Tired of Nonprofits Asking for Free Stuff, It’s all your Fault.

Owls always look so angry. don't they.

Owls always look so angry. don't they.

originally posted on Medium.com

As a former nonprofit fundraiser I want to tell you a secret…..now lean in a little… The truth is we train, teach, and coach nonprofits to ask for free stuff. Their boards question all expenses and they are literally forced to ask for free before paying. This is regardless of how big their budget is or how much their CEO makes. The problems with that system and methodology are for another day.

Lately, I have overheard and read countless stories of businesses, particularly start-ups, small businesses, restaurants and artists openly complaining about nonprofits constantly berating them for free stuff, discounts, auction items, etc. But I am here to tell you something hard to hear; the problem with all the complaining rests solely at the feet of the business owners.

Now before you get up in arms, you need to know that I get asked for free services all of the time. No, I haven’t attained a higher level of enlightenment. I am not so advanced in mindfullness as to not be bothered. What I did do, was spend time thinking critically about how to do pro bono, who should qualify, how I could create a win-win situation for both of us and common pitfalls that I experienced as a nonprofit staff member working with companies on pro bono projects.

Common Pitfalls in Pro Bono Programs

1. You over promise and under deliver — know your boundaries and what you can and cannot do

2. You lack an understanding of what makes nonprofits tick

3. You don’t understand the legal structure of nonprofit boards and how to manage them

4. You treat them as a “bench time” project and don’t devote your most awesome leaders to the team

5. You take on too many at one time and fail to deliver

6. You do not treat them as a real contract so it meanders as a project subject to mismatched expectations and scope creep

Create a Policy/Practice/Belief System

A few years ago I met Matthew Manos owner of verynice.co through a client engagement. He is super passionate about pro bono and the delivery of quality services to nonprofits. He wrote a fabulous book “How to Give Half of Your Work Away For Free” that you can buy, download or read online. While that model did not prove to be sustainable for me, it was enough to get me thinking about the need to define a shape a program and put parameters and measurements in place.

Our Belief System about Probono Work:

1. They deserve to be treated just like a regular client

2. They should receive the same investment of time and attention regardless of their ability to pay, and

3. All services need to be delivered without strings attached.

So why is it your fault? Because you haven’t done the work to establish your own belief system and communicated it with others. Or because you think they should be grateful for anything and string a project out forever or get frustrated which causes the relationship to sour. Worse yet, you deliver a substandard product and word spreads.

Still interested? Here are some first steps you should take:

Your First Steps

1. Know your own market — Talk to nonprofit leaders

2. Know nonprofits and their distinct needs and differences

3. Understand how this builds off of your own portfolio of services

4. DO NOT make nonprofits jump through significant hoops to apply

5. Judge interest based on philosophical fit, capacity of nonprofit to receive services, and your own bandwidth

6. Be honest and set a threshold of time or a monetary amount

Two years into our own program and I won’t say it is perfect but putting the time in has meant that we can say yes, and more often no, and back it up with solid reasons. We have learned a few lessons along the way about capacity of a nonprofit needed to handle probono services, passion fit for consultants, and when to spot a project that is way bigger than what we can fit in our hourly limitation. We’ve also developed language around talking to clients about the program, its benefits, and what it isn’t designed for.

What if the next time someone asked you for free stuff and services you directed them to an application instead of feeling burdened by their request? (Here’s ours) It is simple, but also provides us easy places to say no.

Interested in starting your own probono program, email us for our probono manifesto with tips and ideas. Also, feel free to reach out. We are really passionate about helping companies think through this.