Category Archives: Gifts from Businesses

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.

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?

Fundraising Kudos to: ARC’s “Dark Shadows” Collaboration

As someone who faints dead away if anyone bearing a needle removes even a drop of my blood, I bow in awe of the heroes and heroines who — willingly! — donate their blood.

But I also had to laugh when I saw a friend sporting not only a red bandage on her arm after giving blood, but this “Give blood” sticker.

Yes, Dark Shadows is a vampire movie. (With Johny Depp and Michelle Pfeiffer no less!) Vampires like blood. People need blood. Get it?

It’s offbeat, but humor is a great way to bring attention to a nonprofit’s cause. And, as in the ideal collaboration, both the nonprofit and the business gain. I’m assuming that the movie folks helped underwrite the ARCs efforts in some way; reports have it they at least donated some movie tickets to be raffled off to blood donors.

As for benefit to the business, I, and probably anyone who saw these stickers, will remember the name of this movie a lot longer than we would have otherwise.  (But will I go see it? Hmm, I’m not crazy about the sight of blood, either, even if it might be on Johny Depp’s lips.)

Corporate Giving Gets More Issue-Focused

Instead of spreading their gifts widely across multiple program areas, corporations are choosing one or two societal issues to focus on, according to a survey and 2011 “Giving in Numbers” report by the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy. (The survey included 184 companies, 63 of which were among the top 100 companies in the Fortune 500.)

Which issues were most of these companies choosing to target? Basic health and social service programs topped the list, followed by education and community and economic development. Basic human hardship in their communities appears to be their central concern. That’s bad news is you’re with an arts program, but those whose missions match these targets should take note, and revisit their corporate fundraising strategy and prospects. Perhaps there are some corporations who’ve showed no interest in your organization in the past, but have since changed their tune.

Fundraising Kudos to: Montclair Pet and Wildlife Fund

You know how I love fundraising that makes money by selling something that costs the nonprofit nothing, and the Montclair Veterinary Hospital’s Pet and Wildlife Fund’s “Pet Mayor Contest” is one of the best examples I’ve seen lately.

Here’s how it works:

  • People pay a $25 registration fee to enter their pets in the annual “Pet Mayor” race, fill out a simple nomination form, and send digital photos.
  • Local businesses sponsor pet candidates and provide polling places , where people can vote for their favorite, on their premises.
  • The winning pet gets a $100 gift certificate for veterinary care along with pet food, treats, and services donated by local vendors. The pet mayor’s responsibilities don’t sound too onerous: According to the Fund, the winner “serves as an ambassador of goodwill to all creatures in the community: two-legged, four-legged, furred, feathered and scaled,” enjoying “media attention and the chance to appear in public on behalf of the Pet & Wildlife Fund.”

This is apparently the Fund’s most popular fundraising event of the year. And it’s a proven publicity-generator — I read about it in the local neighborhood paper.

Fundraising Kudos to: Rockridge DVD Project

These are tough times for libraries, businesses, and donors, but the Rockridge DVD Project has come up with some creative solutions that unite all three.

The library was offered a chance to buy, at low cost, the inventory of a DVD rental store that was closing. With a loan from the library, the newly formed DVD Project did so — but then needed to pay the loan back, by an October deadline. The group started soliciting neighborhood donations, through means such as publicity in local publications and setting up an information table in the library.

I confess, I was initially skeptical about the importance of this project. After all, I like books, and questioned whether the library should turn into a DVD rental outfit.

But after talking to a volunteer at their table, I understood the brilliance of their strategy: DVDs bring people into the library — people who then tend to check out books, as well. When library circulation goes up, city funding goes up, and it becomes easier to advocate against, say, library closures (which Oakland has been threatening a lot lately).

It’s more than a fundraising effort, it’s a strategy for library advocacy. The urgency of the upcoming deadline is also a fine way to raise the library’s profile. And if the effort raises questions (like mine) about the ultimate purpose of libraries, all the better — the end conclusion can only be that they’re incredibly important community resources.

Fundraising Partnerships With Local Real Estate Agents

Since I cover both fundraising and real estate matters at Nolo, I can’t help but notice how often the two intersect.

This week, for example, my local neighborhood newspaper’s real estate section contains a front-page article about the Grubb Company’s recent donation of $5,000 to a local arts center.  DJ Grubb is quoted as saying, “From a personal perspective, I can’t wait to enjoy and participate in upcoming events. From a realtor’s perspective, it represents the spirit and ingenuity of the community . . . .”

On page 5 of the very same section, McGuire Real Estate’s home ads are accompanied by an announcement of its “1st Annual Neighborhood Garage Sale,” to benefit local schools. For every local homeowner who registers to hold a garage sale on September 17, McGuire will make a donation to the schools.

And agents at Pacific Union routinely donate part of their commission to a “Community Fund,” which makes annual awards to local nonprofits.

The pattern here looks pretty clear: Real estate companies have an interest in maintaining the vibrancy of the communities in which they operate, given that it helps them sell houses. And by helping local nonprofits, the get positive press coverage, or can at least draw attention to their own advertising.

Sure, they might have altruistic motives as well, but when it comes to business donations to charity, that altruism almost always gets exercised in a way that simultaneously benefits the business.

So, if you haven’t been watching which local real estate agents are interested in partnering with nonprofits, perhaps now is the time to open your local real estate section.

Or, get proactive. Even without making a cash donation, there are ways that local real estate companies may be able to pitch in with your nonprofit’s efforts — perhaps by lending their offices for a phone-a-thon or event, or suggesting properties for your next fundraising home-and-garden tour.

Bay Area Fundraisers: Wanna See Free Theatre About Fundraising?

Spending a summer’s day in the park seeing the San Francisco Mime Troupe, picnicking, and seeing which old friends you run into: It’s a Bay Area tradition.

No, the Mime Troupe is not silent, as in pantomime — it’s campy political comedy, with rousing music to boot. (To quote their website, “We mean ‘mime’ in the ancient sense: to mimic.”)

The question every year (other than, should I buy a T-shirt or just make a straight donation?) is, what topic will have the politically savvy Bay Area audiences laughing, crying, and clapping along — without saying, “Didn’t we see this last year?” That’s no mean feat, given that they’re in their 52nd season. (Though I still wish they had an excuse to bring back their Dick Cheney character.)

The answer this year: Nonprofits’ desperation for funds, and the pushed-to-the wall question of whether to accept funding from dubious corporate sources. It’s sort of a play within a play, as a scrappy political theatre group faces imminent closure and the temptation of corporate funding from the mysterious (and more than a little pushy) Mrs. Haverlock.

To say any more would be require a spoiler alert, so I’ll just send you to the Mime Troupe’s website for reviews and the performance schedule.


Fundraising When the Economy Is Down: Newly Released Podcast

Fundraising is harder for every group out there, but small, mostly volunteer-led groups face particular challenges — and have come up with unique ways to overcome those challenges. Hear from parents, event planners, and other volunteers who contributed to Ilona Bray’s recent book, The Volunteer’s Guide to Fundraising, in this newly released podcast (from the CD-ROM that comes with the book), “Fundraising in a Down Economy.”