Maintaining Professionalism on a Non-Profit Budget

Let’s face it… most non-profits don’t have a huge administrative budget (and if they do, that’s a whole other problem).  Most charitable organizations spend as much as possible on providing programs and services, or on making grants.  Administrative costs like rent, office furniture, and slick pamphlets eat into the amount that can be spent furthering the organization’s mission.  Similarly, spending a huge amount on fundraising, marketing, and PR can drain away vital resources from necessary charitable programs.

For these reasons, non-profits worldwide use cost-saving measures like sharing office space, relying on volunteers, designing and printing marketing materials in house, and keeping office amenities to a minimum.  These are good things: keeping overhead low shows donors that you are a responsible organization, while allowing you to serve far more people in need than you would otherwise.

That being said, in order to make a real difference, command the attention and support of donors, and move the policy debate in your non-profit’s favor, schools, churches and other charities need to maintain a base level of professionalism in their dealings.  They must convey the message to the public at large that this is an organization that is well run, stable, and which will last for the long-term.  Unfortunately, the cost cutting measures listed above often hurt a non-profit’s ability to present a professional image.  Today, we present five tips for maintaining professionalism on a non-profit’s small budget:

1.   Train Your Volunteers

One of the primary ways that non-profits try to cut costs is by utilizing volunteers.  Unfortunately, non-profit fundraising history is littered with possible gifts and support that were ruined by rude, ill-informed, or unfriendly volunteers.  If you are going to utilize volunteers in your non-profit, train them.  Spend time with them.  Prepare materials that they can read and offer a staff member who can answer their questions and provide support.  A well-trained volunteer is an asset, but a poorly trained volunteer is a disaster.  For more information on training your volunteers, check out: How to Train Your Non-Profit’s Volunteers.

2.  Outsource to Supportive Parties

Most non-profits don’t have the resources to create professional quality fundraising and marketing materials in house, yet these same organizations can rarely afford to outsource these tasks.  The results are poorly written, low quality materials that turn off potential donors and friends.

If you need to outsource design, printing, and other work, start building bridges to companies and individuals who might be willing to do this type of work for free, or at a reduced cost, if they got to know your organization.  Start this process well before you need the work completed.  For example, if you need a complete material re-design and go to a design firm at the last minute, they are unlike to offer to do the work for free.  But if you spend 6 months networking with the owner of the firm, cultivating her, and getting her onto your board, there is an excellent chance that her firm will do great work for you at no cost to your non-profit.

3.  Invest in a Decent Website

If you can only afford one professionally designed fundraising or marketing material, make it your website.  You can easily point donors, prospects, volunteers and the press to your website for more information, and you can always update your website with additional information on new programs or initiatives (make sure your website content is easily editable by your staff).

If, instead, you invest in a spectacular, slick, four color fundraising booklet, you will constantly need to pay to print more, and the information will eventually be out of date, necessitating a re-write or a re-design.  Invest in your website.  Hire a professional firm to design and build your website, including a content management system that allows your staff to make edits as necessary.  (And don’t forget to highlight your website by using e-mail fundraising).

4.  No Brochure is Better than a Bad Brochure

Avoid the temptation to use a hastily designed brochure, full of bad clip art and printed on a black and white copier, to use in marketing and fundraising.  Bad brochures show a lack of professionalism.  Instead, write out the information you need to convey on a word processing program.  Use headlines and bold face font to call out the most important information, and use this for donors.

A poorly designed brochure will turn off donors, but a well written hand out (that doesn’t pretend to be a brochure) will not.

5.  Cut Costs and Explain Why

Finally, if you must cut costs, do so in the most professional way possible by explaining why you are cutting costs.  For example, if you need to hold a fundraising event, but can’t afford an open bar and passed hors devours, then hold a hot dog and beer night at a local fire hall.  Explain on your invitations that in order to raise more money to support your mission, you have decided to forgo a gala sit down dinner and instead hold a family friendly hot dog social.  Explain that you’re still charging $50 per person, but that this year, $45 of every $50 will go directly to supporting the homeless (or whatever your mission is), unlike most events, where half of the ticket price goes to overhead.

Photo credit:  VAYardley

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