Posts Tagged ‘Marketing’

In other words

January 4, 2013

Another day, another idiotic Top 5 list, this one purporting to identify marketing trends in philanthropy. As it turns out, the list actually identifies what its author believes to be methods of fostering planned giving. Faced with this basic lack of clarity, the Nonprofiteer refrains from making snarky comments about the content. Instead, she translates it into English.

[N]onprofits in the new year [are] advised just to be themselves. “People expect exaggeration in marketing. They don’t expect a matter-of-fact voice that addresses people’s reservations about buying or donating,” says [someone getting paid for spouting content-free advice, who]. . . . calls this first trend “humanvertising” . . . . [and] suggests a pitch might go like this: “Your gift won’t be used to pay the utility bills or marketing expenses. It will be used to advance our important mission through remarkable programs such as…” “Humanvertising,” as opposed to the messages nonprofits so frequently direct at paramecia and ferns. From context the word appears to mean, Sound like every other agency; pretend not to have any operating expenses.

Story Superpowers: “Nothing can generate emotions or stimulate behavioral responses like stories,” [genius] says. And, he says, these stories need to be not only educational, but also inspirational. Mention that you serve people and they benefit.

Photo Assembling: “Photos are an evolutionary preference for consuming information in a short amount of time[.]” A picture is worth a thousand words.

Crowdsourced Inspiration: “For 2013, you should ask more of your dedicated supporters,” [he] says. “Ask them for their voice.” When you want money, ask for advice and pretend to listen.

Stigma-Free Singledom: A record 100 million Americans are not married. . . . So why are singles almost ignored in the [planned giving] world? People without families are losers but they also have nowhere else to leave their money.

Now, aren’t you better off for knowing all that?


Dear Nonprofiteer, Whose money is too filthy to take, and why?

April 6, 2012

Dear Nonprofiteer:

I’d be interested in your take on the Tucker Max/Planned Parenthood issue. That whole issue, which I’m sure you’ve touched on before, of NPOs making tough decisions about accepting donations is one that constantly comes up.

Signed, Hoping to Keep Clean Hands and Full Coffers

Dear Hoping:

So Tucker Max (a blogger the Nonprofiteer had never heard of until this letter) tries to give half a million dollars to Planned Parenthood, which has just lost funding from the Komen Foundation and is at risk of losing Federal funding, and PP turns the money down.

Under ordinary circumstances the Nonprofiteer would say, “WTF? So he’s a sexist piece of dog excrement! So he’s trying to whitewash his reputation! Why shouldn’t we help impoverish sexists by accepting their contributions? Why shouldn’t they pay restitution for their crimes and sins?”

But these aren’t ordinary circumstances, because the donor describes himself as follows:

My name is Tucker Max, and I am an asshole. I get excessively drunk at inappropriate times, disregard social norms, indulge every whim, ignore the consequences of my actions . . . sleep with more women than is safe or reasonable, and just generally act like a raging dickhead.

Years of public education about what Planned Parenthood actually does would go right down the drain if it permitted itself to be publicly tied to an advocate of reckless, consequence-free sex. The Republicans have clearly hit a responsive chord when they strive to outdo each other in demonizing PP, and that chord is that the very existence of Planned Parenthood represents an utter breakdown of sexual morals. Never mind that this isn’t true: Tucker Max actually DOES represent an utter breakdown of sexual morals, and Planned Parenthood can’t afford to be associated with him.

In general, though, the Nonprofiteer remains in favor of taking money from bad people: it’s not possible to eradicate them, and they ought to be good for something. If she still shudders (as she does) at entering the David H. Koch Theatre at Lincoln Center, she consoles herself that it represents millions of dollars the self-same Koch no longer has available to give to the Tea Party.

It’s fine if donating makes an evil donor look good. Just be sure that accepting doesn’t make you look bad.

