The Cult of 'Free': Ain’t Nobody Got Time for That
Is there some deep, dark secret lurking in the trenches of nonprofit fundraising, one that is nearly as bleak as the abysmal donor retention rates, one that holds organizations back from realizing their true potential?
Fasten your seat belts, ladies and gentlemen. After the jump, we’ll be exploring the hidden underbelly of the nonprofit world, and I’ll be your trusty guide. Warning: It’s not especially pretty.
I’ve got a story for you, and it’s based on an experience that happened early on in my fundraising career. I worked with a small nonprofit agency with an annual budget of $500,000. Throughout my two-year tenure as development director, the executive director regularly admonished me to “weed out” the donor database. What did that mean?
You see, we were using a program called eTapestry, a Web-based fundraising and donor management system. At that time, eTapestry was totally free for users—as long as your database contained fewer than 500 names.
The agency had brought me aboard to grow its individual giving.
OK, I admit it: I’ve used this story more than once to illustrate the bizarre lengths nonprofit organizations will go to in their endless pursuits of “free.”
Why? Because, quite frankly, I find this tale horrifying. It points to a bone-deep problem that afflicts organizations of all sizes—a kind of insidious mindset that negatively impacts nonprofits from the inside out.
I’m sure you’ve seen it yourself. Postings similar to this one pollute various forums online and shed some light on the endemic:
I'm looking for a service to connect me with good pro-bono graphic designers for small projects (this one is a response device). Does anyone have a recommendation for a place I can find a decent graphic design volunteer? These are projects that shouldn't take more than an hour or so.
Seriously? Yes, I’m afraid so. Sadly, posts of this nature do exist. In fact, they run rampant on the Internet.
I can’t be alone in finding the idea of a “volunteer graphic designer” downright insulting. But let’s really think about it for a minute. You quickly could hire a designer for a project like this for $25 on any one of numerous sites, like Fiverr or Upwork, plus use the time you saved to make thank-you calls to donors or work on strengthening your online ask.
This free mindset that is so prevalent in the nonprofit community will be the death of them. Web hosting costs all of, what, $3 to $15 a month? And yet nonprofit organizations will do everything in their powers, including spending considerable time and effort, to track down free Web hosting.
Cobbled-together programs. Free Web hosting. Free email service providers. Free databases. Free training. They all come with hidden price tags—continued inefficiency.
No one said it better than good ol’ Ben Franklin: “Time is money.”
I always have believed that the nonprofit “cult of free” speaks to something deeper, more sinister. It reflects on a culture of scarcity, rather than abundance. If you’re not committed to funding your mission, how can you possibly be committed to your mission? And if you can’t be compelled to spend money to make money, how committed are you?
Your research should be geared toward the best ways, not the cheapest.
Long-term successful fundraising means that everyone—from your CEO, to your program staff, to your volunteers, to your board members—needs to be on board and actively engaged in the joy of fundraising. If they’re not, it’s time to get them there. Look for a focused, consistent training program and plan of action, and commit, commit, commit.
Yes, sporadic, one-off free trainings may be alluring, but in reality, they’re detrimental. They’re time wasters, and your time is a valuable resource—especially right now.
The cult of free owes a debt of gratitude to the boards and CEOs who are reluctant to put money into either donor retention or fundraising expenditures. Yet we fundraisers are in the business of communicating, because communication is one of our lifelines. We earn our keep through careful, artful persuasion. It’s time to muster up the courage to confront the cult of free and demand the resources that we need to do what we’re paid to do.
Yes, it does take a backbone to persuade your board, staff, volunteers and CEO, but come on—the life of your nonprofit depends on it!
Pamela Grow is the publisher of The Grow Report, the author of Simple Development Systems and the founder of Simple Development Systems: The Membership Program and Basics & More fundraising fundamentals e-courses. She has been helping small nonprofits raise dramatically more money for over 15 years, and was named one of the 50 Most Influential Fundraisers by Civil Society magazine, and one of the 40 Most Effective Fundraising Consultants by The Michael Chatman Giving Show.