That Fingerpainting Wasn’t Worth a Penny Over $49,000!

stjohnFrom the tabloids to the blogosphere to MSN to NPR, there’s hardly a news source that doesn’t  find this story irresistable. The elements alone are the stuff of sitcom, even before we get to the action.

Exhibit A is a wealthy Manhattan couple, Michelle and Jon Heinemann, whe are all too easy to poke fun at if only for the fact that they named their children Hudson Cornelius and Hyacinth Cornelia.

Exhibit B is the “posh” (that adjective came from the British press) kindergarten that little Hudson Cornelius attends, the Cathedral School of St. John the Divine, with tuition rates of $39,000 a year.

Exhibit C is a fingerpainting that Michelle, an artist, helped the divine little schoolchildren create for the school’s fundraising auction. She intended to place the winning bid on it herself, for $3,000, and apparently arranged this with the school before she went on vacation.

Now, for the action: The school apparently decided that its power over the absent Michelle’s bidding didn’t stop at $3,000. So when a first-grade teacher named “Ms. Bryant” threw herself into the bidding with great enthusiasm — or, according to the Heinemanns, with a wink and a nod from the school — it countered with proxy bids for the Heinemanns until the bidding topped out at $50,000. (Collective gasp.)

The Heinemanns may not want to spend $50,000 on a fingerpainting, but they may be about to spend that amount on lawyers. They’re suing the school for $415,000, a figure they derived from the costs of placing young master H.C. in another school. You can  read the details about that in the various tabloids. Let’s talk now about why the school’s actions were — if we’re to believe the basic gist of what happened — just plain dumb, and a reminder to every nonprofit not to get into the same type of trouble.

First off, if the school was really told that its bidding-proxy power stopped at $3,000, then failure to honor that is a major breach of trust. And even if that memo got lost somewhere, bidding a fingerpainting up to $50,000 just doesn’t pass the smell test, no matter how wealthy the bidders.

But let’s say it all seemed okay to the school in the heat of the moment, and no one rethought it until what must have been a rather awkward phone conversation with the Heinemanns. (“Uh, good news! You outbid the competition for the fingerpainting!”)

The school had a couple of perfectly viable options here. First, it could have offered the fingerpainting to the second highest bidder (“What, Ms. Bryant? You don’t want the fingerpainting for $49,000 after all?”). Okay, maybe the third-highest bidder. Oh, that was probably the Heinemanns. Come to think of it, the better option would probably have been to ask the Heinemann’s to pay the $3,000 that they thought they’d agreed to. And by the way, making them happy would have increased the chances of higher donations down the line.

The priceless lesson that the school hopefully learned here is that a nonprofit that gets into activities like auctions is acting somewhat like a business — and business customers expect to be treated with great deference, not as the walking checkbooks that nonprofit donors sometimes complain of being treated like. For more useful tips on how to run a fundraising auction, see The Volunteers’ Guide to Fundraising (Nolo).

“There Was Nothing to Bid on at the Silent Auction!”

This is not what you want to hear someone say about your nonprofit’s silent auction.

But it’s exactly what a friend of mine said recently, upon returning from a fundraising event. She didn’t literally mean, of course, that the silent auction featured rows of empty tables. But for her purposes, it might as well have. There was nothing she wanted. And she’s usually the type to eagerly enter lots of bids, as well as sign up for every raffle that comes her way.

I asked for specifics on what went wrong. They included:

  • “Too many local goods. I don’t live in that city, and don’t want to drive an hour just to redeem a restaurant or haircut gift certificate.”
  • “Too many crafts made by the same person. They were weird little animal sculptures.”
  • “I don’t know, too many things that just seemed a little tacky, or weren’t to my taste.”

It sounds like this nonprofit did some things right, and some things wrong in planning its silent auction.

dollFor instance, there’s nothing wrong with approaching local vendors for donations of auction items, particularly if most of your attendees will come from nearby. The local merchants will often say yes to a donation of goods or a gift certificate, partly because they’ll get advertising and goodwill among their natural clientele. But clearly not everyone attending an event will be a local, so it’s worth making sure to branch out or go to some merchants with a presence in other cities.

Also, there’s nothing wrong with soliciting crafts, most likely from an enthusiastic member. But if they’re not surefire sellers, make sure not to overwhelm the tables with them. People might wonder whether the craftsperson was having trouble selling them, too.

