By John Tabita

Non-Profit Doesn’t Mean No Money

By John Tabita

I talk a lot about providing value and a return on investment for your clients. This works well for commercial ventures and small businesses whose primary objective is to generate revenue and turn a profit. But what about charitable organizations? How do you sell to them?

Make no mistake: non-profit doesn’t mean no money. Sure, budgets have been slashed and charitable donations are down because of the economy. But unless you are intentionally looking to provide some pro-bono work, or you feel very strongly about the cause, don’t get bamboozled into providing free services for this poor ol’ charity that doesn’t have any money to spend.

How will you know this is happening? Have you ever been on a job interview where the interviewer starts selling you on the position? (One even tried to make me feel like an unambitious loser if I passed up this “opportunity.”) As someone wiser than me once advised, pay close attention to your instincts—if the hair on the back of your neck is standing up, there’s probably a good reason. Here’s one hair-raising tale: We once pitched a website to a woman running for political office. Most campaigns get contributions to pay for things like advertising and marketing, but apparently this was not so in her case … because she spent the entire meeting talking politics and gauging our political views to sell us on the idea of building her site as campaign volunteers. We passed.


It’s Still about Value

Regardless of whether it’s a business or charity, the concept of value still applies. If you can provide a solution that helps a charitable organization accomplish its mission, you are providing value. Since the objective is based on mission rather than revenue, you want to focus on Return on Mission (ROM), not Return on Investment (ROI). Find out what their primary mission is and show them how you can help them accomplish it. ROM isn’t about money, but with some charities, bringing in donations is an important function of their operations. One thing you can point out to them is, if they are successful at fulfilling their mission, it raises their visibility which causes donations to increase, allowing them to continue or expand their efforts.

Charities depend on donations to fund their efforts, but churches rely on its members “tithing”—that is, giving a portion of their income. The majority of authentic ministers and pastors, however, are not in it for the money. Not that money isn’t necessary to fulfill their mission; but to suggest that a website will build their congregation and bring in more money may not be the best approach. Instead, find out what they feel called to do. This may vary from church to church. One may feel called to help the homeless. Another, to help unwed mothers. Larger churches may have ministries that do several things. The key lies in asking probing questions, then demonstrating how your services can provide a return—not on investment, but on mission.

Offering Social Media Marketing Services

Social media has proven to be very effective for raising awareness about causes—a fact not lost on these types of organizations. I wrote about partnering with a SEO expert to sell SEO services. Likewise, consider partnering with a social media expert when targeting non-profits. Clients don’t want to have to go to different vendors. If you can provide a one-stop-shop solution, you have a greater chance of getting hired.

Avoiding the Pitfalls of Dealing with Non-Profits

It’s not uncommon, especially in churches, for a non-techie volunteer to have built their first website. Once the church grows to the point of being able to afford profession help, “firing” the volunteer who worked so hard getting the site up is a minefield waiting for you to step into. We once bid on a project to redesign one of the sites for a mega-church here in the States. We thought we did the right things; my partner was a long-standing member and we had the inside track. But, ultimately, the reason we lost the project was the church’s reluctance to take the website away from the volunteer who’d been maintaining and updating it for so long. It’s unfortunate when the good of the many gets sacrificed for a single person, but it happens. Sometimes, just asking a poignant question, such as, “Is there anything lurking behind the scenes that would prevent this project from moving forward?” will bring such issues to light. The beauty of such a question is that it often elicits a response like, “What do you mean?”—which opens the door for you to elaborate:

“Well, Joe, I’ve known charities that decided to keep their old website just because they didn’t want to hurt the feelings of the volunteer who had built and maintained the site before they had the funds for a professional one. Is there anything like that going on here?”

How about you? What are your experiences with charities and non-profits? Do you avoid them like the plague, or have you found them to be a profitable niche? Post your comments below.

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  • I regrettably have to admit that I always try to avoid work like this, but I never came around to this until I got my hands dirty with a few. I (like most) always want whatever is best for my community and the common person, but the blatant disregard of your years of education and hard-worked experience for the sake of spreading some religious effort or good Samaritan deed you may or may not agree with is an all-too-common issue in my area and one I hardly ever see the value in anymore with how people are nowadays. Say what you want, but I got into this kind of field because I thought it was a great way to tap into a career that was both fun and lucrative. I never got on board to give things to people who had neither the motivation or the ethic needed to see the appreciation my work truly deserves.

