Publicizing your Non-Profit on a Small Budget: When a Whole lot of money turns out to be less than we had hoped for
Tuesday, February 19, 2013 • 4:03pm
Media publicity is an ever salient resource for contemporary non-profit organization, but very little is actually known about the resources and organizational characteristics that are most substantial for getting media attention.
To address this question, we need to view the organizational attributes that go into garnering news publicity supportive or not. I am confident that we will continue to ﬁnd that an organization’s income, paid staff, membership size, and library resources are signiﬁcantly related to getting media publicity, whereas the number of chapter afﬁliations is inversely related to publicity.
We must remember that association type is also a signiﬁcant factor that inﬂuences an organization’s ability to get publicity. We need to realize that in the United States, we are facing a transformation of the voluntary sector, in which contemporary nonproﬁt organizations face declining total membership, threats of reduced government funding, and demands for greater accountability. In response to this activity, many of the most successful nonproﬁt organizations have begun to invest more resources, trying to attract publicity, in newspapers, television, and other public venues. However, there appears to be more competent and legitimate areas we can tap into still as, these organizations are hiring public relations specialists doing market research, developing strategic alliances, and trying to establish reliable media contacts.
I believe that there are good enough reasons for American nonproﬁt organizations to think that media publicity is a particularly valuable resource. It is a proven way to assure that their money is used wisely. Revisiting a book like Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam reminds us that civic participation used to be organized around an intensive and time-consuming service ethic, in which members of nonproﬁt organizations attended meetings, participated on committees, and volunteered their time for numerous civic projects. But, by the 1970s, however, the voluntary sector was becoming increasingly dominated by nonproﬁt professionals and interest group lobbyists. The growing interdependence on professional, salaried labor meant that many groups needed fewer donations of time from their members, but more donations of money. In fact, of those Americans afﬁliated with at least one nonproﬁt organization today, more than half limit[i] their involvement to donating money; among those who belong to charitable, social service, and cultural organizations, more than 70% limit themselves to checkbook participation. This type of civic participation presents special legitimation challenges for nonproﬁts. As donors of money, members do not enjoy the sense of solidarity and personal fulﬁllment that comes from volunteering time, attending meetings, and participating in projects. Instead, ﬁnancial contributors must trust the organization to use donations in an altruistic, charitable, or socially important way. When nonproﬁt organizations have their activities reported in the news, they are able to reassure existing and prospective members that their donations are being put to good use.
Media publicity is also a valuable budgetary resource for nonproﬁt organizations seeking to lend credence to their activities and to politicians, seemingly a group that is an increasingly important second constituency for the voluntary sector. Nearly one quarter [ii]of all nonproﬁt organizations in the United States today are advocacy groups; these groups attempt to inﬂuence policymakers by maintaining a continuous presence in Washington, DC, and New York City, by hiring lawyers and public relations ﬁrms, and by increasing their use of direct mail and electronic media. Although the choice of inﬂuence tactics is likely to depend on the material resources available to an organization, one thing is certain: access to the major media continues to be an invaluable resource. To the extent that an organization can get its issues onto the major player news broadcasting organizations, it is more likely to get those issues onto the agenda of congressional debate. It is to follow then, nonproﬁt organizations provide some of the most eager sources for journalists. We need to do a better job examining how an organization’s structure and material resources are related to its probability of getting media publicity. Next, we need to examine the effect that association type has on the probability of getting publicity. We need to look more closely at how the question of media publicity is related to current debates about civic engagement and nonproﬁt advocacy.
We must deﬁne a nonproﬁt organization as a formal organization that is private, non-proﬁt-distributing, self-governing, voluntary, tax-exempt, and of public beneﬁt. In the United States, nonproﬁt organizations wishing to obtain tax-exempt status must ﬁle form 1023 or 1024 with the Internal Revenue Service. Form 1023 is reserved for organizations that are engaged in religious, charitable, and scientiﬁc activities, as well as those devoted to public safety testing and the prevention of cruelty to children and animals. These organizations are typically referred to as 501(c)(3) organizations because they are regulated by section 501(c)(3) of the tax code; in addition to their exemption from Federal Income Tax, they are also eligible to receive tax-deductible gifts from individuals and corporations. The remaining nonproﬁt organizations ﬁle form 1024, and are not eligible to receive tax-deductible gifts. Sections 501(c)(1), 501(c)(2), and 501(c)(4) through 501(c)(27) of the tax code regulate these organizations.