As for the “tacky” comment, it sounds possible that some merchants were also unloading items that weren’t selling anyway. This doesn’t mean you have to turn up your nose at offerings that might, after all, suit someone in your audience — you just need to balance these out with items that will suit a broad range of people.

At a silent auction that I recently attended, one of the items that got the most buzz was a Trader Joe’s gift certificate for $25. The bidding started at $15 and ended at a mere $26. Not exactly a big-ticket item, but that was $26 of pure profit for the nonprofit — and it added something to the table that everyone, male or female, bargain or luxury hunter, found interesting and worth returning to check on. People who come to the table to look at one item are bound to give one more look at the other ones there . . . .

For more information on holding a successful auction, see the articles on the “Nonprofit Fundraising” page of Nolo’s website.

Wanna Hear Insults? Listen to What People Have to Say About Bad Event Emcees

shakespearemedlers-sThe world used to be a lot more creative about issuing negative criticism. Shakespeare, for example, came up with lines like, “He is white-livered and red-faced” (Henry V) and “You are not worth another word, else I’d call you knave” (All’s Well That Ends Well).

Nevertheless, some pretty biting stuff can be found in the realm of audience reactions to a bad emcee at an event. It’s almost visceral – perhaps because one is trapped in a room (or in a TV-land audience), waiting for the real action or to hear from the people you care about, only to have precious time wasted by some joker who should never have been handed the microphone – but is now in total control.

Of Seth MacFarlane as the 2013 Oscars host, for example, New Yorker writer Richard Brody said, “he seemed as if he were doing an ‘S.N.L.’ parody of an Oscar host, delivering lines that resembled Oscar-host gags that exaggerate the worst emcee stereotypes (mainly, regressive, Archie-Bunker-ish attitudes) and faking the outward tone of chipper salesmanship while never conveying authentic joie de shtick.”

Or, from the gaming world, there’s this commentary from Michael McWhertor about Jamie Kennedy’s hosting of the E3 2007 Activision press conference: “Jamie would seemingly not appreciate being reminded that his phoned in, barely comprehensible emceeing gig, in which he was heckled by the crowd and out-joked by at least one video game developer, was actually a trainwreck.”

Or, in case you all missed the Miss North Carolina messageboard, some poor pageant emcee seems to have been univerally reviled, inspiring such audience comments as, “Anyways this guy is a terrible and I mean terrible emcee. He doesn’t understand timing at all. He’s some meathead, football loving, brainless person that needs to be replaced immediately.”  To which someone added, “The main thing I see is that he isn’t prepared. Did he get the script yesterday? When you have to read a question like ‘What’s the typical day of a Miss NC’ to Arlie from a notecard, you have a problem . . . .”

So, whether it’s the Oscars or the Miss North Carolina pageant, finding a good event emcee can clearly be difficult. Meanwhile, countless nonprofits are trying to do just that, for their next fundraising event. To help you avoid the slings and arrows of a disgruntled crowd, we offer the following new article on Nolo’s website: “Choosing an Emcee for a Fundraising Event: Do’s and Don’ts.”

It’s Actually Okay If Your Nonprofit Doesn’t Hold a Golf Fundraiser

golfTo hear all the ads and emails, you’d think that any nonprofit that hasn’t started planning its spring golf tournament — right now, this instant — is putting a permanent divot into its fundraising budget. Doesn’t it make you feel a little nervous, hearing about how other groups are raising money in ways that yours hasn’t even contemplated?

Relax, take a deep breath, and remember the fundraisers’ mantra: Your fundraising plan should be based on your nonprofit’s assets and capacities. If you don’t have a fundraising plan, now might be a good time to get going on one. But chasing after ideas like golf tournaments is only going to postpone that process, probably without much of a budgetary boost in the meantime.

There’s a reason I’m picking on golf tournaments, too. I’ve never met a fundraising method more famous for insinuating itself into a nonprofit’s activities — usually because one founder or board member happens to love golf — and then occupying oodles of staff and volunteer time, despite the fact that the number of participants hasn’t grown much and it has absolutely no thematic tie-in with the nonprofit’s work or the interests of most of its members.

For help with identifying your nonprofit’s core assets and developing a fundraising plan that best utilizes those, see “Effective Fundraising for Nonprofits: Real-World Strategies That Work” (Nolo).

