The Lean Marketer Blog

Non-profits: Make it Easy for Small Companies to Donate

When I was VP marketing at a small (under 100 employees) company, one of my team’s responsibilities was to select holiday gifts that would be sent to our business partners all over the world. After a few years of enjoying the fun task of crafting branded tea sets, blankets and various fun gadgets, I started looking at this activity from another perspective. The gifts budget alone – heck just the shipping budget for the gifts – was enough to make a huge difference for a non-profit organization doing some good in the world. Did our partners really need a blanket embroidered with our company logo? Why not take this money and use it to do some real good in the world – of course letting the partners know that it is being done in their name.

Donating to charity instead of sending holiday gifts sounded like a great way to express our company’s commitment to social justice; but all those warm, fuzzy feelings quickly gave way to frustration as I encountered critical missteps by the dozen-or-so non-profits I approached.

As the 2012 holiday season approaches, here are a few suggestions for non-profits that would have helped move some of the charitable organizations I rejected back to the top of our potential recipient list:

Suggestion #1: Call or Write Back Promptly
Many of the non-profits I tried to contact never bothered to respond, or took so long I’d already moved on to others. It is a fundamental human courtesy, not to mention good business practice, that if someone inquires, you should respond. Organizations must have clearly designated people whose role it is to interact with potential donors, especially for small businesses, since we typically have different needs than individual donors and we don’t fit in the same category as the big multi-national corporations. If you take the trouble to post their names and contact information on the web site (recommended), ensure they have a backup to take messages and answer basic questions when they are unavailable. Also, implement a policy of replying to any inbound email or phone call within a specified number of days, or trust me, your potential small business donors will simply go elsewhere.

Suggestion #2: Have a clear policy about logo usage, and mentioning the organization’s name
I needed to be able to communicate to our partners about our contribution, since it was a gift on their behalf; so I asked each prospective recipient organization for explicit permission to mention their name in our electronic greeting card and to post their logo hyperlinked to their site in our corporate blog. The responses I received were along the spectrum from “uh [long pause] let me check and get back to you” (they never did) to “well, it’s kind of complicated, is it a must?” Most non-profits should be falling all over themselves to receive this type of free publicity and need to reply with specific guidelines about how and where the logo can be used, and how the organization’s name can be mentioned and linked to. Of course if your organization is not interested in these types of credible referrals – also a legitimate standpoint – it needs to be spelled out in an easily accessed policy document, either on your web site, or upon request.

Suggestion #3: Deal With Public Criticism Transparently
I performed some basic online due diligence about each potential recipient organization, to ensure there were no negative associations for our business partners. In one instance, my search turned up a blogger’s recent accusation of financial impropriety. Asked about it, this environmental organization replied that they had communicated about the issue directly with the blogger and felt that their resources were “better spent on direct conservation than diverting staff time to this particular blog.” Not so. In today’s Internet-connected world, you need to be fully transparent, including publicly owning up to possible mistakes, and detailing how errors were rectified (or explaining that, in fact, the allegations were false). That particular blogger may have had his own personal reason to defame this organization, but potential donors cannot judge for themselves since no counterarguments were freely available from either the organization or any third party; they were letting the blogger tell their story instead of telling it themselves. This organization should be troubled far beyond the fact that our company decided not to donate to them, considering that other potential donors may have made the same decision without ever notifying them.

Suggestion #4 Get Ranked by Relevant Third Parties
Part of my due diligence process involved checking each charity on various third-party ranking sites, like US-based Charity Navigator, the Better Business Bureau and other similar sites in other countries. Non-profits without any third-party rankings were immediately disqualified, since I would not commit company funds to any organization that had not been reviewed and had posted its most recent financial reports on its site. These listings need to be kept accurate and up to date, since out-of-date information is also a red-flag to potential donors. And once you’re listed, cite these reputable third parties on your web site so casual visitors will learn to use them as a yardstick to compare your organization with other charities.

On many occasions I was tempted to quit this exasperating process, and leave the charitable giving to larger companies, with their fully-equipped Corporate Social Responsibility departments to research and handle the details. There are always more reasons to disqualify an organization than to decide to contribute; but with a little bit of attention to some basics, you can make it much easier for a small business to say “yes” to supporting your non-profit organization.

Image courtesy of Flickr user xJason.Rogersx

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