A wide variety of existing and emerging voluntary associations alike attempt to receive local news media attention because the local news media function as one of the most important news and information sources in a local community. As mainstream news media has been conceived of as part of the social system, even including public media, local mass media is also part of the system in a community power structure. That is, media as the watch dog may ‘perform as a sentry not for the community as a whole, but for those particular groups who have the power and influence to create and control their own security systems. As such, although local mass media pay less attention to the voluntary sector compared to the governmental and market sectors, media coverage may vary depending on voluntary organizations’ resources and relationships with other community organizations, which in turn can affect their power and influence within a community power structure and the level of budget needed to thrive. In this regard, local news media may serve certain voluntary organizations over others that are relatively resource-poor and less influential in a local community.
News media organizations have not covered diverse opinions, voices, and issues by relying largely on political and economic elites as news sources compared to ordinary citizens and this inability to diversify has truly hurt budgets. As mass media have failed to serve as the public sphere, the Internet has taken over the democratic roles, through which it serves as an alternative public sphere, builds new forms of social networks and communities, and facilitates citizen discussions and engagement. In particular, the Internet in relation to civil society becomes an alternative force to the decline of civic activities, such as decreasing membership in voluntary associations and disengagement from community issues. Accordingly, despite growing constraints of the Internet, such as excessive marketization, political and legal regulations, and entertainment orientation, the Internet provides democratic practices to citizens, groups, and communities which are marginalized and decentralized from mainstream news media to build a stronger civil society.
To take a stronger stance requires better information. Which of your programs is generating the most revenue? What are the financial drivers? Do you receive fees from clients that increase with each unit of service provided? Do you receive reimbursement from a government agency for each client served? Do you receive additional foundation grant support for each new policy initiative related to a particular issue? For each funding source you have, there is a driver tied to an input, an output, or an outcome. Knowing what triggers your organization’s money flow is key to knowing where to deploy your resources. Answer the question about financial drivers first, and you may find that even in difficult financial circumstances you would be wise to spend more in certain areas rather than less.
On the expense side, accurate information may help a nonprofit overcome emotional and historical attachments to programs and services that are no longer viable. Phrases like, “but we’ve always provided that service to the community”, or “that’s the thing we’re known for” can play tricks on our minds and simultaneously drive our organization to smaller budgets and insolvency. One real hope as a nonprofit executor is to know the facts. The truth is a powerful financial tool. We need to know that our administrative and other shared costs are properly distributed to our programs, and that our accounting is designed to report true program costs. We also need to know that our financial and accounting systems are up to the task of gathering and reporting the truth. When we find a program area that is not financially viable, we need to be realistic about whether to keep subsidizing it or close it down altogether. One important caveat, of course, is that financial results are only part of the consideration when deciding how to allocate resources, but sometimes nonprofits need to start with fundamentals to assess the comprehensive business model.
Clear revenue patterns should emerge in a group of high-growth nonprofits. Fairly early in a nonprofit’s growth trajectories, generally before reaching $10 million in annual revenues, these organizations should identify and cultivate a primary type of funding, such as government or individual, aligned with one’s program goals. One can see a pattern of revenue concentration around this source, accounting on average for up to 70 to 85 percent of each organization’s total revenues. What many do not see is nonprofits continuing to grow using a largely even mix of diverse sources.
Finally, we must remember that a small nonprofit without multiple units or departments may present the budget of its one program or activity as its organization-wide budget assuming it has only one program or activity. However, if it consolidates several unit or program or activity budgets into an organization-wide budget, each program or activity budget must include a justifiable allocation of the organization’s overhead and central administrative costs. A nonprofit cannot lose sight of this, for the reason being that the individual programs serve as cost centers that is, primary fiscal units in small nonprofits and each program budget would be understated if it did not account for that program’s share of the general overhead.
[i] Verba et al., 1995, p. 63.
[ii] Godwin and Mitchell, 1984; Knoke, 1990, pp. 190–193; Schlozman and Tierney, 1986; Schudson, 1998, pp. 122–123.
The Guest Column is our readers' opportunity to write about a given issue or topic in an in-depth and educational manner.
The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of TheAlternativePress.com or anyone who works for TheAlternativePress.com. TheAlternativePress.com is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.