Suicide Prevention Orgs: Have You Weighed in on the VICE Magazine Suicide-Fashion Spread?

VirginiaWoolfAny nonprofit communications expert will tell you that part of an organization’s communications strategy should be to not only post its own news, but get engaged and comment on the stories and issues being circulated by others — even if they’re outside the nonprofit world.

That can seem difficult for busy nonprofits whose entire communications model has, up until recently, been devoted to carefully crafted mailings, newsletters, and so forth. And then there’s that nagging question: Do such opportunities for engagement really exist, or is everyone just recirculating each others’ news?

This week, a story spreading virally on Facebook offers a prime example of where nonprofits could, by following the social media world and getting engaged, not only establish their relevance, but play a useful role in a debate.

The magazine known as VICE posted a fashion spread depicting well-dressed, well-coiffed famous female authors in the moments before they committed suicide, or attempted to. They include Dorothy Parker, Virginia Woolf, Iris Chang, Charlotte Perkins, Sylvia Plath, Sanmao, and Elise Cowen. It was called “Last Words,” but as pointed out by Tanwi Nandini in Fashionista, “These writers are completely stripped of their words.”

The reaction from the press (such as The Atlantic and Salon) and Facebook commenters has been mostly horror at Vice’s poor taste and commercial cynicism, with occasional voices wondering why we’re drawn to these images. But I haven’t seen much at all from the nonprofit world, which could certainly deepen the discussion with facts and comments on issues like the effect of suicide (and glorified depictions of it!) on family and friends, the state of despair (as opposed to fashion consciousness) that drives people to suicide, and of course the bizarre marketing mash-up of women, sex, and death.

But if you’re still crafting your well-considered response: The magazine has already taken this spread down, and the public’s attention will soon, no doubt, move on to the next outrage.

Why Your Nonprofit’s Next Fundraising Auction Should Set Earnings Records

boxesCorporate giving is up, according to the 2012 Giving in Numbers report from the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy.

It’s up across the board, to the tune of 42% or $4.48 billion between 2007 and 2012. That’s good when you want straight cash. But it’s even better when you want a non-cash contribution from a business, such as  a gift basket, hotel stay, case of wine, or other tempting item for your next charity auction.

Non-cash corporate contributions accounted for 69% of the 2012 corporate giving totals, up from 57% in 2007. We seem to be at a curious point in the U.S.’s economic recovery: Business profits are up just enough that owners feel comfortable increasing their donations to charity — but with sales on the sluggish side, they’re still ending up with excess inventory, which can go toward a nonprofit in need.

Of course, need alone isn’t enough to convince a business to hand over its goods. The savvy nonprofit will make professional requests that stress the attractive manner in which potential auction items will be displayed as well as how the corporate donor will be recognized.

For more on how to hold a great auction, see the article, “Twelve Steps to Preparing a Successful Fundraising Auction.” And while we’re talking about auctions, make sure your nonprofit isn’t making the common mistake of giving bidders an exaggerated idea of how high a tax deduction they’ll receive, as discussed in, “Is Your Nonprofit Overpromising Tax Deductions?

What “Fundraising” Means Depends on the Type of Organization

CAKEThe dictionary defines fundraising as simply, “the act or process of raising funds.” But what that literally means depends on what sort of organization you’re working with. In particular, fundraising techniques, cycles, and cardinal rules look very different depending on whether you’re with:

  • a small or volunteer-led effort such as a start-up nonprofit or a school, church or temple, or community group, or
  • a nonprofit that’s big or established enough to have at least one development staffperson (or perhaps an executive director committed to fundraising efforts).

What’s different about the fundraising experiences of these two types of groups? Here are some of the biggest variations:

