The cost of being too frugal
In Nonprofits: We must break out of the Scrappiness Cycle, Vu Le talks about the extremely frugal nature of most nonprofits. “We are always scrimping, trying to find the best deals, trying to get stuff discounted or preferably free. … It has become a mindset that is ingrained in all of us. It is our donors’ money! We must save! We must be responsible!”
And while this is true, there are times when frugality actually costs the organisation.
In the course of my consulting work, I encounter hundreds of people who work at nonprofits each year. The vast majority of nonprofit staff I meet are overwhelmed, stressed and tired. They are frequently paid less than people who work in the corporate sector, receive fewer benefits (if any), and are constantly pushed to “do more with less”. How can anyone perform at their best under these circumstances? Would spending even a little money on staff welfare, giving them a “bonus” day off, or treating them to a nice lunch occassionally, help boost staff morale? Or on a more fundamental level, would hiring even a part-time assistant, an occasional consultant, or investing in staff training, help alleviate some of the pressure?
When it comes to websites and social media in particular, many nonprofit directors are very reluctant to invest any money or staff resources. Somehow, without investing in staff training, allowing staff enough time to do the work, or allocating any budget, they still expect to see quick and substantial success. When it doesn’t materialise, they become disillusioned with social media, and declare it “a waste of time”.
To be clear, you CAN raise money, and run substantive campaigns using online media – if you have a good campaign strategy, skilled staff, and an appropriate budget. A donate button or a few tweets is not going to do it!
Some issues I commonly encounter
“We have no communications budget”
Organisations typically prioritise programme work and fundraising and ignore communications. This makes no sense. Communications are an integral part of fundraising AND programme work. Refusing to prioritise it and budget appropriately can hurt fundraising success as well as limit the reach and success of your programmes.
“Our Director wants a new website, but won’t spend any money on it. Do you know someone who can do it for free?”
There is no such thing as a free website. Even if you find someone who will volunteer to put a website together for you, there are still associated costs, including hosting, domain fees, and regular software updates. In addition, who will update the site? Who will write the content? Who will edit the materials and source images? Have you budgeted for the staff time to do any of this?
During the development process, who will manage the developers? Who will determine the look and feel of the site, and prepare, edit and organise all the content out in a site map? Even if your developer is free (however unlikely this is), you would need to invest a considerable amount of time in managing this process. Your time is not free!
How much time has your organisation spent managing website rebuilds because you were trying to save money and opted for cheap or free services that did not meet your needs?
“I’ve heard of all these free website builders. Can I just make a website myself?”
Yes and no. As I explained above, apart from the actual development work, you need someone from your organisation to map out the site, prepare and edit all the content for the web, choose and edit images, and think about how to put together a website with a focus on achieving particular goals. So before you even start this process you need to determine what those goals are, and how you are going to achieve them on your website.
Do you have the time to invest in all of this, all while training yourself to develop some expertise in web development (skills which, even with a DIY website, include some graphic design, knowledge of usability, writing for the web, online marketing, and SEO, just for starters)?
Or would the organisation's budget better be spent having an expert do it, and allow you to focus your energy where your talent and skills already lie?
Staff time is not free.
Managing online media requires time, skills, and a budget.
Trying to be too frugal when it comes to online media can end up costing your organisation a lot more in the long run.
Make no mistake – writing for online media is different than writing proposals and annual reports. Dense academic prose, NGO-speak, and sector jargon do not translate well to the web, nevermind microblogging platforms like Twitter. Optimising your writing for online media without “dumbing it down” is a skill that needs to be not only respected, but sought after.
Requiring staff to perform tasks like writing for the web and managing social media platforms without any training or budget is not being frugal. It is being short-sighted. And when these platforms are not managed well, it reflects poorly on your organisation.