Give Nonprofits What They Need (Not Teddy Bears)

Photo by JunCTionS
12.26.2012By

Photo by JunCTionS

The other day I read something on my Facebook wall from a friend who is a television reporter in Nebraska. His station was doing stories related to the school shooting in Newtown, CT, and how people are reaching to help out. In his comment, he noted that they had spoken to one woman who had set a goal of collecting a million teddy bears to send to the folks affected by this great tragedy more than a thousand miles away from her home. A million teddy bears. On the surface, this is one of those great heart-tugging news stories of someone trying to help out. But think further. If she meets her goal, what will sending a million teddy bears mean for a town of just 28,000 people? Is this what they need? What would they even do with them all? Too often, particularly in light of a tragedy, we let our emotions and good intentions dictate our giving. We see someone in need, and rather than ask them what would help them the most, we act. But our actions, while well-intentioned, might not actually help the problem. In fact, they might even hurt by getting in the way and delaying real help. The post office in Newtown, CT is already being inundated with letters and gifts. Can you imagine what a shipment of a million, let alone a thousand, teddy bears would do to their productivity? With that in mind, here are some tips on how to properly give to your favorite nonprofit.

1. Cash First

I can’t think of a nonprofit that wouldn’t prefer cash over just about any other type of donation. Recently Sohini Baliga wrote here about the importance of unrestricted cash donations. If you can give money, do so. And don’t earmark it, unless there is a specific fund set up for that purpose. You might donate money to an organization and specify that it be used for a specific purpose, but that might not be what the organization needs. As she says:

Cash, especially if unrestricted, is immediate, international, non-perishable, doesn’t incur storage or extra processing costs, and above all, is flexible.

Every organization can use cash, and if you give without earmarking it, the organization can quickly funnel where most needed.

2. Donations of Goods

Many organizations accept the donation of specific goods. But before you donate, make sure you understand their guidelines. If they are asking for new toys, don’t donate your “gently used” toys, even if they look “like new.” If you are donating food items, make sure you give them what they need. Your best bet is to check the nonprofit’s website to see if they have any guidelines. Many nonprofits will offer both a list of their specific needs, as well as a list of what they don’t want. Just because you have something you no longer need doesn’t mean nonprofits want to take it off your hands. Thrift stores run by Goodwill and the Salvation Army even have strict guidelines about certain items they won’t take. Believe it or not, many won’t accept items like cribs, baby strollers, bike helmets, or other items that could be subject to recalls or safety issues. Also, make sure you follow the guidelines for HOW to donate your goods. There might be specific instructions on where to drop them off, or what condition they should be in.

3. In-kind Donations

Perhaps you’ve thought of donating your services. Whether you are a plumber or a web designer, there’s a chance that local nonprofits might be able to use your services. But it’s always important not to push yourself in their way. You might be able to build them a website, but they might already have a new website with which they are happy. Also, understand that your in-kind donation might not be tax deductible based on state and federal laws. For instance, I can donate my social media services to nonprofits, but because what I do isn’t “tangible,” it rarely qualifies for a tax deduction. And there might also be laws, or internal rules, that restrict the type of services an organization can accept for free. As harsh as this sounds, some nonprofits prefer to pay for services. It might sound as though they aren’t appreciative of your offer of services, but look at this way. If you pay to have work done, it will get done in a timely fashion. If you have the service donated, the project could get put on the back burner as the business person attends to their paying customers and clients before getting around to the donated work. Harsh? Perhaps. But also realistic.

4. Volunteering

You might not have cash or goods or even services that you can offer, but you can show up and help out. But just like the above examples, check with the nonprofit before you just show up with a smile and good intentions. Make sure you are volunteering when needed and where needed. Some nonprofits even require their individuals to go through some sort of training before they allow them to actually work on premises or with clients. Try to be understanding. Nonprofits need our donations, but it’s difficult for them when we offer them something they can’t use. Don’t be insulted if you are turned away. They have very real reasons for their rules. Work with them to find a way to help out and give. If they don’t want a million teddy bears, don’t give them a million teddy bears. With that in mind, a note to nonprofits: Create a spot on your website for very clear instructions about what you can and cannot accept. Include instructions on how to donate and where to donate. And make sure that all of your employees and volunteers understand these rules so they can properly communicate them to those who call your organization. It’s one thing to give, but another thing to give well!

  • David

    We at United States Veterans value the caring spirit of a giver…whatever it is: time, resources, money, etc… david@unitedstatesveterans.org

  • Dina

    I love that someone was inspired to collect 1Million teddy bears … That’s heart,spirit and determination … But you made great points and this is a great message for all. Thanks for the post.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=501456842 Ken Mueller

      Thanks, Dina. I think most of what we do comes from the right place in our hearts. We are well intentioned, but we don’t always think things through.