Valentine’s Day Edition: For Love of Nonprofits

February 14, 2012

The Nonprofiteer would not be so taken with the following story were she not a formerly voracious reader of Harlequin romances and, in fact, the author of a romance novel rejected by Harlequin for having too much plot.  (She even visited Harlequin headquarters in Stratford, Ontario, on her long-ago honeymoon, while pretending to be up there for the Shakespeare Festival.)  The company’s More Than Words award “recognizes and rewards women making extraordinary contributions to their community. The story continues when the winning recipients are paired up with Harlequin authors and the recipients’ journeys become the inspiration for three fictional short stories.”

Is that phenomenal, or what?  Who wouldn’t want to be a Harlequin heroine, her daily drudgery turned into purple prose?  It’s not clear whether the short stories based on the selected heroines will include imaginary jut-jawed lovers, but one can always hope.

In any case, each heroine will receive $15,000 for her organization, while the story about her (and it) will be available for free download.  The Nonprofiteer has written many a communications plan but none featuring anything so attention-grabbing as a romantic short story based on the agency’s work.

Bravo to this year’s winners—Mindy Atwood of Hilliard, Ohio, who runs Patches of Light, a nonprofit organization where anonymous angels pay the rent for parents of  desperately ill children; Helen McGovern of Tacoma, Washington, who oversees Emergency Food Network, which distributes food to 67 food banks, meal sites and shelters, including those with health restrictions; and Sally Spencer of Sunderland, Ontario, who manages Youth Assisting Youth, a mentoring program that rescues at-risk children—and to Harlequin for this apt exercise in corporate generosity.

Tom Sawyer was wrong

June 2, 2011

This branch of Habitat for Humanity has chosen to charge volunteers for the privilege of helping out.

When the Nonprofiteer pointed out that volunteers give more readily to the agencies they serve than non-volunteers, she wasn’t advocating admission fees.   Volunteers may have paid to paint Tom Sawyer’s fence, but Twain’s point was that they were stupid.  Your volunteers aren’t.

Even if mandatory “contributions” (oxymoron watch!) weren’t offensive in suggesting that volunteers’ time has less than no value, they’re practically the definition of penny-wise and pound-foolish: people will pay what you require (or not) and then regard their giving to the agency as being done for the year.

Or forever.  Please stop this idea before it kills again.

Everything old is new again; and nonprofits should stay that way

April 21, 2011

So a couple of weeks ago the Nonprofiteer received a press release announcing “Redefining [of] the Nonprofit Model.”  Doubtless you’re all familiar with the genre: a group of business people get together and decide that the nonprofit sector hasn’t cured cancer or ended poverty because people in the nonprofit sector are stupid and lazy, and that an infusion of good old hard-headed American for-profit business practices will compensate for that.  Voila: instant Great Society!

This particular redefinition was truly revolutionary:

One hundred advisors, including many of Silicon Valley’s elite, are coming together to disrupt the nonprofit space. . . . [They] have committed to one full year of serving on the board of a nonprofit. . . . [and] attending monthly salons where they will discuss the specific pain points of their assigned nonprofits and attempt to find solutions as a team. . . . [This] is part of a larger movement . . . to make the non-profit world more efficient. . . .  “This is just the start of how [we] will disrupt the nonprofit sector and create new, innovative ways for business leaders to contribute . . . . Before [this], there was no easy path for nonprofits to find experienced leaders to help them at a board management level. A board role is not just about fundraising, but includes developing growth plans, operational efficiency, cause marketing, customer relationship management, event planning, and much more.”. . . . In order to maximize results, [the group] carefully matches advisors to nonprofits based on their skills, interests and a nonprofit’s needs.

So let’s review: a bunch of business people are going to sit on nonprofit Boards of Directors!  And then periodically those business people will get together and talk about how to be better Board members!   As Board members, they will not only fundraise but contribute their skills!  They’ll join Boards based on their interest in the nonprofit’s mission!  And they’ll seek ways to improve the whole sector!

