The word “free” will light up the eyes of most nonprofit professionals, especially the CEO of a small nonprofit. If something can be had for free, why pay for it?!
But is “free” really free?
The Cost Of Free
Take social media: Yes, the outlets themselves are free. But if we adhere to the time = money principle, then social media is unbelievably expensive! Your staff needs to spend time on multiple platforms creating content and engaging people, in the hopes they eventually become volunteers, donors or, at the very least, share your posts with their friends.
All nonprofit employees and consultants know what happens when you pass off the task of managing your social media to a volunteer: if you’re lucky they have an hour per week to share, post or like and then no one is around to engage and respond quickly. Eventually, people stop paying attention to your posts. But hey, at least you didn’t waste precious budgetary resources!
Or a per peeve of mine- website/graphic design. Websites and marketing collateral (digital and printed) are not cheap, especially if you want it done professionally and within a time limit. Here’s an example of how this approach can backfire:
In order to save money, the CEO where I once worked decided we should search for students learning to become graphic designers and have them design our brochures and annual report. Right now, some of you are nodding your heads side to side or banging your head on your cubicle wall because you know what happened next: We found plenty of eager students thrilled to add to their portfolios. What we did NOT get was a single, usable design.
In the end, we wasted time (there’s that money thing again!) hoping against hope that the project would bring positive results. Guess what? The product wasn’t ready for a fundraising trip, so we hired a professional company, paid for it and received beautiful brochures.
Don’t Rely On Free
This is NOT a blanket indictment of volunteers. They are the best cheerleaders your organization has. Volunteers can build beautiful websites and design stunning reports, raise money and operate programs. But it’s the RELIANCE on getting things for free that hurts many nonprofits.
Free means no deadlines because you can’t demand from a volunteer that they complete a project on time. You can ask nicely, cajole, plead or beg but they have lives to live as well. The same thing can happen when you pay but at least in these cases you can terminate a contract and try to recoup any losses.
I have always believed you spend a buck to make a buck. That includes overhead, website, marketing collateral and more. The idea that penny-pinching at every opportunity will benefit the mission is misguided.
Put yourself in the shoes of your donor: They come to your website, which looks like it was thrown together in five minutes. It’s hard to navigate, you can’t find the mission statement and the donate button is buried. They’re gonna bounce to a different site.
You lost money but at least you didn’t spend thousands of dollars on design and development!
1) Don’t use slider images on your homepage!
2) But if you’re already gonna do that, at least one of them should tell me what you do or even give me a freaking clue!
— Ephraim Gopin (@EphraimGopin) January 16, 2020
Many of us in the nonprofit sector are always busy putting out fires and have no time for strategic, long term thinking and planning. As salaries stay stagnant (i.e. low as hell) and the number of donors decreases, the temptation to cut corners when possible is very real.
But stop and ask yourself, what is the real cost of “free?”
I don’t have an exact number but it’s not cheap.
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