Woman with puppiesNonprofits are a resourceful lot. Part of this trait is born of necessity – there just isn’t enough cash available to do what needs to be done, so charities become experts at duct-tape and superglue. A donation here, a borrowed resource there, and an extra helping of moxie over the top of everything to keep the momentum going. This most often serves their missions well, and while most would prefer heaping sums of cash, a creative solution to a tough problem is also satisfying.

This same ethic can occasionally get a well-intentioned group in trouble. These efforts to make do with less and beg and borrow the rest can sometimes lead to saying yes to nearly anything offered for free (or cheap). The cost of free can sometimes be very high, but the rush for more resources can sometimes overwhelm otherwise careful nonprofiteers wherever they may be. It’s important to differentiate “free as in puppies” from “free as in beer.”

A donation to a nonprofit of cash falls into the “free as in beer” category – there is no additional cost to accepting this gift, someone just did something nice and now there is money that might have been spent on beer that is available for some other purpose. This type of gift is what nonprofits really want, but isn’t always what is offered.

Instead, a nonprofit may be offered a “free as in puppies” gift. If you were going to buy a puppy anyway, this can be great. Owning a dog, of course, comes with lots of ongoing expenses and not all of them are in cash. Certainly, there is dog food. There is also shots, license, and replacing the slippers the dog chewed up. There is carpet cleaner. Those are just the cash-cost items. The time spent in training the dog is time not out doing something else. Leaving social events early to get home and let the dog out is an opportunity cost – or you have to arrange dog care so you can stay out later.

There is a good chance your nonprofit has been offered a “free computer.” Yes, the machine can be had for no cost. But now you have a piece of hardware that requires updating and it will still likely be so slow as to cost you productivity time beyond the cost of new. Or a free printer that uses really expensive ink and doesn’t look nearly as good as what you’d get from a new machine with less total costs of ownership. Even free services come with a cost. Getting skilled volunteers to help a nonprofit can add huge value, but it will also cost at least something in training or other staff time. This cost is very often worth it, but the nonprofit that just says yes to a skilled volunteer without understand the total costs of that gift could end up on the losing side of an equation. Volunteers become more valuable with longer-term commitments in many cases, and so accepting help only when it can be promised on more than one occasion can really leverage the value of “free.”

Taking advantage of your Nonprofitiness™ is a key part of succeeding as a charity. Just be sure there isn’t a licensing agreement to use that duct-tape.

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  1. Reply

    A great post. Shared it with my management team at the Winona YMCA. Especially timely considering our donated, used server was down over the weekend.

  2. Pingback: The Facebook Paradox - Free pages aren't really free | Next in Nonprofits

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