The accumulation of these radical notions caused the Nonprofiteer to swoon;  but the one idea that really had her down for the count was that the entire purpose of the endeavor was to “disrupt the nonprofit space.”  Because really, what nonprofits trying to serve their clients need most of all is disruption of their management to supplement the disruption of funding they face constantly, disruption of their staff produced by those funding crises, and disruption of their ability to operate smoothly or secure resources when their message is being drowned out by a constant drumbeat of demands for “reinvention.”

The Nonprofiteer understands that in the tech world, “disrupt” is a positive word, suggesting the kind of change-the-world ethic that fueled Microsoft and Facebook.  But she urges everyone to notice that when those disruptive entrepreneurs Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg moved into the nonprofit sector, what they did was to find nonprofits doing good work and give them lots of money to do more of it.  If the disruptive “advisers” of the press release would just do the same thing, there would be less “news” but a healthier nonprofit sector.

As she fanned herself back to consciousness, the Nonprofiteer was struck once more.  In this case, the weapon was yet another article about hybrid corporate forms designed to enable nonprofits to earn their own revenue and stop “begging.”  Whether the discussion purports to be about L3Cs or public benefit corporations or Triple Bottom Lines, the argument is always the same: nonprofits should just get with the capitalist program, identify lucrative markets and earn their keep like every other good red-blooded American.

This approach ignores the fact that nonprofits’ markets usually consist of clients who are not profitable to serve—because if they were profitable to serve, the for-profit sector would be serving them.  The better a nonprofit is at finding and serving its market, the poorer it will be, because though for-profit clients are a profit center, nonprofit clients are a cost center.

Fine, say the hybrid-benefit-earn-your-own-revenue people: so start a profitable business and funnel its profits into the charity.  But this notion of a two-headed agency is, like most similar creatures, a monster.  If nonprofits expend their limited energy on creating market-based revenue streams, they’ll be diverted from their mission-based activities.  Either the marketing strategy succeeds, in which case the profit-generating people gain the power within the organization and mission falls to a sad second; or the marketing strategy fails, in which case it has consumed significant resources that should have gone to serving clients.

There are, of course, institutions for which running a business can be part and parcel of mission, for instance, job-training centers.  But for mental health agencies, arts organizations, group homes, rape crisis hotlines and most of the other charities which do the important work in our society, running a business is a dangerous distraction.

What if, instead of spending time telling nonprofits how they should operate differently, business people re-examined their own operating principles?  What if every business set aside 25% of its profits for investing not in the business itself but in the wider community?

In other words, instead of asking why a charity can’t be more like a business, let’s start asking why businesses don’t operate more like charities.  Businesses receive all sorts of public services and protections, from the enforcement of contracts in the law courts to well-maintained roads along which to distribute their products.  Why shouldn’t they be expected to contribute to the public good in return?

Most business people would say, “But our primary duty is to our shareholders, not to the public good” (and those over-influenced by Ayn Rand and the University of Chicago economics department would say “Our SOLE duty is to our shareholders, the public be damned”).  Right: and the primary (or SOLE) duty of charities is to their/our clients.  Anything that takes nonprofits away from that activity is perforce improper.

What’s the point of this thought experiment, in which charities chide businesses instead of the other way around?  Simply to demonstrate how much business advice to charities is sheer nonsense.  To presume that the voluntary sector doesn’t make a profit because it hasn’t thought about how to do so is to fundamentally misconceive its role in the wider economy.

Besides, what nonprofits need isn’t more advice: it’s more money. When business people are ready to provide that—when they’re ready to serve on Boards not as agents of disruption but as securers of resources; when they’re ready to advocate for a tax system which will underwrite the necessary work done by the voluntary sector—well, THAT will be the time for a press release.

Fired up to volunteer

December 13, 2010

The Nonprofiteer first learned of the work of several months ago through our mutual colleagues at Mission Research.  She’s been getting around to writing about Catchafire’s work placing high-skill volunteers at New York nonprofits.  Now that founder Rachael Chong has been interviewed on NPR’s Marketplace, the Nonprofiteer realizes that time waits for no blogger.

