Why No One Wants to Donate to Your Non-Profit

Why No One Wants to Donate to Your Non-Profit

I’ve sat on a number of non-profit boards over the years, usually in the role of the “marketing guy.” In addition, I donate up to 10 percent of my company’s revenue each year to various non-profits, so understand it from the corporate donor side as well.

Here’s an important fact: I would not donate to the vast majority of non-profits I come across. If you’re an Executive Director or a Fund Development Manager, you’re probably not surprised. It’s incredibly hard to get donations as a non-profit. The majority of non-profits survive on annual operating budgets of under $250,000 a year. This is more likely to come from grants than it is donations.

You can’t do a whole lot with that amount.

The eternal question on the minds of those trying to raise funds is, “Why won’t people donate?!!!”

The answer is actually quite simple.

Now, we’re going to talk about corporate donors, because they are generally the big givers. If you’re looking for regular donations of $10,000-$100,000 a year from a single donor, you need corporate partners.

As a business owner myself, and as someone who regularly speaks with other business owners on this subject, I can tell you there are three main criteria a corporate donor is looking for, and most non-profits fail on the most critical one.

Criteria #1:  Mission

The mission of the non-profit needs to align with either my personal philanthropic interests or the strategic goals of the corporation to compel me to donate.

Learn to Paint Your Picture

This is the easiest one to get right, but you’d be surprised how many non-profits I come across that can’t articulate their mission. I sat on the marketing task force for a large educational non-profit in Indianapolis.

When asked what they specifically did, they gave long winded answers with lots of vague terms like “support those in the field,” “advocate for quality education,” “assist those in need.”

This doesn’t really tell me anything. You need to paint a picture in your potential donor’s head of exactly what you do. These should be defined in concrete terms, so I can see very clearly not just what you want to accomplish, but what you have accomplished.

Better articulations of the examples of above could be “we provide support to teachers of underfunded programs at the elementary level to ensure positive learning outcomes for children and personal growth for the teachers,” “we work closely with local and state politicians to pass legislation that is focused on supporting the hiring and retention of high quality teachers,” “we assist schools in the lowest income areas of the city where funding is particularly lacking, so that they can improve their quality ratings to receive more federal funding in subsequent years.”

See the difference?

Partner with Aligned Organizations

Furthermore, you really need to seek out the right partners. Not everyone is a potential donor. There are millions of causes that non-profits support, almost all of them worthwhile and meaningful.

It’s not possible to support everything and it takes a ton of time and effort to educate those not already passionate about your mission to support it.

Therefore, you need to do your research and seek out corporate partners that are already interested in supporting what you do. Are you a STEM program? Seek out engineering firms. Are you trying to protect the environment? Look for companies in green tech or that are trying to move in that direction.

Criteria #2:  Impact


Frankly, there are a lot of non-profits running around mirroring other non-profits in the area doing nearly the same thing. This is inefficient and not something most business owners want to support. So, first off, make sure what you’re doing is unique and not already being done by someone else.

Efficiency Is a Key to Impact

Next, we want to see a well-run organization. I actually came across a non-profit once that still wasn’t using an email client like Constant Contact because they didn’t want to pay $30 a month for it. In traditional non-profit logic, they saw this as saving money.

Instead, the Director of Development was spending 10 hours a week emailing past and potential donors one by one. Let’s say they were only making $10 an hour (which might actually be accurate considering the low salaries and high number of hours worked in most non-profits). Instead of paying $30 a month and 1 hour of labor a week, they were paying $100 a week, or $400 a month in labor.

This kind of nonsensical waste is not something I want to put my money towards. Wasting more money than they are using to accomplish their stated mission is not exactly a selling point.

Do It Better Than Others

The second part of this is I want to support the organization having the most impact. We support many early education initiatives. Do you know how many different organizations are out their supporting early ed? Literally tens of thousands.

So I will carefully research the organization to understand its true impact compared to other similar organizations, and then make a decision.

If you can provide me metrics with your actual impact and, better yet, financial breakdowns, I will be much more willing to donate after I see the numbers.

I don’t want to know what you dream of accomplishing without first seeing what you have accomplished. You have to show me that you can execute on and achieve what you’re saying you’ll do.

Criteria #3:  Win-Win Partnership

Any non-profit I donate to must partner with us to achieve maximum impact so we both come out ahead. Here is where the majority of non-profits truly fail. They largely have a “give me, give me, give me” mentality when it comes to money.

Sure, they’re planning to use that money to advance their mission, but great business relationships are built on win-wins where each partner benefits.

For-profits Are Not Charities

I own a for-profit business. If I had wanted to create a charity, I would have. I didn’t. I have lofty goals around my philanthropic endeavors, but at the same time I started my business to reap the rewards of my labor. I worked incredibly hard to get my business where it is today. I don’t give out its profits to others lightly.

