From 1996 to 2000, I worked as a database specialist for a nonprofit organization which was a division of the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago. It was known as "YMCA Child Welfare". Like Catholic Charities, which had a somewhat larger operation than our own, our agency managed the cases of numerous foster children. There were about 950 foster children in my Microsoft Access database when I first started working there in 1996, but changes subsequently made by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services caused our caseloads to dramatically decline in later years, leading to staff cutbacks. That explains why I no longer work there. Of course, no one else does, either. At one time, YMCA Child Welfare employed something like 80 different caseworkers, but the agency was eventually disbanded, and their remaining cases were handed over to other social service agencies. (It bears mentioning that a similar thing happened with respect to the child welfare division of Catholic Charities.)
During my years as an employee of YMCA Child Welfare, I became acutely aware of the extent to which nonprofit groups tend to rely heavily on the ability to tell their stories effectively, so as to be able to persuade potential donors to furnish them with the funds which they need for operating expenses.
Most nonprofit groups and social service agencies, whether public or private, are in the people business. The justification for the existence of such organizations can be found in the ability of those organizations to meet human needs which would otherwise go unmet. Therefore, when seeking funding, their ability to obtain such funding can hinge on how effective they are in selling potential supporters on the idea that they are providing services which are deeply needed.
Testimonials are therefore extremely useful. For instance, if an organization is in the business of offering rehabilitation services to drug addicts or former criminals or handicapped people or homeless people, it isn't usually sufficient to make an abstract statement to that effect. It's much more effective to present the stories of real individuals who have actually been substantially helped as a result of their programs.
There are numerous ways to accomplish that goal. Videos, for instance, can be very useful. But not everyone has the time to sit through a video presentation in the middle of a work day. Not everyone has the equipment with which to watch a video presentation at home. (And there are several different video formats, so a video should really be offered in multiple formats, including YouTube, if one hopes to reach the maximum number of people with that video.) As for online videos and presentations, it should be remembered that they tend to eat up a lot of bandwidth. Sad to say, there are still a lot of people in the world who enjoy very limited Internet access, and there are even people who still rely on dial-up connections or on public computers at places such as libraries and Internet cafes. For such people, online videos may not be a very good option.
Therefore, even though videos are useful, other options ought to be explored as well. And it seems to me that photo books published and sold online by Blurb.com ought to be seriously considered when exploring such options.
Blurb.com's books come in three different sizes (7x7, 8x10 and 13x11), and four different orientations (i.e., both "portrait" and "landscape" for 8x10 books), with as many as 440 pages! That's a lot of space in which to tell an organization's story with text and visuals. Such a book could be organized any way one wished, but I would suggest that it ought to include the following elements:
- The organization's mission statement.
- A statement about the inspiration for the book, and a statement summarizing the multifaceted objective of the book (which may include raising funds for the organization, via online book sales).
- A table of contents.
- A statement from the leader of the organization, with that person's photo.
- Multiple stories about people whose lives have actually been improved by the work of the organization, accompanied by art and/or photos which enhances the text on those pages. Portraits of the people who have been helped are certainly useful, but it's also important to include images which give a context to their lives, such as photos of the environments in which they live. Principles which are applicable to good, socially responsible photojournalism are applicable to such a project as well.
- Information, following the people profiles, regarding needs which the organization has, and various options for those who believe in the organization's work and want to help. That might include monetary donations, "gifts in kind", volunteer work, and purchasing various products being sold for fundraising purposes (including the book, but also including things such as fine art prints, tickets to fundraising events, and so forth). A book which could potentially be as long as 440 pages certainly would have space for pages which displayed fundraising products and which furnished prices, order forms, shipping information and other details needed in order to effectuate the sales of such products via the information presented in the book. This would further maximize the fundraising potential of every single book.
- A glossary of terms (if applicable).
- An index (if deemed necessary and useful).
- A bibliography of reference books and articles relevant to the work being done by the organization.
- A reference list of resources (such as other social service agencies involved in similar work).