Rachael describes her organization as “ for volunteers and nonprofits.”  A nonprofit pays a low fee to have Catchafire figure out its needs (“scope its projects,” in site jargon) and find a volunteer with the right skills to accomplish the task.  (At the moment the group operates only in New York, which mysteriously has one of the lowest volunteering rates in the country, but it hopes to expand to other communities in fairly short order.)  Volunteer in, do project, volunteer out, bada-bing, bada-boom—the whole thing happens in a New York  minute.

The Nonprofiteer applauds Catchafire’s mission and part of its approach–the part about helping nonprofits figure out what they can actually do with high-skill volunteers other than asking them to stuff envelopes.  But for every volunteer who wants to root, shoot and leave she knows two who are looking for a long-term volunteer home, and though obviously a Catchafire volunteer isn’t precluded from becoming a permanent volunteer, s/he comes in branded as a person who will, and therefore probably only can, do one thing.

The Nonprofiteer is also concerned about sending a single volunteer to do a project, even if it seems apparent that a single pair of hands is all that’s required.  Many people volunteer to alleviate their loneliness (or, more positively, to connect with others) and a single-person project—even in the midst of an agency with lots of people—is likely to be isolated, and isolating.

The Taproot Foundation, which likewise uses a project-based model of providing assistance to nonprofits, addresses the isolation concern by assembling a team to complete each project.  The good news is, each volunteer gets to know and work with other high-skill volunteers.  The bad news is, teams of volunteers are to nonprofits as hairballs are to cats: tolerable on a temporary basis but unlikely to be integrated permanently into the system.  High-skill volunteers searching for a cause about which to stay passionate and a home in which to express that passion instead find the opportunity to be coughed up.

The Nonprofiteer’s theory is that both groups are treating the symptom [failure to use high-skill volunteers] rather than the cause [staff hostility to the use of volunteers].  It may be that only the symptom can be treated; but in her own practice, the Nonprofiteer works to help organizations identify and overcome the sources of staff resistance, so they can make use of high-skill volunteers on an extensive and long-term basis rather than a restricted and short-term one.  We all know that staff turnover is expensive because every new person has to be trained; the same must be true of volunteer turnover, and therefore solutions requiring constant orientation of new people create problems of their own.

But may the best model win!  And if nonprofits use some high-skill volunteers better as a result of any of these approaches, we’ll all win.

Dear Nonprofiteer, Are voluntary Internet payments “contributions” for tax purposes?

July 28, 2010

Dear Nonprofiteer:

What rules govern the websites that provide a free useful service to people but also have a PayPal “donate” button on their page to keep the service free?

If that person’s PayPal is linked up to it, does that not mean that the donations (if any) cannot exceed the IRS annual exclusion amount of $13,000?  Or should that person try to register the Website as a non-profit?

Signed, Prepared to Pony Up But Puzzled

Dear Puzzled:

The Nonprofiteer was completely stymied by the legal and technical nature of your question.  Fortunately, she has a colleague in the Association of Consultants to Nonprofits whose knowledge of nonprofit law is encyclopedic.  Attorney Kathryn Vanden Berk kindly provided the following responses to your questions:

At first blush, I assumed that the Websites are 501(c)(3) entities, and that the advice is offered without charge — with the “ask” being a free-will tax-deductible donation.

However, I wonder if you’re talking about a for-profit entity that is asking for a free-will non-deductible “donation” in lieu of a charge.

In the first instance, there is no prohibition against an exempt organization (EO) giving advice or asking for donations.  It can even charge for the advice, as when Lumity requires payment for the book I wrote about how to start nonprofits in Illinois.  If it is asking for a free-will donation so that the service will remain free, then anyone can make up their own mind as to whether or not they want to click on the donate button. I used to use the Cornell University Law School LII (Legal Information Institute) to get into the IRS Code.  It would often put up a screen asking for donations for the site’s upkeep.  I just returned to their website and found that they still ask for donations.  You can see this at

In the second instance, a person may request a “donation” so long as they don’t hold themselves out to be a 501 (c)(3) charity, and/or claim that the “donation” is tax-deductible.  This might be a good way for some enterprising law firm to throw things out on the web to see if anyone finds it to be sufficiently useful that they are compelled by guilt (or appreciation or whatever) to pay for it.

