I am made increasingly aware of the conflict non-profit organizations experience when faced with choosing between:

  1. Raising the money they need using a traditional philanthropic process.
  2. Making a profit from selling and endorsing commercial products and services.

The number and variety of selling opportunities presented to non-profit organizations, especially through the Internet, is growing rapidly. All too often, the advertisements for those products and services make outrageous and misleading promises of big and easy money to needy and vulnerable non-profits.

There is nothing wrong with selling a commercial product or service to help support a non-profit organization if:

  1. The time expended can be justified by the profit gained.
  2. It neither restricts nor replaces the far more effective and time-proven philanthropic process—a process that has seen billions of dollars raised over decades of time.
  3. An organization institutes a product or sales program as additional and complimentary to their regular fund-raising, not as a replacement or alternative to it.

“Girl Scouts Can’t Live on Cookies Alone”

Raising contributed income for non-profit organizations requires much more than selling commercial products and services to make money. Such programs have their place, but most organizations simply cannot generate enough income from them to meet all their needs. A number of years ago the Girl Scouts proved that point with their highly visible campaign to let the public know that “Girl Scouts can’t live on cookies alone,” and that the organization required additional major support in the form of philanthropic contributions.

Selling products and services to generate income seems an easy way to make money. Some commercial vendors of products and services even tell their prospective non-profit customers, “all of the money you’ll ever need,” can be raised this way. That “sales pitch” is very attractive to non-profits which are unable to fathom how they can undertake the hard and sometimes frustrating work of recruiting volunteers, identifying prospects, managing campaigns, and asking for money.

It seems easier and less painful to sell products and services to their constituents and to the general public. The “make more money than you’ll ever need” sales hype they hear from some commercial vendors is quite attractive indeed.

While there are many reputable vendors of products and services now in the marketplace who seek to help non-profits develop new sources of income, they do not always apply a customer-first attitude to their non-profit customers and clients:

  1. They are not assessing the real needs of the non-profits to see if the proposed product or service-related program has a place in the organization at that time.
  2. If it does have a place, how it can be a good fit.

Well meaning vendors of merchandise and services often fail to realize that many charitable organizations are likely to embrace a sales program because they perceive it as a way to provide quick and promising rewards while being less stressful and labor-intensive than fund-raising campaigns.

A non-profit organization must always prioritize and put into meaningful perspective opportunities to generate contributed income. In the main, they must always strive to raise the greatest amount of money from the fewest funding sources in the shortest period of time. This simple premise is absolutely critical to most non-profits to employ because of their constantly imminent needs and limited resources. All fund-raising efforts should be measured in those ways.

When considering selling a product or service, officials of a non-profit organization should ask themselves:

  1. If we sell a product or service to help support our organization, will the effort be justified with the time expended relative to the profit gained?
  2. Will we assure that the selling program neither restricts nor replaces the far more effective and proven philanthropic process we should be employing?
  3. What marketing plans can we develop which will maximize our chances for real profit?
  4. Will we attempt to sell to the general public which does not know our organization? If so, do we really believe we will make money by selling a commercial product available elsewhere? In short, what compelling reason do these persons having no relationship whatsoever with our organization have to buy from us?
  5. If we sell to our regular donors, will we run the risk of annoying them and perhaps losing their charitable support because of what they may see as yet another solicitation? Contrary to what the vendors say, our regular donors will see their purchases from us primarily as charitable support of our organization.
  6. When we promote the products and services of one company, will we risk the loss of traditional philanthropic support from other competing companies?
  7. Is the product or service of a type and quality we would want to associate with our organization?
  8. If the product or service is to be purchased via the Internet access, what do we know about how Internet-capable our constituents are and how receptive they may be to buying online?
  9. Are we willing to take the chance that the product or service we are selling can be withdrawn by the provider at any time leaving us high and dry?

These are questions the leaders of non-profit organizations should be able to answer, but many times do not have the experience to do so or choose not to address. They need advice and counsel from the commercial vendors of products and services who have integrity and regard for the non-profits’ best interests. At times, that counsel could be that their programs are not right for some non-profits. That’s how a good reputation is made in any business. A good reputation and good living is made in any business when a vendor puts the needs of clients and customers first. Touting a product or service as the always quick and easy answer to the money needs of a non-profit is certainly not the way to do that.

“Make More Money Than You’ll Ever Need”

We all have a responsibility to warn vulnerable and gullible non-profits to avoid the sirens’ song, “Make more money than you will ever need. Turn down that foundation grant, stop begging, and market products for your organization.” We know such lures can be attractive to non-profits unable to fathom how to face the hard and frustrating work of recruiting volunteers, identifying prospects, managing campaigns, and asking for money. Selling goods and services can seem easier. It may seem more comfortable to sell a product than to ask for money. We all have the responsibility to keep telling them that successful fund-raising is not based on a favorable comfort level.

Should you choose to sell a vendor’s products or services to make money for your organization, I suggest that you insist the vendor provide you with the answers to the following questions:

  1. What will our total expenses be— the cost and description of everything we will be obliged to pay?
  2. What can we expect to earn as clear profit after we sell what we agree to try to sell?
  3. Will we be required to buy the product outright? Can we return unsold merchandise without a restocking charge and receive full reimbursement? Is there a time limit for returns?
  4. If we sell the product on consignment, will there be any penalties or restrictions for returns? Will there be a time limit for returns?
  5. What will our agreement be regarding either party’s responsibility to pay any shipping and handling charges?

I believe that product and service vendors should display regard for and knowledge of non-profit organizations’ best interests when they solicit them as customers. I think those commercial enterprises should be the means and not the ends to help meet the needs of non-profit organizations. In other words, they should suggest workable treatment for the financial ills of non-profits, rather than promising quick cures.

Non-profit organizations in search of the money they need to carry out their missions must recognize that successful fund-raising cannot be achieved simply by working to give someone a product or service which is commonly available to them elsewhere in the marketplace. The money a non-profit needs must come from generous people who care about the organization and who see the reward of having supported it as value received for their gift.

And please remember, the good name of your organization is far more important than any financial gain. Whenever you associate your organization’s reputation to a particular vendor or service provider, or the type of product and service you will be presenting to your constituencies, be certain to avoid embarrassment for less-than-tasteful associations and watch for any hidden potential for controversy. If at all possible, seek to match the commercial enterprise with your mission for a more acceptable and logical “fit,” such as the Heart Association has with the maker of “lean cuisine” and the Arthritis Foundation has with the maker of aspirin.