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Selling "Stuff" to Raise Money: Is It Really Worth It?

Books, candles, candy, cookies, magazines, peanuts, pizzas, wrapping paper ... the list is endless.

Elementary schools, high school bands, church youth groups, scout troops, youth sports teams ... the causes are infinite.

At the mall, in front of the grocery store, at the ball game, on your doorstep, at your office ... they're everywhere.

They're ...

... people trying to raise funds for nonprofits by selling you stuff.

Why do so many organizations want you to sell you things? Does selling candy bars or magazine subscriptions really pay off for them? And how can your nonprofit get in on the act?

Not Everybody Does It—But Lots Do

July's Question of the Month asked Newsletter readers if their organizations had ever raised money by selling products such as candy, greeting cards, pizza, popcorn, or wrapping paper. Although half of the respondents said they had not, another 46 percent said they had.

The items sold ranged from bottled water ("People always seem to be thirsty," wrote an anonymous participant) to poinsettias to tote bags. Candy was the product mentioned most often, followed by T-shirts, wrapping paper, pizzas, and entertainment coupon books.

A majority—56 percent—of participants whose organizations had sold products said they would recommend that their nonprofits raise funds in this manner again. "With a volunteer coordinating the effort and volunteers preparing the mailing, a significant amount of money can be raised with minimal expense involved," stated Jeffrey Garrett of the Osteogenesis Imperfecta Foundation. The Osteogenesis Imperfecta Foundation sold wrapping paper: "In 2003, we spent approximately $1,500 and raised more than $20,000."

A third of the respondents whose nonprofits sold products to raise funds, however, said they would not recommend doing it again. Most agreed with the anonymous participant who wrote, "The money raised was not worth the time spent to set up and carry off the event."

A few readers were on the fence. "As long as they are handled on the volunteer side, some parents and some students love these activities," reported Margariet Fourcroy of the Greenhills School, which sold wrapping paper and poinsettias. "The issue is not to have too many of these things. They clutter up the message about the kind of support the school really needs."

And even participants who felt their organizations should continue selling products remarked on the effort required. "Very time consuming," stated an anonymous respondent. Lisa Smith of the Texas Boys Choir agrees: "It is a lot of work. Every time we have done one of these, we burned out the volunteer chairman. However, it is a short term project that raised about $7,000."

Read more comments

Launching Your Own Campaign

Before you start selling a product or working with a fundraising company, take some time to protect your organization and to plot out your strategy.

  • Check out the companies you are thinking of working with. Your local chamber of commerce or Better Business Bureau are good places to start.
  • Ask for references. Get the names of organizations like yours that have used the companies you are considering. Then talk to them.
  • Surf the Net. The Web is bursting with information that can help you with your due diligence and the nuts and bolts of your campaign. The four sites listed at the end of this article can help you find these tips.
  • Get the details. Before you sign on the dotted line, be sure you know what's expected of your organization and what you can expect from your fundraising partner. Will your nonprofit be required to purchase items or pay money up front, or will you be taking prepaid orders? What percentage of the sales price will go to your organization? How will you receive your portion of the proceeds? When will you receive the money?
  • Stay safe. This tip is especially important if your "sales force" includes children or youths who will be going door to door, even if they will have adult supervision. Several Web sites offer safety tips—read them, then impress them on your salespeople of all ages.

Finding Your Fundraising Partners

Type "fundraising products" into an Internet search engine, and in seconds you'll come up with more than a million results. Here are four places where you can start your search for the right product(s), the right partner(s) for your organization, and tips on how to conduct your campaign. Good luck!

Suzanne E. Coffman, August 2004
© 2004, Philanthropic Research, Inc. (GuideStar)

Suzanne Coffman is GuideStar's director of communications and editor of the Newsletter.
Topics: Fundraising