  • Volunteer-led efforts may lack continuity. Particularly in schools, where the population of parents changes every year, it can be difficult to plan beyond the next 12 months. While a few people may stay on, other key participants may drop out, and vital information about previous activities or donors may be lost. The constituency may change, as well, making it difficult to develop and maintain relationships with donors. Larger more established groups, by contrast, can and should develop an annual fundraising plan and foster long-term relationships with donors.
  • Volunteer-led efforts rely on what volunteers are willing to do. That sounds obvious, but if you look at how it plays out, the significance is huge: Most volunteers hate asking people for money directly. They may eventually learn that it’s not so bad, but on the whole, this tendency leads to a huge proportion of volunteer-led fundraising activities that are special events (bake sales, pancake breakfasts, auctions, fairs, carnivals, benefits, and so on). Special events are the least efficient way to fundraise, as the larger more established groups have mostly learned (sometimes the hard way). But for certain types of groups, special events not going to go away anytime soon.
  • Volunteer-led or smaller groups may have a constituency with a direct, personal interest in the cause. It can certainly be easier to get people involved when they are the literal beneficiaries of the group — the parents of kids in school or on a sports team, the patrons of a local library, the members of a house of worship, and so on. Not everyone will feel a sense of responsibility or be able to follow through, but many will “get it” that if they don’t take part in fundraising activities, the service will go away. This can be good for fundraising via methods that involve large numbers of people, such as a walk-a-thon or auction.
  • Smaller or less established nonprofits may face greater challenges obtaining grant funding. Foundations and corporations like to see that a group has a track record of using funding wisely, and that’s hard to show if you, uh, don’t. Then again, a nonprofit that’s new may at least be able to show prospective funders that it’s doing something exciting and different, instead of just trying to continue last year’s program.
  • Smaller or less-established groups may lack infrastructure, resources, and storage space. They’re often going without a donor database, a dedicated office space, a place to put the goodies for their next auction, and so on. Individuals often end up borrowing their own homes or even office space for the cause.
  • Larger groups must raise larger amounts just to cover the basics. With various commitments such as rent, salaries, and other operating costs, a larger organization may find that a big part of its fundraising efforts serve just to keep the lights on. They have a harder time being nimble in responding to change.

No doubt this list could go on. In the meantime, you can learn more about each of these two different fundraising universes by reading one of the two books offered by Nolo: The Volunteers’ Guide to Fundraising; Raise Money for Your School, Team, Library or Community Group; or, for the larger, more established groups, Effective Fundraising for Nonprofits; Real-World Strategies That Work.

What Can Other Nonprofits Learn From Community Radio Station Pledge Drives?

radio_mikeI don’t know about you, but where I live, it’s been all fund drive, all the time, from virtually every nonprofit, community radio station in the Bay Area. No matter where you turn the dial, there’s someone reminding listeners about the great service the station provides, the costs to run it, and the great thank-you gifts we’ll get in return for pledging particular amounts.

As someone interested in nonprofit fundraising, I perhaps listen to the pitch sessions of the programs longer than is average. (Or maybe it’s just that I’m usually listening in the kitchen, with hands too wet or slimy to touch the radio.)

Since I happen to know a few radio programmers, however, I also know that I’m not the only one who sometimes listens all the way until the end of a show, even when the last 20 minutes are all fundraising. In fact, my programmer friends say that, in general:

  1. most donations come in the last few minutes of the program, and
  2. overall, most donations come in during the last day of the fund drive.

What’s up with that, and what does it mean for other fundraisers?

I haven’t seen any studied analyses of this phenomenon. It actually seems doubly surprising given that experts who have studied on-air fundraising consistently say that urgency, desperation, statement like “We’ve got to meet this goal!” and “The phone lines are empty!” are a turnoff. (See, for example, John Sutton’s “Listener Focused Fundraising” report.) Positive messages about the listener’s part in supporting excellent media work much better.

So, I’ll have to speculate a bit. Here are my best guesses:

  1. Everyone procrastinates. All fundraisers have learned to expect a last-minute rush of donations in late December. But that’s just one of many possible deadlines during the year. Any time potential donors know there’s a deadline ahead, they may perhaps mentally put the item on their “deal with later” list.
  2. Even the people who say they’re turned off by urgency and desperation may eventually be moved by it. I believe the prevailing fundraising wisdom that it’s best to keep the message positive — but I’m starting to suspect that either there are some people who prefer the “S.O.S.” messages, or that no matter how donors respond to surveys, they actually respond to the cries for help more than anyone recognizes. I’m on an email list for a nonprofit that regularly gets into public debates with donors who say, “Cut it out with the strident distress cries, already,” to which the nonprofit invariably answers, “But it’s the only thing that works!” Are they deluded? Is it just their donors? Impossible to know.
  3. The comparison shopping urge takes over. Almost all radio pledge drives involve thank-you gifts. Some people may simply be waiting to hear what all the gift options are! Of course, they then miss out on opportunities to get limited-offer thank-you gifts.

