The Cult of Free Will Kill Your Fundraising

January 15, 2014

Is there a dark secret in nonprofit fundraising, one that is nearly as bleak as the abysmal donor retention rates, one that holds organizations back from realizing their true potential?

Read on as we explore the hidden underbelly of the nonprofit world…

Early on in my fundraising career,  I worked with a small nonprofit agency with an annual budget of approximately half a million dollars.  Throughout my two-year tenure as development director, I was regularly admonished by the executive director to “weed out” the donor database.

You see we were using eTapestry, a web-based fundraising and donor management system.  At that time eTapestry was free for users – as long as your database contained less than 500 names.

I had been hired to grow individual giving. 

I’ve used this story more than once to illustrate the bizarre lengths nonprofit organizations will go to in their endless pursuit of *free.*

The *free* mindset so prevalent in the nonprofit community will be the death of them.

Web hosting costs all of, what? – $3 to $15 a month?

Yet nonprofit organizations will do everything in their power, including spending considerable time and effort, to locate free web hosting.

Cobbled-together programs. *Free* web-hosting. *Free* email service providers. *Free* databases. *Free* training. They all come with a hidden price tag — continued inefficiency.  No one’s said it better than ole’ Ben Franklin: Time is money.  I’ve always believed that the nonprofit cult of free speaks to something deeper.  And, after all, if you’re not committed to funding your mission, how can you possibly be committed to your mission? And if you can’t be compelled to spend money to make money, how committed are you?

Long-term successful fundraising means that everyone from your CEO to your program staff, to your volunteers to your board members, need to be on board, actively engaged in the joy of fundraising.  If they’re not, it’s time to commit to a focused, consistent training program and plan of action.

Not sporadic, one-off *free* trainings.

The cult of free owes a debt of gratitude to boards and CEOs reluctant to spend on either donor retention or fundraising expenditures. Yet we fundraisers are are in the business of communicating. We earn our keep by being persuaders. It’s time to get up the courage to confront the cult of free and demand the resources we need to do what we’re paid for.

If we’re not able to persuade our board, staff, volunteers and CEO, we’re not doing our jobs very well.

Additional Reading

Why the Facebook Ads Grant Petition for Nonprofits Is a Terrible Idea

If you’re not committed to funding your mission, you’re not committed to your mission

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Sherry Truhlar January 19, 2014 at 7:18 pm

I hear you, sister. I might add that sometimes there is nothing more expensive than a “free auctioneer” at your annual fundraising event.

claire axelrad January 20, 2014 at 10:53 pm

Great point. You know the old adage: There is no free lunch. Sadly, it’s pretty much true most of the time. And what Sherry says about free auctioneers? LOL!

Laura Neidig July 2, 2014 at 1:48 pm

THANK you. This has been the bane of my existence organizing non-profit events. I get tired, embarrassed and rundown constantly having a hand out. It is far better for an organization to negotiate a fair non-profit rate then to ask for everything for free. That does little good for years 2, 3 and 4. You burn through vendors pretty fast.

Laura Neidig July 2, 2014 at 1:51 pm

THANKS for the article. This has been the bane of my existence organizing non-profit events. I’ve been rundown by this mindset, constantly having my hand out was embarrassing. It does little to help the event in future years, and one burns through vendors pretty quickly. I’m a huge advocate of negotiating a good non-profit discount – but people want to get paid, and they’ll do better work because of it.

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