  • sathyavallabha reddy

    Every NPO by & large have a specialised field of activity.Their vision, mission,&contribution to society.before donating one has to consider their specific needs.& do so accordingly. thanx for your post.

    • SUBASH

      Yes i agree with your opinion and that is true.nnSubash reddy My mail id is savegroundwater.smaran@gmail.com

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=501456842 Ken Mueller

      Sometimes all you have to do is researchthe organization, or pick up the phone and call them, and find out what they REALLY want and need.

  • Anonymous

    I agree 100% with the article. Sometimes a non-profit cannot accept certain items or services. It is important to ask first. Where I worked we sometime had items dropped off that were just left at our doorstep. Most of this was used clothes. We kept what we could send to our thrift shop and the rest made its’ way to a recycling center or trash bin that ended up costing us money to dump. Good intentions sometimes have unintended consequences.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=501456842 Ken Mueller

      I’ve seen that a lot with used items. Some just aren’t of the right quality, while other items might have legal restrictions on them.

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  • Junius

    Now THE ACTIVE HAND Ministry have a New Year’s Resolution. Add These Aides To http://www.tahm.org. Thanks Ken

  • 1800silver

    Donate blood! In situations like the school shooting, and 9/11, everyone wants to help but isn’t quite sure how. They may not have money to spare, but we all have blood. Donate blood. Donate plasma. Sign your organ donor card on your driver’s license. Get your bone marrow tested, simple process. Donate your time to help charities.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=501456842 Ken Mueller

      Yes, donating blood is almost like donating money. There is always a need for it!

  • http://twitter.com/WaterRollsUphil Water Rolls Uphill

    Yes, I fail to understand how sending presents does any good. Volunteer hours, gift cards and cash are king at this point.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=501456842 Ken Mueller

      Agreed. But there are times when presents can be a good thing. We just need to make sure it’s the right time and the right presents.

  • Donna Joerling

    Cash is always appreciated by any organization that does great work for those they serve. As a veteran owned Missouri company, we started a charitable arm of our company turning office furniture liquidations into CASH for their charity of choice. Everyone wins, the landfills stay less FULL and small to medium size companies get quality useable products and the charities get much needed CASH. This is a winning combination that I hope you pass along to your coworkers who manage charities. Here is the video that we had produced to explain the simplicity of a working program for charities. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=opJz5JExdRE&sns=em Feel free to call me if have questions or would like to see a demo on how this works. 314.282.4441 ext. 701 Donna Joerling, Marketing Director

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=501456842 Ken Mueller

      That’s a great idea, Donna. And I love seeing that its’ inspired by a business. I wish more businesses would do things like this!

  • Shawn

    Your third point (in kind donations) gets a loud “AMEN!” In my 20 years as a NFP exec, I have suffered more heartburn over this one issue than all others combined. While in kind donation offers are nice, the reality is that pro-bono work nearly always gets placed in the back of the production line behind paying customers. This is very hard to explain to well-meaning donors and oft times it ends in hurt feelings. We ask people to give us the best discounted rate that they can while still promising to treat us like a client.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=501456842 Ken Mueller

      I know when I started my own marketing business, it was a real wakeup call for me when a nonprofit wanted to pay me, rather than take my work for free. When they explained it to me, it made sense

  • Chris K.

    Yes this was a very good and informative article. But before you get into the issue of not sending gift type of items, like Teddy Bears, maybe you should see whom is sendning them, and what type of arrangement they have made with the supplier. Meaning quite simply, how much money(s) will go to a non-profit-organization or special fund relating to the event that has happened in the first place. But yes cash is always good too!; especially if we have to start using metal detectors and armed guards at all levels of public schools now!!

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=501456842 Ken Mueller

      No, I understand that sometimes gift items are needed. But in this particular case, the woman had come up with the idea and never had contacted anyone on site. It was just her idea, and she was going to work out the details later.

  • Diane

    I appreciate every gift that is donated to the non-profit I work for, however, the last line of the article sums up everything. We can better use the gift when the donor gives well. Great article.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=501456842 Ken Mueller

      Thanks. And I think sometimes non-profits have to put on a brave face and accept things graciously, when they can’t really use those items. They don’t want to be perceived as not thankful and run the risk of losing other donations down the line.

  • Gordon

    Great article Ken. As a non-profit working in development I find it is the spiritual connection that creates a good volunteer from an in-kind-service donation (such as plumbers and electricians). Their hearts are in the right place and their (fruit of the spirit) is ripe. Connect with them and soon they can become life long friends. Therefore having this connection, these volunteers/donors are more apt to ask you what is needed instead of giving you what they think you need.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=501456842 Ken Mueller

      Very true. The deeper the connection, the deeper the relationship, the more fruitful it will be for all involved. Great point, Gordon!

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