Assuming I’m not totally off base, the first two items on this list may be worthy of any type of nonprofit’s consideration, radio or not. So, for example, if someone’s newsletter is about to run out, you’d want to give them advance notice, but also make abundantly clear, later on, that THE DEADLINE IS COMING. It’s also worth paying attention to the tone of your messages (which may slip into “distress” mode even without your intending it) and how your donors respond.

As for the third item on the list, it’s a useful reminder that, even in the charitable context, people’s consumer side can take over. Whether at an auction, bake sale, or something else, be sure to remind people early and often that the main purpose is to support a nonprofit, not to pick up a goodie.

Real People Trying Crowdfunding Discover What Nonprofits Already Knew

coinThe field of artists, nonprofits, entrepreneurs, dreamers, freelancers, travel buffs, scientists, and folks in need who are trying out crowdfunding as a way to raise cash is getting a bit, well, crowded. Distinguishing one’s pitch from all the others takes all the creativity and marketing skills that one can muster, as seen in the article “Generation ASK,” by Lauren Smiley, in the May, 2013 issue of San Francisco magazine.

Experienced fundraisers will nod knowingly at the marketing lesson arrived at by one such seeker — Michele Turner, on her way to raising $14,000 to cover basic costs (rent, gas) associated with her time spent in chemo. In order to tap into people’s passions rather than mere guilt, Smiley explains that Turner needed to “sell[] benefactors on the experience of being part of her recovery, not just on alleviating her poverty.”

Sound familiar? In fact, the various crowdfunding sites advise people seeking funds to post updates and thank-yous, “keeping [donors] abreast of every morsel of good news.” As Smiley explains, “All this can be exhausting for someone fighting a serious illness.”  But the good part of this is that “With so many people invested in her recovery, [Turner] can’t shake the feeling that she’s on the hook to heal . . . .”

The parallels aren’t entirely surprising, but notice that, even when the first people who will be viewing the pitch for cash are your own friends and family, sheer neediness and desperation remain a turnoff. Hope sells, as does the chance to be part of the solution.

For more information on nonprofit uses of crowdfunding, see Nolo’s new article, “Using Crowdfunding to Raise Money for Your Nonprofit.”

Charity Scams on IRS “Top 10″ List for 2013

stormAs a nonprofit organization, you really don’t want the word “charity” to become linked in people’s minds with the word “scam.” But that may be the path we’re on, thanks mostly to the scammers themselves, and also to announcements like that issued by the Internal Revenue Service with its “Dirty Dozen Tax Scams for 2013.” According to the IRS, natural disasters are prime time for the emergence of fake charities preying on the public’s urge to help.

The scammers modus operandi typically includes asking people for money via telephone or  email, or setting up a fake website. Some actually claim to be working for the IRS (a move which, if the IRS wasn’t already mad enough, surely would’ve raised its ire). These “phishers” contact victims pretending to offer help with filing loss claims in order to obtain tax refunds — but are really trying to get victims’ personal financial information or Social Security numbers.

Okay, so you’re not a scam organization, but you may have a role to play after a disaster. Even organizations whose primary mission is not disaster relief may be called upon for support.  Animal shelters, for example, have found their services needed to take in lost pets after major hurricanes.

What do you do to distinguish your real group from the bogus ones? Here are some suggestions:

  • Make the most of your good name. If you’ve already got name recognition, make sure to display it loudly, proudly, and in large font on your website and promotional materials. That’s not only to assure people that you’re okay, but so that their eyes will recognize that something is awry when they view a slightly altered name used by a fake organization.
  • After a disaster, communicate with other organizations also offering relief, and promote each other’s work on your website. You’ll gain credibility, and you’ll help isolate the fake groups from the pack.
  • Also on your group’s website, encourage prospective donors to check the IRS’s search feature, Exempt Organizations Select Check, to make sure they’re giving only to legitimate, qualified charities such as yours. (It’s a bit of a clunky search tool, however; giving people your group’s EIN will help make sure they don’t receive pages of results.)
  • Understand, when dealing with prospective donors, that they may be nervous about giving out personal financial information without assurances of who is calling or otherwise contacting them. Make sure your staff and volunteers offer them gentler options than “Your credit card number now, please,” such as asking them to go to your group’s website.

And if you notice a charity scam going on, report it, to: