Nonprofits Should Sell Things: Why We Should Stop Begging for Bucks and Start Making for Markets

Derik Timmerman

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Imagine being stuck in hellish traffic in a large, bustling South Asian city.   

You’re sweating and dozing off in the heat of the battered down taxi with its half-functional AC.

But just as you’re about to take off into a dreamworld of waterfalls and green things…

…you hear a rap on your window.

You ignore it, but it continues.

Rap, rap, rap.

Reluctantly, you lift your head.

There are two boys standing outside your window. Both are straggly and under clothed. They both haven’t had a bath in days. They both clearly need money.

But there’s a difference.

One boy is selling you towels.

The other is merely begging.

Let me ask you this.

Which boy do you think ends up with your money?

I know, perhaps both (since you have a kind heart).

But in many cases, the boy with the towels gets the money…and the beggar goes home hungry.

So, as you go forward with raising funds for your nonprofit organization…

…will you be the boy with towels, or the beggar?

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WHY NONPROFITS SHOULD STOP BEGGING AND START SELLING RIGHT NOW

When I mention selling to raise funds for your nonprofit, your eyes will probably widen.

“Never!” you’ll say. “I went into the nonprofit world because I hate everything related to selling and capitalism.”

I hear you.

I completely understand where you’re coming from.

(We’d all be dreaming if we believed capitalism isn’t problematic.)

The thing is, though.

Selling doesn’t equal capitalism.

In fact, capitalism is defined by Investopedia as, “An economic system in which private individuals or businesses own capital goods.”

Economics Help lists all its problems here:

problems of capitalism

That’s not what you’re doing, right?

My point is that selling for your nonprofit doesn’t mean you’ll join the for-profit capitalist world.

It only means that you’ll give value in return for the funds you raise for your nonprofit.

Think of it as giving a gift to your donors.

For instance, you start a nonprofit kindergarten. All proceeds you make go to homeless kids or kids in an orphanage.

But instead of a little “Thank You” note to your donors…

…you give their kids quality education.

It sounds simplistic, I know.

But if you want to boost funds, give value to both your “donors” and your constituents, and have that steady income to support your employees…

…then you should start doing it now.

Let’s dive into some ideas of products or services you can sell for your nonprofit.

7 IDEAS FOR PRODUCTS OR SERVICES FOR YOUR NONPROFIT

Quick rule of thumb before we begin.

It’s a great idea to sell a product or service related to your nonprofit.

So, if none of the seven ideas below fit your organization, take a few days to brainstorm and find one that does.

Here are three easy steps to help you.

  • Ask yourself, “What does my nonprofit really do?”
  • Brainstorm related products and services based on your answer. For instance, you can sell hiking gear if your nonprofit focuses on clearing out nature trails in your country’s state parks.
  • List down all your ideas, then pick one you think has a large market of people who care for both the product and the cause behind it.

Here are seven ideas to inspire you.

1. A Church Selling Weekday Preschool

Here are two (of many) concerns of church leaders:

  • To raise funds for the needy in the congregation
  • To help parents raise Godly children while handling their busy lives

If you’re a church leader, what you can do is join these two concerns to create a solution that’ll help everyone.

Idea: Churches should sell weekday preschool.  

A great example is Mt. Washington Baptist Church's Daycare Services. They offer a safe, Christian environment to infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and school age children.

mt. washington baptist church preschool

Since they’re open from 6 am to 6:30 pm, they’re perfect for parents who lead busy lives and want the peace of mind knowing their children are being cared for in a safe, Christian environment.

Is there a need for daycare centers like this?

Of course.

In fact, WCPO reports that many churches offering daycare are at capacity, and even have waiting lists.

So, if your congregation is in need of funds and your members are in need of a safe zone for their kids while they work…

…a weekday preschool or daycare is the perfect solution.

2. A Homeless Shelter Selling Work Placement Services

Ever hear this quote by Maimonides, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”?

maimonides quote

Apply this quote to the homeless shelter you run.

Day after day you’re raising funds to feed the homeless and jobless.

But what if you could solve the source of the problem, and help these people find jobs?

Idea: Homeless shelters should sell work placement services.

With work placement services, you’ll be helping companies find skilled employees while raising funds for your shelter.

