This holiday season, consider the limits of nonprofit giving - Generocity Philly

Funding

Nov. 13, 2017 11:25 am

This holiday season, consider the limits of nonprofit giving

As a donor, keep in mind that what you’re looking for — volunteering, donating items — may not always be what's best for your favorite org, writes fundraising pro Valerie Johnson.

Be more conscious about your nonprofit gifts this year.

(Photo by Flickr user Alice Harold, used via a Creative Commons license)

For us fundraisers, November is officially busy season.

We’re writing appeal letters, planning #GivingTuesday campaigns and preparing for the many philanthropically minded donors we work with to get in touch for the holidays.

This time of year can be really tough on fundraisers — not just because it’s a busy time, but because we usually end up bending over backwards so that our donors can give the way they want to give.

Nonprofit supporters want to see a tangible impact as a result of their support. They want to meet the person who benefits from their donation, volunteer directly with the nonprofit’s clients and donate things they no longer need or want to their favorite nonprofits.

While this is amazing and encouraging and shows that supporters truly care about the cause, it can (and does) hinder a nonprofit’s ability to provide direct services by eating up staff time and resources.

Donors sometimes want to meet or hear from a client directly impacted by their donation, which can be a slippery slope. The focus is all too often on the client’s backstory — the dramatic and tragedy-plagued history that brought them to rock bottom before the nonprofit “saved” them.

While showing images of starving children in Africa over a sad song can evoke emotions, it isn’t a respectful way to tell their story — it’s straight up exploiting their experiences. Yet, donors sometimes want to meet clients to hear the nitty gritty. They WANT to hear that tragic story, because that’s (understandably) what they’ve come to expect.

Especially at this time of year, those of us on the development side of things are navigating how to empower clients to share their successes for supporters while simultaneously managing donors’ expectations and educating them on respectful story telling.

It’s also important to recognize that volunteering is not always a possibility, depending on a nonprofit’s clientele and mission. Most small and medium nonprofits don’t have a dedicated volunteer manager, which means direct service staff often end up helping to manage volunteers:

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  • The time staff spend recruiting, communicating with and managing volunteers takes away from the time they spend delivering services directly to clients or soliciting donations.
  • When more than one direct service person at an organization is working with volunteers, communication can be tough: Wires get crossed, important messages get ignored and volunteers get frustrated.
  • Volunteer events need to be organized, they don’t just happen. When a group volunteers to paint a nonprofit’s walls, that nonprofit has to choose paint colors, purchase the paint and all of the supplies, re-schedule any activities that were slated to take place in that space and make alternate plans until furniture is replaced and walls are dry, and dedicate one or more staff persons to coordinate and oversee the volunteers.

Some nonprofits won’t accept volunteers so that their teams can focus on the communities they serve to avoid all of those pitfalls. When they do, you’d be surprised to learn how many would-be volunteers express anger, frustration and incredulity over it — again, eating up valuable staff time otherwise spent with clients.

[Editor’s note: For another perspective on this, check out our recent story on a new volunteer-wrangling group, Volunteering Untapped PHL.] 

Finally, in terms of donated items, I cannot say enough great things about Hannah Litvin’s Generocity piece, “Take your sh*t to Goodwill: Why homeless shelters don’t want your stuff.” tl;dr: accepting unneeded donations to appease donors who REALLY want to donate takes storage space away from the much needed donations that are used daily by clients at homeless shelters.

I once worked at an organization that received items from a home goods store: Every item returned to that store was donated to us. Great, right? Well:

  • We had to pick up the donations ourselves. That cost us staff time, mileage reimbursements and/or gas for the (one, always in high demand) company van that was normally used to move clients into apartments.
  • We had to sort the donations ourselves, incurring more staff time, storage space, large quantities of trash bags and sometimes fees for taking the many unusable items to the dump.
  • We had no control over what was donated. Imagine 10 flat sheets to every fitted sheet, each in a different color and pattern. Also, just a heads up, those green expandable hoses? They don’t work. And hundreds of people returned them with water still in the hose, which added water stained/ruined products to the list unusable items we received for an entire summer.

As a donor, keep in mind that what you’re looking for may not always be found at your favorite nonprofit. You may have to look further to find a different organization in your community that is a better fit:

  • Your favorite homeless shelter may not accept clothing donations, but the local Goodwill does.
  • Your local soup kitchen probably doesn’t need volunteers on Christmas, but it does the other 364 days each year.
  • That community center for teens that you love may not accept prom dress donations, but you can donate to an organization that collects prom dresses AND connect them to the community center so teens can benefit from their collections. Win-win-win!

At the end of the day, anyone who wants to share their money, time and talent with a nonprofit has their heart in the right place, and fundraisers will always do their best to match that donor’s needs with the capabilities of their organization. When a donor considers the needs of a nonprofit in addition to their own desire to help, well, that’s just icing on the cake.

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Valerie Johnson

Valerie Johnson, MBA, is the director of advancement at Council for Relationships and co-chair of the Association of Fundraising Professionals Program Committee. Valerie studied marketing at Drexel University, has been fundraising since 2009 and is finally starting to come to terms with the fact that she's going to have to stop calling herself a young professional soon.

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