Dani Robbins

Things that Aren’t Really Free and Don’t Raise Money Anyway

In Non Profit Boards, Resource Development, Leadership on November 21, 2015 at 10:33 am

There are three questions that I regularly ask when it comes to fund raising and many other topics as well. The questions are “What is the goal?” “Is this a good use of your time?” and “To what end?”

What is the goal?

When the answer is raising money for an agency, sometimes the goal is not in concert with the actions. I once ran an agency that held a duck race as a fund raiser. I should say I ran an agency that had a duck race in process when I arrived and that once I saw recommended we never do again.

If you’ve never seen a duck race, it really is just that: a race of plastic ducks down a river. People pay $5 each for their ducks and get assigned a number; if their duck wins, they win a prize. Now all of this sounds fine, until you hear the details. The devil is always in the details.

Here are the details: We rented for $1 and then “sold” 8,000 ducks for $5 each.

They – and I’m completely disowning this part- had my Board members selling ducks for $5 a piece at Walmart. My Board members, the pillars of our community whom we (they) should have been treating like gold, honoring and cherishing, and giving meaningful strategic work to do, were at Walmart selling ducks for $5 apiece, and not just them either.

It takes a long time to sell 8,000 ducks, so we also invited service groups to sell ducks on our behalf for which we paid $1 for every duck they sold. If you’re doing the math with me, and I know you are, I’m now down $2 for every $5 we bring in.

8,000 ducks were sold. They came in filthy from whatever river they had most recently been fished out of and needed to be cleaned, stored and have the 8,000 stickers from the prior race removed and 8,000 new stickers added. We borrowed the factory and used volunteers so other than the cost of soliciting and managing those pieces, no additional cost there, but man was it a lot of work!

The prize was a $5,000 cash prize. As you might imagine, it came right off the top and in case you’re wondering was not donated back to the agency. 8,000 ducks at $5 a piece is $40,000, minus the $1 cost per duck, the $1 we paid other groups to sell them, the cash prize and the staff time.

I had two staff, one of whom was an intern (brilliant who I later hired and who we’ll come back to later), that worked nonstop for at least the two months I was there on nothing other than this event, which did not have the agency name in its title. No one even knew the event benefited the agency.

What was the goal?

It was intended to be a fund raiser. Because it didn’t really raise funds, especially once you added in staff time; because no one knew it benefited the agency so we couldn’t even call it a friend raiser; because my BOARD MEMBERS WERE AT WALMART SELLING DUCKS; I recommended we never do the event again.

That is my favorite illustration of “things don’t raise money anyway.’” Now, let’s move on to things that “aren’t really free.” Our intern, later promoted to event planner who was amazing – and also ornery – insisted she stay and physically put together 300 program books for our gala. She printed, copied, hole punched and bound each book by hand. It took forever. It possibly would have been justifiable but it didn’t even save us money. She spent hours on something we could have paid a printer to do for less money in less time.

I cajoled. I teased. I encouraged her to make a different decision. Finally, I insisted, sent her to the printer and then home. If the goal is raising money, spending 10 hours to do something I could pay someone else to do for a fraction of the cost is counter-productive. Had I asked, the answer to my next question would have been no.

“Is this a good use of your time?”

I am consistently amazed at the things people do that are not only not a good use of their time, but are actually other people’s jobs. Weekly, someone tells me about a situation in which they, as the executive, do the work of the board; they, as the board, do the work of the executive. Worse, sometimes they, the executive, do the work of the staff. If you are doing the work of someone who you pay, what are they doing? Also, what are you not doing?

I totally get that it’s easier for you to do it. Here’s the problem with that logic: you will always be the one that does it. If you don’t want to be the one that does it, and if you want to be the kind of leader that develops others, you will have to teach other people how to do it and then allow them to do so.

Boards that are trained to their role and allowed to fulfill their role, do. Ditto for staff. Let them.

Doing other people’s jobs isn’t the only way to “not really free.” When you have a small agency and the CEO is doing basic admin work, such as coding or data entry, there is an opportunity cost. It’s not only the highest paid admin work in town; it’s the actual CEO work that is not getting done. It’s every donor that is not getting cultivated; every public event at which your leader is not being seen; every strategy that is not being considered. This brings me to my last question:

“To what end?”

If the end game is a strong sustainable agency, and your CEO is doing work that you could pay someone else a fraction of the cost to do, that not only isn’t really free, it’s costing you money and opportunity.

If you want to go down a path, it is important to know where it will lead. Sometimes, it’s staff that are doing things that are not within their charts of work, and way below their hourly rate. Sometime it’s volunteers. If the cost of free is high, maybe it’s time to pay someone to do what needs to be done.

I know of agencies that get a variety of things done for free, which is awesome when it works and totally frustrating and disengaging for all involved when it doesn’t. If you can’t get done what you need done, free isn’t working for you and it’s time to do something different.

Free is only free when it gets you what you need. If the cost of free is frustration and disengagement, your actions aren’t aligned with your goal. It’s time for a new decision. Life is about making new mistakes.

What price have you paid for free? Will you share your stories? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please offer your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.

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  1. […] I’m betting that every last one of us can relate to Dani Robbins’ post, Things that Aren’t Really Free and Don’t Raise Money Anyway. […]

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