I originally posted this in June 2013, but I thought of it again the other day. I got my first “annual appeal” email today, so it seems very apropos. I no longer work full time at the non-profit I mention in this piece, but I do still teach there and I have joined the board of directors/advisory committees of two other non-profits in the past year. For every organization I have worked for or volunteered with, these things are still true.
Many of you know I work for a non-profit arts center and I have for 9 years now. I have worked for and volunteered for and advocated for a number of non-profits throughout my entire life and all of them have been pretty amazing creatures that do pretty amazing things. So, I have had a couple of conversations lately with a number of different people about “I love this organization, but I can’t afford to donate anything and I feel bad about that and so I don’t know what else I can do.” and I wanted to say that there are TONS of things that you can do that don’t cost you anything, but can be enormously valuable to a non-profit. So here’s my list of 8 simple things you can do that will cost you very little and can add up to a lot.
1. Participate. A lot of grants that non-profits write to help support their free concerts and exhibitions and make and take programs are all about the number of people served. There are whole sections of grant applications that require the organization to talk very specifically about the audience and who will be participating. So, everybody who shows up gets counted and the more people attend a concert or sign their name in the guest book, the bigger the impact the organization can show. So just by showing up and seeing the art in the gallery and then signing your name in the guestbook, you are saying to that funder or sponsor “I think this is valuable” and that makes a big impact. Downloading the email, clicking the link, or showing up at the event are all ways for you to be counted.
2. Comment. Good or bad, take the time to write a comment or complete an evaluation: “I really loved seing this work in person because it was so amazing to be able to see the detail up close. I will come back again for your next exhibition.” or “My kids and I attended the concert in the park and they spent the rest of the afternoon pretending to play violins and conducting their own imaginary orchestra. What a great afternoon!” One of my very favorite REAL quotes from a teacher that brought a field trip to my art center: “The second grade says weaving is better than recess!” (We named our annual youth programs exhibit after this quote.) Quotes are also a valuable way for non-profits to communicate with sponsors and funders as a way to say “We know this project is successful because we have this feedback from people who participated.” Evaluations are required by many program funders and feedback good (or not so good) is all really important.
3. Like it or tweet it. Every non-profit would like to reach more people. If you see something on your favorite organization’s website and you hit the “like” button, you become part of the magic algorithm that networks like Google and Facebook use to rank search results. Very simply put, the more people “like” something, the more the search engine thinks that it must be “important” or “relevant” to whatever it is looking for. So something as simple as clicking “Like” on a post about an upcoming class about shibori silk scarves can mean that more people will discover that art center you think is really cool when they are searching around on Google.
4. Link it. Have a facebook page or a website or a blog? Post a link to your favorite non-profit’s website. Links to organizations work the same way as likes and tweets. The more connections to the site, the more important the search engines think it is and the bigger the potential reach for your favorite organization.
5. Spread the word. The next time you are at your art center or a concert in the park, take an extra postcard or flyer about an upcoming event and stick it up on the bulletin board at work. Or at your favorite coffee shop. Or at your church. Let me tell you from experience that getting those beautiful postcards out into the world is one of the hardest jobs ever. There is just never enough time in the day (or postage money in the budget) to get everywhere you would like to get them. If you get an email about an event, pass it on to a friend or post it on your Facebook page. (Or print it out and put it on the bulletin board). Even just talking about it is great! Word of mouth is a really powerful tool, especially if you tell your story.
6. Donate stuff, but ask first. Speaking for my own non-profit program, I am delighted to get donations of stuff, but I have about zero square feet of storage space to put it in. So although I would LOVE to have your yarn, I might have to store it on my desk until I can make room to put it. Which isn’t really ideal. But there are really goofy things that I need (that you might not even think of) that I could put to good use right now. Like a gallon or two of vinegar or a salad spinner or some empty yogurt containers. We used all of those items at summer camp today and we could have used a few more. Other useful stuff? Rulers, sticky nametags, tablets of white scratch paper, flexible tape measures, a crock pot, a wall clock, a really big color wheel… Many organizations have a “wish list” that might contain something you have collecting dust at your house. Win win.
7. Time. Do you have an hour? Would you be willing to hand out programs at a concert? Or stuff envelopes for a mailing? Or weed the garden around our building? Or help clean up after an event? Volunteering seems like an obvious one, but sometimes the hardest jobs to fill are the ones that sound boring. Everyone wants to attend the XYZ Event for free in exchange for some volunteer hours, but maybe you would be just as content to listen to the radio in your car and deliver these concert flyers to all the public library branches in Minneapolis. Or maybe you would be happy to look up the address and contact info for all of the afterschool programs in the metro area and address some envelopes for me so I could send out some field trip applications? Also if you have special skills, tell someone. Are you a lawyer and would be willing to read over contracts for me, just to point out anything I should be concerned about? What a great resource!
8. Photos. Do you love to take photos? As staff at an event, I am lucky to have a minute to snap a few pictures because I am busy making the event happen and although I wouldlove to hire a photographer for every event, that is just not in the budget. But I would LOVE to have your photos if you are willing to share them. Photos are another great tool for spreading the word and showing the impact of a program or event. They are a handy way for us to document who was there and what happened so we can refer to it next year when we start to plan the next one.
I hope this inspires you and maybe gives you a few ideas as this “annual fund” season rolls around. This week I mailed a piece of art off to a fundraiser as a silent auction item, I spent 2 hours at a board meeting (as a volunteer) and I picked up a book of proposals to review for a grant panel in November. Donating dollars is hugely important to these organizations too, but I hope these are ways you can maybe make the $ you are able to donate add up to a whole lot more.