Plus, if you find talented but jobless people living in your shelter, they could be the perfect match for recruiters.

3. An International Aid Organization Selling Trips into the Field

The world is a bleak place, with millions of forests lost, deaths due to malnutrition, and people falling prey to diseases every year.

It’s even harder in war-torn areas badly hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Which means, you’re doing an excellent, superhuman job if you run an international aid organization.

But raising funds to reach thousands of people is harder than you’ve ever imagined. How do you keep a steady flow of cash for your constituents?

Idea: International aid organizations should sell trips into the field.

When the pandemic is over and we’re all ready to fly again, we’ll want to fly with a cause.

4. A Food Pantry Selling In-Home Pantry Cleaning and Organization Services

Did you know that 23,000+ people die of hunger per day?

people dying of hunger daily

That’s not counting the people who suffer from malnutrition.

But if you run a food pantry, you already know this.

The problem with food pantries is that you need funds daily. And often, fundraising gets tough.

Idea: Food pantries should sell in-home pantry cleaning and organization services.

“But do people really need organization services?” you’ll ask.

Of course!

In fact, a 2015 study by PR Newswire revealed that 54% of Americans are overwhelmed with clutter and have no idea what to do with it.

5. Eco Adventures for Conservation Nonprofits

What kind of trip would you rather go on:

  • An exciting trip you’d end up feeling guilty about in the end, knowing you grew carbon footprint extensively
  • An exciting trip you’d feel good about in the end, knowing the proceeds are going to help the environment

Well, except for the tiny number of trolls out there, I bet we’d all pick #2.

What’s even better, what if trip #2 is an eco trip, where you know you’re eating local, keeping your Co2 emissions low, and all-out loving our beautiful but damaged earth?

That’s right.

We’d all flock to trip #2.

And the thing is, you can do this for your conservation nonprofit.

You can sell eco trips to everyone out there with a conscience. (You’ll be surprised to find how many there are.) 😉

6. A Family Service Selling Government Consulting

If you run a family service, you have a ton on your plate.

On a daily basis, you’re dealing with:

  • Counseling victims of abuse
  • Running family support programs
  • Caring for battered women and abused elders
  • Finding homes for children

And all this work and experience lead to one thing: knowledge. No one knows about family problems in your area more than you do.

Which means?

You’re an asset to the government.

You can lead and influence through helping build government programs. 

Plus, your services can bring in a nice steady cashflow for your organization.

It’s a double win.

7. A Veteran Nonprofit Selling Care Packages for Soldiers

Because I’m ex-military, this one comes close to my heart.

When you’re in the field, you feel deeply how much care every soldier needs.

Also, we need to build a world where veterans are rewarded for their service.

Idea: Veteran nonprofits should sell care packages for soldiers.

BEING A NONPROFIT DOESN'T MEAN YOU'RE A NONE-SELL-IT: STOP BEGGING AND START MAKING TODAY

Imagine yourself back in the South Asian traffic jam.

The little boys leave (with your money) and move on to the next car.

Still, boy #1 is selling towels. And boy #2 is simply begging with his sad face and emaciated body.

The next car they knock on is a large SUV with dark windows.

Inside, a fat man with gold rings around his fingers sits sweating.

Sweat is pouring down his face, and he’s forgotten his handkerchief.

He looks up as the boys rap on his window.

He hates kids and thinks the poor should be eradicated, but just as he’s about to shoo them off, he notices the towels in boy #1’s hand.

He needs those towels.

Like, right now.

What does he do?

Roll down the window, of course.

Buy a towel or two.

Coins clink into boy #1’s hand.

At the end of the day, the two boys go home with money.  

But boy #1 has made more than boy #2.

Not because he needed it more. Not because he looked more pitiful. Not because of luck or happenstance.

But simply because he had more to offer.

Now, if you’re passionate about raising money for your cause…

…will be the boy with towels, or the beggar?

It's time to take your nonprofit to the next level.

Watch our FREE masterclass today for the step-by-step essentials of nonprofit leadership.

About The Author

Derik Timmerman is the founder of Sparrow Nonprofit Solutions. When he’s not serving nonprofit leaders, he geeks out on philosophy, outdoor trail time, and video games with his three kids.