Give Nonprofits What They Need (Not Teddy Bears)

Photo by JunCTionS

The other day I read something on my Facebook wall from a friend who is a television reporter in Nebraska. His station was doing stories related to the school shooting in Newtown, CT, and how people are reaching to help out. In his comment, he noted that they had spoken to one woman who had set a goal of collecting a million teddy bears to send to the folks affected by this great tragedy more than a thousand miles away from her home. A million teddy bears. On the surface, this is one of those great heart-tugging news stories of someone trying to help out. But think further. If she meets her goal, what will sending a million teddy bears mean for a town of just 28,000 people? Is this what they need? What would they even do with them all? Too often, particularly in light of a tragedy, we let our emotions and good intentions dictate our giving. We see someone in need, and rather than ask them what would help them the most, we act. But our actions, while well-intentioned, might not actually help the problem. In fact, they might even hurt by getting in the way and delaying real help. The post office in Newtown, CT is already being inundated with letters and gifts. Can you imagine what a shipment of a million, let alone a thousand, teddy bears would do to their productivity? With that in mind, here are some tips on how to properly give to your favorite nonprofit.

1. Cash First

I can’t think of a nonprofit that wouldn’t prefer cash over just about any other type of donation. Recently Sohini Baliga wrote here about the importance of unrestricted cash donations. If you can give money, do so. And don’t earmark it, unless there is a specific fund set up for that purpose. You might donate money to an organization and specify that it be used for a specific purpose, but that might not be what the organization needs. As she says:

Cash, especially if unrestricted, is immediate, international, non-perishable, doesn’t incur storage or extra processing costs, and above all, is flexible.

Every organization can use cash, and if you give without earmarking it, the organization can quickly funnel where most needed.

2. Donations of Goods

Many organizations accept the donation of specific goods. But before you donate, make sure you understand their guidelines. If they are asking for new toys, don’t donate your “gently used” toys, even if they look “like new.” If you are donating food items, make sure you give them what they need. Your best bet is to check the nonprofit’s website to see if they have any guidelines. Many nonprofits will offer both a list of their specific needs, as well as a list of what they don’t want. Just because you have something you no longer need doesn’t mean nonprofits want to take it off your hands. Thrift stores run by Goodwill and the Salvation Army even have strict guidelines about certain items they won’t take. Believe it or not, many won’t accept items like cribs, baby strollers, bike helmets, or other items that could be subject to recalls or safety issues. Also, make sure you follow the guidelines for HOW to donate your goods. There might be specific instructions on where to drop them off, or what condition they should be in.

3. In-kind Donations

Perhaps you’ve thought of donating your services. Whether you are a plumber or a web designer, there’s a chance that local nonprofits might be able to use your services. But it’s always important not to push yourself in their way. You might be able to build them a website, but they might already have a new website with which they are happy. Also, understand that your in-kind donation might not be tax deductible based on state and federal laws. For instance, I can donate my social media services to nonprofits, but because what I do isn’t “tangible,” it rarely qualifies for a tax deduction. And there might also be laws, or internal rules, that restrict the type of services an organization can accept for free. As harsh as this sounds, some nonprofits prefer to pay for services. It might sound as though they aren’t appreciative of your offer of services, but look at this way. If you pay to have work done, it will get done in a timely fashion. If you have the service donated, the project could get put on the back burner as the business person attends to their paying customers and clients before getting around to the donated work. Harsh? Perhaps. But also realistic.

4. Volunteering

You might not have cash or goods or even services that you can offer, but you can show up and help out. But just like the above examples, check with the nonprofit before you just show up with a smile and good intentions. Make sure you are volunteering when needed and where needed. Some nonprofits even require their individuals to go through some sort of training before they allow them to actually work on premises or with clients. Try to be understanding. Nonprofits need our donations, but it’s difficult for them when we offer them something they can’t use. Don’t be insulted if you are turned away. They have very real reasons for their rules. Work with them to find a way to help out and give. If they don’t want a million teddy bears, don’t give them a million teddy bears. With that in mind, a note to nonprofits: Create a spot on your website for very clear instructions about what you can and cannot accept. Include instructions on how to donate and where to donate. And make sure that all of your employees and volunteers understand these rules so they can properly communicate them to those who call your organization. It’s one thing to give, but another thing to give well!