Rotary phone on old desk

One of my first bosses (at a great little nonprofit) used to refer to in-kind gifts as “unkind” gifts. In-kind gifts are anything besides money that people donate to nonprofits. While there are exceptions, these gifts usually consist of things like ancient furniture or office equipment, not-so-gently worn clothing, or canned food no one else wants.

My point isn’t to discourage you from donating things to nonprofits, rather to learn a little more about what they actually need first. (Did you know a lot of the organizations that pick up clothing and household items turn them into rags, or ship them overseas? More on what happens to your donations.) This includes donating time.

I’ve worked with some fantastic volunteers–people who give everything they’ve got, and then some. And, I’ve worked with court-ordered community service volunteers.

In both cases–by necessity–your work is that person’s absolute lowest priority. The super-volunteer with the heart of gold is probably overextended, because she wants to help everyone. And while she’s a great person to have on your side, it can take a while for her to get around to you. (Give her important tasks, but ones that don’t have a hard deadline.) The court-ordered service guy is only helping you because it’s better than jail.

At one nonprofit I worked for, we agreed to take on a court-ordered volunteer to design our website. I had made a list of all the items we needed, provided marketing materials so he could design to our brand, and given him a pretty generous schedule that would still meet our needs. He was a talented designer who worked at a nice firm. (He was also convicted of DUIs three times, thus the community service.)

His firm was busy, which was great for them, but bad for my nonprofit. In the evening and weekend hours when he should have been working on our website, he was working for paying clients. And, of course, I can’t fault him for that. The project dragged on for months beyond when we really needed it done, and I had to call him every week to ask for a status (although I was really calling him to remind him we existed, and were keeping him out of jail). When he finally completed the project, the design was not what we asked for; it was something he wanted to experiment with, but couldn’t with his paying clients. And we were stuck with it.

I share this story to help you, if you’re considering taking donated help. If the project is mission-critical with a schedule that can’t slip, pay someone to do the work. Maybe they’ll give you a discount because you’re a nonprofit. Or maybe you have a long history with the person, and know they’ll deliver. Just remember, if they’re working for free, you will always come last. In the long run, sometimes you just can’t afford free help.

p.s. This is another post entirely, but pay your interns. You’ll get better work from them, and they’ll be covered by your liability insurance as employees.