- A detailed list (divided into donor levels) of people, organizations and businesses who have already supported the nonprofit organization in the past. This would enhance the likelihood of procuring additional support for those individuals in the future, since it would let them know that their generosity had been greatly appreciated. It would also encourage potential supporters to support the work of the organization, since they would be made aware that their names would be added to the list when future editions of the book were published, if they too chose to support the organization and it's work.
- Credits for all art, photos and articles in the book, if the book is a collaborative work (as it probably should be), and contact information for all contributors.
Of course, it's possible to create effective books which don't include all of the aforementioned elements, but it's nice to know that those options exist.Currently, there are roughly 56 books under the category of "Nonprofits & Fundraising" in the Blurb.com online bookstore. But I think they're just getting started. Once people begin to brainstorm and think about the ways in which such books can help them to raise funds for their nonprofit groups, I suspect that many more organizations will want to explore that option. Here are the primary ways in which nonprofits could be helped by such groups:
- Revenue from the online sales of such books, via e-commerce bookstores set up by Blurb.com.
- Giving such books to big donors as incentives and rewards for their generosity.
- Including such books as part of an organization's presentation whenever applying for grants and/or loans from government programs, private foundations, corporations and well-heeled individual philanthropists.
I am currently exploring the option of visiting with the leaders from several local charities and nonprofit groups in order to suggest that I would be willing to help them to develop such projects, in exchange for remuneration for my efforts. I believe that I have the writing skills, the graphic design skills and the organizational skills needed in order to bring such projects through to completion in a manner which would enhance an organization's ability to raise support and thereby fulfill its mission.
Here are several samples of books which show how some people are using Blurb.com books for such purposes:Children of the Miracle Foundation
Faces of the Hanna Project: A Study in Sepia
(Be sure to click the Book Preview links in order to open PDF files which will enable you to browse through those books.)
The following is a brief (and very incomplete) list of a few worthy nonprofits I hope to approach with this idea, with the objective of working with them in order to develop fund raising books for their organizations:Streetwise
Franciscan Outreach Association
Lawyer's Committee for Better Housing
Chicago Coalition for the Homeless
Chicago Christian Industrial League
In some cases, endeavors in which the aforementioned organizations are already involved lead me to believe that they would be receptive to my ideas.
For instance, Streetwise's main focus is on empowering homeless people (and people who are in danger of becoming homeless) by allowing them to earn money selling the newspapers which the company publishes.
The Franciscan Outreach Association has recently held a fundraising art auction, which leads me to believe that they'd be open to the idea of selling art books for fundraising purposes.
Access Living recently became involved in an "arts and culture initiative" which enabled disabled people to exhibit their art via its "disability art collection," and they've also auctioned art off for fundraising purposes (at their annual gala), so it would be a natural for them to sell photo books, giclee prints and other products featuring such art.
The Anixter Center operates a variety of businesses in order to furnish handicapped people with employment opportunities.
The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless holds fundraising benefit concerts and sells coffee online for fundraising purposes.
The Inspiration Corporation currently operates three restaurants (Inspiration Cafe, Cafe Too and The Living Room Cafe) for the purpose of offering employment opportunities to homeless people, and also for the purpose of raising funds for operating expenses. The organization also sells merchandise online (including coffee, aprons, T-shirts etc.) for fundraising purposes.
Thresholds operates a florist shop (known as Urban Meadows) which gives its employees a new lease on life.
Chicago Christian Industrial League operates a landscaping service which offers work opportunities to homeless people in the Chicago area.
In short, the practice of operating various legitimate business endeavors for the purpose of funding nonprofit organizations is well established. Provided that things are run properly, there is no reason why such fundraising endeavors needs to jeopardize a group's tax-exempt status.
I have created this blog post, in part, because documenting these possibilities may prove useful to me in the near future when presenting proposals to some of the aforementioned organizations (and also to other potential business partners, such as public schools which could raise substantial funds for special programs by publishing books featuring art created by their students).
Such proposals will include the creation of Blurb.com books, but other related options (such as sales of fine art prints, greeting cards, and various products which could be produced by a company such as CafePress.com) may also be included in my proposals.