pop art man holding money bags free no strings
Pro Bono

Free Toilet Paper! How Much Is It Going to Cost?

Someone recently asked me a very good question: Are in-kind donations part of fundraisers’ responsibility? Or is it the responsibility of a procurement officer?

Charities love to get stuff for free. When I was a new fundraiser, fresh out of college in 1992, I rang up Jane Tewson – founder of Charity Projects / Comic Relief in the mid 80s. I told her I wanted to be a fundraiser, and asked if I could visit her for tips. She accepted and I think it would have been my second ever trip to the big city (London).

It was a great, inspiring day and one of the things she told me was that Charity Projects didn’t pay for anything. They had this team of scroungers who got stuff to keep the place running. A great example was the 180 toilet rolls stacked outside the loos that someone had donated.

Over the years she has set up other charities — including some here in Australia — and been involved in organisations connected with NGOs, such as an organisation that measures corporate social responsibility.

But here’s the important thing: Since meeting Jane back then, I have not seen any significant successful pro bono (free) services that genuinely help charities. The only exceptions are some well-run volunteer programs.

Significant pro bono services that I have come across as a fundraiser, and then as a supplier tend to fall into three categories:

  1. Marketing / PR / advertising creative. (“We will produce a great viral video for you.”)
  2. Marketing / PR / advertising media. (“We have a load of display space at train stations you can have for free.”)
  3. Sales opportunities. (“Your donors will want to buy our insurance, and we give you a percentage of the sale.”)

The number of times charities have talked to me all excited about a free opportunity is overwhelming.

But time after time, a cold hard look at it afterwards shows that the whole thing was a waste of time. After the event (and after the agency has won its award) the charity usually says, “It didn’t work — but at least it didn’t cost us anything!”

But they are wrong.

Saying it was free but it didn’t work is like saying, “The surgery was a success, but the patient died.” If the project didn’t work, it cost you. Probably a lot more than you think.

The time spent negotiating, approving copy, ensuring IP rights are maintained — all that is expensive. The quality staff time you spend on it is time not spent doing something you know would have created revenue.

Even a free direct mail appeal that raises $100,000 is not free money — if it took the place of one that cost $50,000 — and raised $250,000. That’s a clear loss of $100,000. And an even bigger loss of donor retention because of the donors who didn’t give who otherwise might have. You’re going to be paying the bill for the free appeal for years to come. (And in my experience, those “free” fundraising projects almost always fail much more dismally than my example here!)

Or even if the pro bono work was not instead of another activity, it costs time. Most fundraisers fail to cultivate relationships with their top donors — because there just isn’t enough time. There is no doubt that those half dozen calls NOT made to top donors would have raised a lot of money, but didn’t — because of that free gift.

If someone offers you something for free, remember this: If it seems too good to be true, it is.

Nothing is ever truly free.

When ad agencies and media companies suffer losses in work, some will show up at your door, offering their services to charities for free. To them, it’s a way to bulk up their portfolio, burnish their reputation, keep staff busy in slow times, and maybe get a tax write-off. They’re not doing it purely out of virtue! (I’m sure they’re good and decent people, but their duty is to their own company, not to your mission!)

If someone comes to you with a really exciting offer of free creative, media, or a promotion opportunity, think it through carefully. Make sure you are in charge of the project — that you can stop the project or fire the agency if need be. Make extra sure there are clear goals, expectations, and a contract. Nail down exactly how much of your staff time it will take to run the project — and put a monetary value on that time to avoid those “invisible” losses.

I am sure there are good pro bono offers out there. But I’ve never seen one since Comic Relief all those years ago. Even then, it’s quite possible they would have raised more money if their people spent their time asking donors for money, instead of for toilet rolls.

Please share your experience with pro bono “gifts” by leaving your reply below. We’d love to learn from your experience.

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