If that person’s PayPal is linked up to it, does that not mean that the donations (if any) cannot exceed the IRS annual exclusion amount of $13,000?  Or should that person try to register the Website as a non-profit?

I’m not sure what you mean by this. The annual excludable amount for charitable contributions is related to one’s income, not to any arbitrary number.  Can you be more specific?  Are you talking about standard deductions?

The Nonprofiteer wonders whether the $13,000 cited by Puzzled refers to  the limit on tax-free gifts to individuals.  If so, then yes, gifts to a personal PayPal account must be counted toward that total.  If not, she urges Puzzled to clarify her question in the comments section below.

Whatever the circumstances, there’s no option simply to “register the Website as a nonprofit,” unless it actually IS a nonprofit, meaning an agency with a public purpose governed by a Board of Directors.  As in the case of “What about gifts to individuals?”, the Nonprofiteer stresses that nonprofit status is not camouflage for other economic arrangements; it’s an actual status requiring service to the community.

Many thanks to Ms. Vanden Berk for her expertise.  Input on these technical questions from other lawyers and IRS specialists gladly accepted!

Chase: What matters?

July 23, 2010

[An excerpt of this posting appears on the Huffington Post, in the Impact section.]

The Chicago Tribune’s Chris Jones notwithstanding, the problem with the Chase Community Giving program isn’t that it lets “civilians”–non-expert non-critics–decide which theater companies deserve a $20,000 one-time no-strings grant.  The problem is that it pretends to do that–Let the People Decide!–while actually turning theater companies into marketing satellites of Chase Bank.  Institutions poor and weak enough to be moved by a $20,000 carrot–to which the competition was explicitly restricted–recite the bank’s name relentlessly to their audiences.  That’s a lot of advertising for very little money.  Of course, all corporate giving is advertising–but this is of a special, insidious kind.

The Nonprofiteer doesn’t believe in “crowd-source philanthropy,” because it’s not philanthropy at all: it’s “crowd-manipulation marketing.”  Chase has gotten hundreds if not thousands of little charities to demand that their audiences provide contact information to the bank and subject themselves to commercial targeting for the good of the cause.

These crowd-manipulation marketing programs (pioneered by Pepsi and American Express, doubtless with many more corporate behemoths yet to come) also set up a system which rewards the nonprofits with the greatest Internet presence or savvy, which is not the same as giving the money to the neediest, or best, or most diverse, group of people doing important work in society.  Again, the issue isn’t who gets to define “best;” it’s whether the agencies competing for that designation have a fair and equal opportunity to receive it.  Upper-middle-class people may imagine that “everyone” has access to the Internet, but in fact if you reward clicks and responses to e-mail and Facebook postings, you reward organizations with wealthy white audiences and disadvantage those whose audiences are nonwhite and/or poor.  Way to magnify the digital divide.  Way to make sure that the rich get richer and the poor have babies.

This lazy and manipulative approach to corporate giving diverts nonprofit attention from real fundraising–which involves relationships over the long term–to point-and-click fundraising, which costs “donors” nothing and therefore gives them no stake in the institution.

The argument about who’s entitled to judge art is a side-show, doubtless one Chase would be happy to have theaters and critics debating from here to eternity.  Meanwhile, the bank laughs all the way to–the bank.

[Unable to resist, the Nonprofiteer dons her critic’s hat and argues that, though she believes her opinions about theater are better-informed and therefore more useful than those of the guy standing next to you on the train, she’s also open to the possibility that her prejudices and blind spots make this false in a significant number of cases.  In any case, if she didn’t believe theater was the essential human art form–because it involves words, the very thing that separates us from all other species–and therefore belonged to everyone human, she wouldn’t spend so much of her life seeing and reviewing plays.  So she refuses to concede that others’ engagement with theater–in whatever form, and without any credentials whatsoever–is unwelcome or inappropriate.]

