This post is by Jacob Smith, co-author of the The Nimble Nonprofit: An Unconventional Guide to Sustaining and Growing Your Nonprofit. The book is so awesome that I asked Jacob to post adapted excerpts from it here for you, every Friday for ten weeks. Tweet at @brightplus3 if you’re loving it!
Free usually sounds like a great price, and, because you are a cost-conscious nonprofit director, you may find that the chance to meet a need or take advantage of an opportunity without having to spend your donors’ money is tough to pass up. But “free” is never free.
That donated computer looked like it was free. But it runs on a different operating system than the other computers in your office and has been so loaded down with installed programs over the years that it takes forever to boot up and crashes frequently. It ended up costing you time and money to wipe the hard drive and reinstall everything, and you have to buy a new license for a current operating system so that it will work well with the server. The donated car seemed to great to pass up. But it will have maintenance, insurance, and parking costs (the smart thing to do is compare those costs to buying a newer car, leasing a car, or renting only when you need a vehicle, and then decide whether to accept the donation).
Among environmental nonprofits, ebase is a classic example. A free, open source customer relationship management software package, many nonprofits (including ones where both of us worked) adopted it to manage donor and donation information. But because ebase was built on Filemaker, many nonprofits actually had to purchase expensive software to run it. Furthermore, because ebase is complicated, many had to expend resources on training. Salesforce, which we’ve also used quite a bit, offers a more contemporary example. The Salesforce Foundation awards free licenses to many nonprofits, but using the software involves a learning curve, and hiring a consultant to set up the system and to make adjustments over time can actually be quite expensive.
This is true of volunteers, as well. Volunteers can make powerful contributions to an organization, but never make the mistake of thinking that volunteers are free. Even in the best of circumstances, your staff has to do some coordinating, planning, and managing to make sure the volunteer efforts move the ball forward on your project. On complicated projects, the amount of staff effort required to effectively manage volunteers can be substantial. There is always a cost to using volunteers, so be smart about how you use them, at what scale, and for what roles, and then make sure that the benefits outweigh the costs.
This concern about volunteers is especially pronounced on mission-critical issues. For those things that are most important, you can’t afford to have people on your team drop the ball; much of the time, they are less likely to do so if they are paid. After all, your physician isn’t a volunteer, right? Neither is your car mechanic. Paid contractors and paid staff often feel a different level of responsibility to the organization than volunteers, and we’ve seen and experienced the horror stories from trusting the wrong people with big jobs. There was the volunteer network administrator who couldn’t be found when the computer system was down. There was the time you needed the DVDs with the project data for your deadline tomorrow but they went home with a volunteer who never made it back. There was your pro bono accountant, who meant to file your tax return on time but got sidetracked by the needs of his actual clients.
We’ve known many nonprofits that effectively use volunteers for these types of roles, and we’ve frequently done it ourselves over the years. But if you use volunteers, be thoughtful and strategic about how you go about it and what people you rely on. Make sure they really do know what they are doing and make sure they really are accountable.
The point isn’t that free—free stuff or volunteers—is always a bad deal. Ebase enabled many nonprofits to become much more sophisticated in their donor management (just as Salesforce is doing presently), and for many it was probably worth the money they spent. The point is, whether working with free stuff or free labor, “free” is never free. It may be a good deal, but be sure to assess true start-up and lifetime costs and benefits before deciding whether to accept. You should always carefully assess the true cost of any offer for donated items, comparing those costs to the costs of the status quo or of purchasing an alternative item, before making a decision.