    That said, I’ve seen my share of non-profit Bogarts and almost 100% of them expected the world for nothing–I guess this is mostly derived from their kind of field, but a lot do this just to squeeze the last drips of juice for no other reason than exploitation.

    Not too long ago, I had an agency I volunteered for awhile back pull the same trick that made me take a quick exit when I first did work for them: they wanted me to update their CMS-based website with gobs of information (I mean MONTHS worth of stuff). I cringe at clients that want things like this because the whole point of a CMS is that you can update the thing yourself and I guess this transmission got lost in the many presentations I gave about what I had provided them with… And no, this was not about computer illiteracy because the non-profit I’m eluding to had many people on board who used computers (and websites, like Facebook and Twitter) everyday.

    I also had someone come up to me a few weeks ago to pitch an amazing web application that would somehow do all sorts of X, Y, and Z algorithms capable of helping people in the area find jobs. Sounds cool, right? After patiently enduring 1 hour of inconsistent, chaotic rambling, I left the person’s luncheon with not only no clue about how the thing worked–because they couldn’t explain the questions surrounding things like PHP or whatever; “he was their marketing guy”–but I also left without any assurance that anything I contributed to would be worth the effort. Needless to say, it was a bust.

    No, I always try to avoid this kind of work because it’s all too often exploited by the freeloaders of society. I guess if you’re new or bored, it might be okay or at least raise the margin of endurance with this kind of thing and it does goes without saying that there are exceptions, but very rare are these exceptions anymore (at least with my experiences).

  • That’s unfortunate!

    Most of my experiences with non-profits have been positive ones. Most of the time, I’ve found doing more research into their organization, asking the right questions, and patiently answering their own questions has helped to avoid any implied “Free Website-itis”. It has been especially helpful to be forthright (not obnoxious) about my rates and fees. Once those are on the table, it seems to dispel any thought of pro bono work.

    The biggest website challenge I’ve seen with non-profits has simply been the challenge they face with AWOL volunteers. Everyone is super excited about the new website after our training session is complete, but a month or two months later, when I check on them, nothing has been updated. Creating training videos they can keep has helped with some of this, but it’s still a work in progress.

    Either way, if you find that you can’t bear to work with a non-profit, please send them my way. I’d be more than happy to assist them with their website needs.

  • Wow, experiences on the opposite ends of the spectrum. Thanks for both of your comments!

  • Ninety percent of my clients are non-profit organizations. They range from a non-profit that I helped bring back from the brink of death with 40 members and zero revenue to the largest employer in the city with over 25,000 employees and hundreds of millions in revenue.

    While some non-profits may expect ‘free’ work (and some may truly need it), if they are 501(c)(3) organizations (able to issue donation receipts) then they can pay you with donation receipts. Assuming you manage your business properly and keep proper tax records this can be done legally.

    Granted donation receipts aren’t dollar-for-dollar but they do help take the sting out of taxes. And they can help someone build their portfolio with projects that have looks and functionality that they may not be able to do otherwise.

    Non-profit clients are also more open to allowing you to have your name, or your company’s, at their website as the designer/developer, which is free advertising.

    While we all have negative experiences, working with non-profits doesn’t have to be one of them.

    I’ve had several negative experiences with regular companies – including having to sue one in Federal court for copyright infringement – but haven’t had a single negative experience with any of the non-profits I’ve worked with.

    Your relationship with a client, non-profit or not, is completely in your control. If they expect free, educate them and direct them to someone who can provide free if you refuse to. Make it a policy to take on at least one non-profit per year. Educate them that web design, graphic design, web development, hosting, etc. are all normal business expenses and can be written off on their taxes. Educate them that they can issue a donation receipt for your work (but they cannot issue a donation receipt for your time or services, there’s a specific way to set up your company so you can donate legally).

    Use that as your opportunity to educate them and learn from them. Non-profit corporations do have money, but it is usually earmarked for other purposes. Perhaps you think that $250,000 grant they received can be used to pay you? You’d be wrong. Grants have to be spent on what they were granted for. If that non-profit requested that grant to replace their office machines (photocopiers, etc.) then that’s what it has to be used for. It can’t be spent on anything else.

    So why not educate yourself about the grant process and help non-profits understand how they can get grants to revamp their website, their marketing materials, create an online member database, create an online donation portal, allow people to register for their events online, and so much more.

    Educate them about how you can help them make more money and don’t try to use them as a cash cow and you could form some really great relationships with amazing people who are truly working against all odds to keep their businesses going.

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