“Crowd-source philanthropy” doesn’t mean the people get to decide; it means they get the illusion of deciding while actually being used to serve someone else’s commercial purposes.  We know that’s a bad thing when the issue is what corporations give to, and get from, politicians.  Let’s not fail to notice when the issue is what they give to, and exact from, us.

See also Barbara Talisman’s posting on the subject, which links to an entire discussion of the pros and cons.

Dear Nonprofiteer, How can I pick the audience’s pockets while pretending to be indifferent to money?

June 14, 2010

Dear Nonprofiteer,

I work for a storefront theater company (though this could apply to any arts organization), and we want to encourage people to donate while they are waiting for the show to start, or as they are walking out of the theater. However, we do not want to “ruin” the art by including a verbal appeal in the pre- or post-show announcements; though we have information on how to donate in our program and on our website, we feel that we can raise some income from our immediate audience after every show. I’m sure this goes for museums, galleries, and dance companies as well—how can we influence our audience to donate at the door without being too pushy or discounting the art?


The Tactful Fundraiser

Dear Tactful,

The Nonprofiteer had a law professor whose motto was, “Passive lawyers don’t eat!”  Well, the Nonprofiteer’s motto is, “Tactful fundraisers don’t eat!”  It’s true that most people would rather talk about their sex lives than talk about money, but the only way to raise it is to make clear that you not only deserve it, but need it.

So the Nonprofiteer disputes your entire premise that a request for funds can “ruin” an art form.  Obviously you wouldn’t insert it in mid-play (though product placement in the movies and on tv makes that less obvious than it once was); but a pre- or post-show pitch is completely appropriate.  People who want to ignore it will, but no one will be able to say that s/he didn’t know you needed money.

Now, how to actually get that money?  There’s the Southwest Airlines approach: make the expected pitch in an unexpected manner, e.g. “Please take all your personal problems with you when you deplane.”  There’s the National Lampoon guilt-trip approach: its cover showing a terrified canine at gunpoint with the caption “If you don’t buy this magazine we’ll shoot this dog” was at the very least unforgettable.   A Chicago theater company does its own equivalent of this by announcing at curtain that the actors don’t get paid so unless you stuff money in the cashbox you’re just exploiting them by attending (not the precise words); it seems to work quite well.

In other words, there’s nothing dainty or secretive about a nonprofit arts organization’s need for money, so the more directly and entertainingly and memorably you state it, the better your chance of actually receiving the money.

Or you can ignore everything I’ve said, offer a door-prize of a bottle of wine to whoever wins your nightly raffle, and have people enter the raffle by dropping their business cards in a bowl.  Then send follow-up appeals (by e-mail, as it’s cheapest) to everyone whose card you got, thanking them for attending and asking them to donate.  This is good list-development strategy; whether it’s good money-development strategy remains to be seen.  It’s far too easy to ignore an appeal once you’ve had the entertainment and have gone home.

Finally, you can try a bit of reverse psychology.  Admit everyone for free and then ask them to pay what they think it was worth on the way out the door.  (Post a “suggested donation,” of course.)  You’ll get some free riders, but you’ll also get some people who are so impressed with what they’ve just seen that they give you something more than the suggested donation.  Those are people you can expect to see again–whereupon you offer them a door-prize if they win the business-card raffle, and you have their names so you can dun them long into the future.

About nonprofits only insofar as they’re disproportionately run by women 50 and over

June 1, 2010

In Our Prime, the essay anthology by and about women 50 and over to which the Nonprofiteer contributed, now has its own Website and therefore has achieved Internet validity.  Copies of the book would have made a great gift for Mother’s Day but unfortunately the timing didn’t work out–so maybe you know a nice father who would want one?

The Nonprofiteer still has copies for sale, and the book is also available at Women & Children First bookstore in Chicago and on Amazon.