Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Non profits beware!

They say, you've got to spend money to make money. But what if you don't have any? What if are a small charity looking at every dollar spent from all sides? Trust me- not only is it hard to make it on your own but there's plenty of people looking to take advantage of you. Watch your step and watch your back. For a number of years I volunteered at the Jordan Klausner Foundation- a small Gainesville non profit that used to run a rehabilitation center for kids with Cerebral Palsy. Despite being a small family nonprofit (it was started in memory of its president's son) it had high hopes to grow. But it depended on an influx of new children into the program in order to survive- it was funded through Florida's educational vouchers and grants- and that was something they were never really able to secure. I was soon hired by them- and the hope was that raising my profile could help generate interest and publicity, more children and more grants. The method that they used- Conductive Education was exactly the same approach to Cerebral Palsy I credit for being mobile, functional and independent. Those who follow my writings know that I've spent a number of years in a specialized facility in Budapest. I've stayed with the nonprofit as long as I could although they were no longer able to pay me. I'm still kicking myself- with their mission and their unique program that is not very visible and much respected in the States, this should have been fixable. With some light, honest marketing, an engaging website, a PR plan- this would have worked. But if you don't have money you won't make money- and the most noble, innovative ideas will die. And instead of helping, people will soon line up to take advantage of you. Soon we got desperate- I remember that we hired a small local public relations firm that was supposed to put together and send out press releases that despite a monthly fee we agreed on we never got to see. I was also getting a variant of the African prince scheme in my mailbox every few months- this time a man wanted to support a disability cause and was ready to cut us a check if only we transferred part of it to an American babysitter. You see so much of that you stop paying attention to it anymore.

 But here's the real story: In 2010 we got an an email that we were chosen to be one of 100 nonprofits for a marketing agency's internship program. That's an exciting email to get, right? Obviously you're suspicious. But you're also flattered, someone has recognized the   work that you do. The agency was called Wildfire Studio, it had a proper, busy website . They didn't want anything from us, but the idea was to have their interns experiment with Google Adwords campaigns that nonprofits get for free (the invitation coincided with the award of the Google Grant to the JKF, a $10 000 campaign advertising budget). We had to attend an online  seminar where Wildfire would explain the Google program to encourage us to apply if we haven't done so already. They presented a non profit called Urban Connection as a success story that they have helped and they started to push a monthly subscription web management plan for all inclusive marketing services. That wasn't mandatory of course, they said- and if we had our own webmaster, which we did- they would work with them for free. We haven't heard much from them since- they stopped answering our emails or calls and at one point we got an email saying that their interns where actually not allowed to pick and contact nonprofits and this is something  she has done on her own. I have to say it got our hopes up. And when all you want is to catch a break  you don't think too much of the fact that you contact a marketing agency via a virtual Skype number. All that matters is that you were approved through their "rigorous selection process". Neither Wildfire Studio or Urban Connection have updated their websites since 2011 and there seems to be  placeholder made up content in its place. Whatever they were doing and whoever they were it seemed to fizzle out pretty quickly. Some nonprofits got so excited about this that they even put out press releases. And all I could think of at that time was wouldn't it be amazing if it actually was real, and who does that? A real platform that allows to work either with professionals or interns, that in exchange polish their skills could do a lot of good. In order to have a proper website we need a web designer or money. To find a fundraising expert or grant writers, we'd have to pay them up front with no guarantees, something we definitely wouldn't be able to afford. And while grant experts do push books and tools and guides on you, apparently it goes against some code that they have to work on commission.

So when I got an email as I was now established in my new non profits some things sounded familiar- go attend a webinar and get top notch talent volunteer for your organization. But this idea was actually backed by a name that I've known and trusted- Linked In. I feel I've been ranting on about their non profit platform, but for a good reason- it gives a fighting  chance to charities that have no resources and no other way to dig itself out of a corner. Some have a hard time warming up to it - and I understand that. We've all been taken for a ride at one point. And I do think that Linked In for non profits needs some tweaking- especially on what and when is free- but if something has the potential to benefit me and is not trying to scam me I win. Some skeptics say that if a non profit can't survive, maybe it just wasn't meant to make it, maybe the idea or execution was lacking. I don't believe that. At JKF we could have helped a lot of children with Cerebral Palsy had it arrived one year earlier and I will never forget it.  Children that I might add had not found a viable alternative to Conductive Education and JKF's Academy. And that's just sad.

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