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Reader Questions: Should we sell X to get money?

10 February 2014


 February 10, 2014


So… someone has told you they want to help your nonprofit by selling their stuff.

Maybe it’s jewelry. Maybe it’s mattresses. Maybe it’s a calendar. What is really going on here?

Should you partner with a small business and sell their stuff to your nonprofit email list?

If you’ve ever been in this dilemma, read this story below, and my response.

A fundraising friend writes:

We did not get to do a “general push” (as I call it) at the end of the year last year. Why not?
We had a dear friend and donor suddenly pop up with a calendar for sale with our nonprofit as the beneficiary.
This wonderful lady is a nationally known, award winning photographer, greatly loved for her portraits. Sounds great, right?
Yeah… not so much.
the calendar was not about our mission, (the subject of the calendar was this guy. Okay, I am going to try to explain this succinctly without making everyone involved sound like, uh, weird. “This-guy” is marginally involved in our cause, but he’s not famous or anything.)

I’m sure this calendar came into being because lots of people (women) told donor-lady that she needed to do a calendar… and… O.M.G. “I would sure buy it!” (If I had a dime for every time I heard that…)

Donor-lady having the connections she has… well, she published this really professional-looking calendar and put it up for sale with our nonprofit benefiting from it.

It was implied that we’d sell this calendar for the donation. So we sold the calendar instead of doing a year-end appeal letter.

Don’t get me wrong: I would walk to the ends of the earth for donor-lady. She has been a critical part of our nonprofit from the beginning. But it really messed up my end-of-year push.

And it was my fault because I could have done both, but I let my attention get turned away from something I know works to something I… quite frankly… didn’t “believe” in. (That is, I don’t want a calendar and the subject was not interesting.)

We also got mired into answering “I don’t want this calendar. Why don’t you do a calendar of something more related to your mission?” questions. (And I don’t think the people I gave straight answers to that question believed me.)

I feel bad, because the last thing donor-lady would have wanted to do is take away any donation for our nonprofit.”

Here’s my response.

Well, she DID take away donations from your nonprofit. She did it as surely as standing in the road with a big sign saying “Either buy a calendar or don’t give!”

So, you told people to buy the calendar instead of give. That’s hard. But you didn’t know better.

The thing about people (usually small businesses) who want to sell things through your nonprofit is that they almost NEVER have the best interests of your fundraising program at heart. They really just want to promote and sell their stuff.

Someone, somewhere, told them,

“HEY! Nonprofits have big lists! Get THEM to promote your stuff! Nonprofits are desperate for money, and they’ll just jump at the chance to do a little fundraiser, selling your items for you!”

Here’s my

When I was VERY green at fundraising, I was working at a domestic violence shelter.

A woman called us up, in April, and asked if we would like to do a mother’s day fundraiser in May. Her small, nascent business was jewelry. It was kinda crappy looking but not terrible, I guess. She re-sold jewelry that someone else had made, and she said that if we sold it through our enewsletter she would give 20% of the proceeds to us.

Yeah, so I was dumb enough to do that. Know how much this little promotion made for us?

A whopping five bucks.


What does this tell you about selling a product?


This is kinda tangential, but more recently, at my fundraising meetup, I had people join it who were NOT fundraisers, but who were, instead, network marketers. One person sold tupperware and was also an affiliate for a database company (in the cloud) which she brought up every time she came to my meetups. I did my best to discourage her, and told her that

“1. We don’t sell at these meetups, this is for education about fundraising.

2. These meetups are for fundraising professionals only and

3. If you DO mention your “database company (in the cloud)” you need to disclose your affiliate status, that you get a payment if someone signs up for it.

She was not being honest about this and thankfully she did not return after a couple of times.

Then another guy popped up and said, “Heyyyyy I have this new website where nonprofits can start crowdfunding campaigns! I’m looking forward to attending your next meetup!” And I had to lay the three rules down again. Needless to say, he didn’t show up. Thank god.

Seriously, when small businesses read the words “nonprofit employee” do they just see the word “RUBE” or “EASILY DUPED” instead?

So next time a business says,”Sell our product to your list!” You say NO! calendar-fundraiser-no1Even if it’s a calendar with lots of naked old men!

You have to turn your head away, and resist this temptation, and say, “NOPE! No wrinkly naked old dudes for me!”

(This picture really did come from, apparently naked calendars are a fundraising idea. Who knew?)

It’s not your job to help these people make money. They are trying to take advantage of you.

Stay away from them completely.

Now, cause marketing with a company doing the selling (and you getting profits without having to market or sell it) is a totally different story. But those partnerships take intention, effort, time, and work, and you will not get one just “falling into your lap”.

So if a business comes to you with a “wonderful opportunity to fundraise selling our products” you tell them to keep on walking.

Have you ever sold some company’s product and had it work out? I’d love to hear about it. Prove me wrong!

4 responses on “Reader Questions: Should we sell X to get money?

  1. Nikki says:

    Do you feel that selling ‘merchandise’ through cafe press is a good way to generate funds? Right now I am looking into investing more effort in both having more desirable items and promoting them. So far we really haven’t sold much or made much; however, I have blamed it on not having a variety of designs. Maybe this is a different topic, but this has been on my mind and was my initial thought once I read this story.

    • Mazarine Mazarine says:

      hi Nikki, I think it depends on a number of factors. The main thing is to try lots of things, but know that major gift fundraising works better than anything else.



  2. Jen says:

    I don’t think that it would work. Nobody gives a damn about your fundraising and just want to promote their stuff.

  3. Tech Crawl says:

    That’s pretty interesting. Fortunately I’m not in charge of fundraising because I probably would have thought that was a good idea =/ I would have been wrong!