddling someone else’s wares for a mere slice of the proceeds?

Even if it is part of your mission, however, take care that you continue incorporating that mission with every pitch.

I recall one state public broadcaster who presented a session at the PBS Development Conference, during the Suze Orman frenzy.  He explained that, although they could start their pitch at the higher (DVD) end, they always made a point to open pledge drives by asking people to join at the basic membership level, followed by, “. . . and if you can afford to support us at the $___ level, we’d like to send you this thank you gift of ____,” and so on, up the ask ladder.

He explained that, as a state licensee, it was important that, when they went to ask for state funding, they could demonstrate as wide a market penetration (support base) as possible throughout the state.  Therefore, it was more important that the station bring on more people as members first, regardless of their giving level.  Once people made the decision to donate, the station would work on cultivating them to contribute at increased levels over time.

The reverse is also possible, even if transactional sales are a significant part of your mission.  I achieved this years ago when managing my daughter’s troop’s Girl Scout cookie booth sales.

I taught the girls to assess the customer.  If s/he said, “No,” why did they think the customer didn’t want to purchase cookies?  Perhaps they scowled as they hurried past with their groceries.  In that case, move on to the next customer.

However, many people expressed “No” with regret, such as, “I’m diabetic,” or “My (grand)daughter is selling them, too,” or “I’ve already bought ___ boxes.”

In this case, we clearly had a supporter – of the mission – who simply didn’t want more boxes of cookies, and I instructed the girls to immediately follow these remarks with, “Would you like to make a donation to our troop?”  This frequently yielded a substantial amount of funds, which always more than offset the cost of the free samples we gave out to passersby.  In turn, of course, the girls giving out free samples generated more cookie sales.

Regardless of your mission and its various aspects, it always helps to assess when you take on a new project:  Who is this helping?  Is it mission related?  If it’s not obvious to the donor why you’re doing it and someone else is benefitting more than your organization, odds are, you’re getting the short end of the stick.

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Keep the base of the pyramid strong

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