The final criteria, and often the ultimate deciding factor as to whether or not I’ll donate to your non-profit is what you’ll give my business in return.

Rolls-Royce doesn’t donate to “save the whales” initiatives (I know this for a fact as I know their director in charge of corporate giving). They donate to STEM projects, among many other things. For Rolls-Royce, it’s about building their talent pipeline. They need a steady stream of brilliant engineers to grow their organization, so they support schools and programs aimed to help them do this.

Marketing Skills Are Absolutely Key to Non-profit Success

For many businesses, it’s about marketing. As the Vice President of Community Relations for one of the biggest employers in my county once told me, “We donate to two things: children and animals. People love children and they love animals, so that inevitably gets us the most PR.”

So, as a non-profit, your greatest asset in acquiring donations is your Media/PR Kit. Now, I bet most of you non-profits reading this have no idea what a PR Kit is. That’s the problem.

Build Your PR Kit

A PR Kit lists all the benefits your organization can provide in terms of marketing reach. You probably have something resembling this for you event sponsorship levels. You know, “we have an email newsletter list with 4,000 people and we’ll put your logo on our website” kind of thing.

But here’s the issue. The average cost to reach 1,000 people in the marketing world is about $30. So let’s say you have an email newsletter list of 4,000, average yearly visits to your website of 5,000 unique visitors, and 500 social media followers. That’s a total of just shy of 10,000 “impressions” or views.

The most I would pay for that is $300 in a standard marketing budget. That’s assuming, of course, that these people in your list and visiting your website are actually people I want to get my company in front of.

I want to get in front of decision makers. So if I’m selling to school principals, and your list is largely teachers, it’s not worth jack to me.

This is one of many reasons why non-profits MUST build up their marketing presence and PR kits. If you have 50,000 people on your newsletter email list rather than only 4,000, you’ve just exponentially increased your value to me as a sponsor.

In addition to all that, building up great marketing will also help your non-profit maximize reach and make even more people aware of your mission, so you should be doing this even if you aren’t seeking sponsorships. (Pro tip: the most successful non-profits have dedicated marketing budgets. We recommend 7-8 percent of annual revenue).

Track Metrics & Segment Audiences

Want to impress me even more? Make sure you’re maintaining your open rates. A good open rate for an email newsletter list is 20 percent. So I know, that for every 1,000 people on your list, only 200 will actually open the email. (If you’re interested, then only 2-3 percent of those will actually click on any links inside.)

If you can give me those metrics ahead of time, without me having to ask, you’ll be ahead of a vast majority of non-profits out there who don’t even track such metrics. They just randomly blast their followers without maintaining quality, which then drops their open rates and diminishes the value of their lists. Or, worse yet, they don’t even track anything and have no idea if people are opening their emails or not.

Segmentation is another huge win that many non-profits miss out on. Remember how I mentioned I want to get in front of principals, not teachers if I was marketing to schools? Well, if you had principals in one list and teachers in another, then gave me exclusive access to the principal list, you can bet I’d be extremely interested.

The Power of Non-profit PR

Finally, good ol’ PR is a huge benefit for for-profits when donating to a non-profit. You know how many people care about my press release talking about the disability summit we sponsored? Not a whole lot.

But if the organization responsible for hosting and organizing the summit writes some PR and gets that published in the newspaper or, even better, a TV spot, that’s huge! People see self-promotional PR as just that, bragging.

When PR comes from someone else speaking genuinely well of your company, that has tremendous value.

So, in summary, if you really want to start raking in the corporate sponsorships you need to do those three things:

  • Seek out sponsors who are aligned with your mission. There are millions of worthy non-profits in the US alone, but you can’t donate to all of them. So people and companies choose a focus. Find the ones with the same focus as you.Then make sure you can articulate that mission in a way that paints a concrete picture for the potential sponsor.
  • Ensure you can improve your impact and differentiate yourself from similarly focused non-profits in the same space. AND, make sure you’re not wasting money in a way that will detract from your impact as an organization.
  • Work hard to build up your marketing and PR capabilities. The more people you can get your sponsors in front of, the more they will be willing to donate.

Remember, this all needs to be a win-win. If your marketing and PR capabilities are able to boost your sponsor’s business, then they’ll be able to increase revenue and provide an even larger sponsorship the next year.

I can guarantee you, we do this. Just like any aspect of my business, if I see one area working better than another to grow my business, I’m going to pump more money into it. Supporting non-profits is no different. If you help me, I’ll doubly return the favor next time around.

Are you seeking sponsors in the early childhood or substance abuse spaces? Feel free to contact my company, Circle Social Inc., and we may be interested in supporting if you meet the criteria above.

Of course, we also offer strategic marketing and PR capability build outs for non-profits. If you need some help in this area, we’re your team. Just send us an email at engage@circlesocialinc.com.

Photo Credit: robertbassam Flickr via Compfight cc

About author

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *