Nine fantastically frugal ways to manage nonprofit admin costs

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It's no big secret - small, medium, and even large nonprofits have to manage their budget and donors' dollars wisely. Fundraisers know there is one key questions a would-be donor will ask when considering a cause to support. It may take different forms, but usually the central idea is this: How exactly will my donation influence your cause or the people or groups helped by your organization? Often potential donors will also want to know: How much of that money will directly impact your clients rather than support administrative or operational costs? A fair question indeed.

No business, nonprofit or otherwise, can do its work without incurring some administrative and other operational costs along the way. Unexpected government cutbacks, changes in donors' interests or capacity to give, and increased costs related to program delivery are among many issues that compel charities to stretch their dollars any way they can. Administrative and operational costs are one area where dollar-stretching and saving is most important and very achievable. Below are nine tried and true ways to save on these costs, shared here by some of our very own national and local charities.

1. Cheap travel  2. Conference calls  3. Donated office space

"We have a travel policy here that strongly encourages our volunteers and staff to travel for business purposes using only the cheapest ways possible," shares Martha O'Connor, executive director of Breakfast for Learning. This national nonprofit's mission is to ensure that every child in Canada attends school well nourished and ready to learn. Since starting in the late 1990s, Breakfast for Learning has provided over half a million children with nutritious meals in as many as 6,900 Canadian communities.

Encouraging volunteers to donate or find their own method of transportation when traveling to promote programs, fundraising, or for other business can help your organization save on costs like gas, airplane tickets, taxis etc. In a related way, bringing together staff or volunteers for meetings through conference calls can also help your organization save on travel costs and costs for refreshments, or hotel accommodations.

"We make very liberal use of conference calls. We have employees in our central office, and two people in every province and territory representing our national advisory council. With the conference calls, we've been able to have only one face-to-face meeting in a year," adds O'Connor, explaining that the regular conference calls allow staff and council members to communicate throughout the year without incurring in-person meeting expenses.

Office space may be another area for huge savings. "Always be aware of what you need and what your donors have and then give your donors opportunities to support in different ways besides financially," advises O'Connor. She cites, as an example, the free office space they were able to obtain from the charity's founding sponsor, Transcontinental Publishing.

4. Raise equipment instead of the funds to buy it

Some kinds of equipment are integral to the work of nonprofits. One example of this might be a van used by a charity that distributes clothing to the homeless. For Help the Aged, Canada, crutches and wheelchairs are key items needed for its work. The international development organization has been working to meet the needs of poor or destitute elderly people in Canada and in developing countries around the world since 1975. Its services and programs also include food aid and emergency assistance.

"Getting donations of crutches, wheelchairs and other items for our programs means we can spend less time and resources (i.e. through a paid fundraiser) on raising money just to buy them," says Brenda Packer, sponsorship coordinator. Seeking direct donations of office furniture, equipment, or other bulk items can also mean more of your funds can be used for your programs and services rather than being absorbed by these expenses.

5. Seek other charities as suppliers

The Toronto-based charity,Windfall Clothing, collects in-kind donations of new clothing and other basic needs items (books, toys, household items). It then redistributes the items to people who are homeless or in need through the shelters and other agencies that assist them.

With as many as 250,000 pieces of new clothing to offer each year, Windfall is an affordable supplier for charities on tight budgets. To register with Windfall, shelters or agencies need only pay a $50 application fee every two years allowing unlimited access to free clothing and other items for their clients each year.

But Windfall has found a special way to cut down on their administrative costs too. "We make use of suppliers who are also charities. For example, for our courier needs we use A-way Courier. And when recognizing our volunteers, instead of buying expensive awards and plaques we buy unique art pieces for them from Sistering's Inspirations Studio, " says Helen Harakas, Windfall's executive director.

A-way Courier, a successful and proven Toronto-area courier company, is staffed by survivors of mental health challenges. The company enables people with mental challenges to become self-supporting and productive members of society by working in the company as couriers (couriers travel by public transit), answering calls, coordinating courier orders from city-wide companies, and other office tasks.

Sistering provides programs and services to over 4,500 homeless and socially-isolated women each year. The Inspirations Studio, also an employment program, enables women to create and sell their art to the public for increased economic independence.

"What I really like about using other charities is that it allows us to save on our costs while also helping out other people or groups in need. I think it's important, where possible, to stay within the service sector [when seeking suppliers] and provide that support," emphasizes Harakas.

6. Approach local media for advertising support

Before people can support your organization, they need to know who you are. Direct mail campaigns are a good way to communicate to your current members or supporters, but what about the greater public, the folks who haven't even heard about you yet?

Many nonprofits cannot afford a billboard or newspaper advertisement to promote what they're all about. But they can ask a media company to donate ad space or air time. Raising the Roof is one charity that has done this successfully.

Raising the Roof is a national charity dedicated to long-term solutions to homelessness. Some of the organization's key activities include building awareness about homelessness across Canada, raising funds for community groups working to alleviate homelessness, and working with corporate and other organizations to develop further strategies to prevent homelessness.

"We have a number of media partners who assist us with donated air time and public education. We also get printing of materials donated by a publishing company," shares executive director, Jennifer Parnell. "Building relationships like this with companies that not only provide funds but can provide in-kind donations is a major way we are able to keep our administrative costs to a minimum."

The media partnerships have contributed to Raising the Roof's recent accomplishments, including more than $1.5 million dollars raised for some 90 local groups working to reduce homelessness across the country. Seek free ad space or air time with local media near your organization. Present your cause to them as you would with a financial donor. Offer to recognize their contributions in your annual report, on your website, in a newsletter to your members, etc. Local media are most interested in news about people and groups in their area and like individual donors, they like to give back to their immediate communities.

7. Office supplies.

Pencils, pens, paper - it all adds up. Seek out office supply companies that have charitable and discount programs. "We get many requests from across Canada regularly, and we still manage to answer requests in as little time as 48 hours," says Michelle Plotzke, promotions coordinator at Grand & Toy. Usually a detailed request on letterhead submitted by fax or e-mail at least a few days prior to when supplies are needed is required.

8. Adopt a "Do-It-Yourself" attitude

"We have a real do-it-yourself attitude here at Windfall. For example, when developing our website, I taught myself how to edit content," explains Harakas. "This helps us save on hiring a graphic artist or another company to come in and work on the website when we need to change something. We're always trying to learn how to do small repairs around the place and be handy. It can be as simple as getting to know how to fix a toilet!"

9. Three words: Volunteers, volunteers, volunteers.

Volunteers are an invaluable resource in saving costs. They can assist with writing letters, organizing special events, answering telephones, doing deliveries, or facilitating workshops. They want to help and enjoy helping. Seek volunteers for jobs at your organization, ensure a mutual fit, and count up all your savings on human resources.

Abigail Brown, B.A., has a self-described passion for helping those in need through charity. She is also concerned with telling the important human stories behind the work that charities do. She has worked in several communications and fundraising roles for both corporate and nonprofit organizations, including John Wiley and Sons Publishing, United Way of Greater Toronto, and Youth Without Shelter. She resides in Toronto.

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