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Every year, our mailboxes are full of gift catalogs, and there are even more options online. You might be thinking, this might be a great idea for fundraising for my mission!

Is it?

From actually selling branded merchandise that aligns with your mission (pink ribbons, museum coffee table books or college sweatshirts anyone?) to “promise” gifts of cows or sheep to farmers in the developing world, many non-profits extend their brands through the sale of items that advance their missions. Heifer International was perhaps one of the first with its “Most Important Gift Catalog” offering symbolic gifts to their supporters, while museums and universities have long entered the retail space with options chock-full of branded merchandise.

MarkeTeam has helped its clients produce merchandise catalogs offering either branded items and/or mission-oriented gifts that are provided directly to their service recipients to raise awareness and much-needed program funding. The results are inspiring but need to be tempered with realistic outcome projections. Rather than focus on branded merchandise that need to be fulfilled with tight margins, this blog focuses on online and offline/printed catalogs with symbolic gifts that are delivered to overseas or domestic recipients. 

Six critical steps to start a non-profit catalog operation:

  • Pricing:

Large online retailers know that pricing is paramount to success, with a wide range of items that cover a variety of price points. Similarly, your non-profit needs to have realistic prices for many of the services offered: an overnight stay for a homeless person; backpacks to get kids to school; a range of immunizations for children; job training for veterans; or meals and care for shelter animals. Make sure you can identify items ranging from $10 to $10,000 or more—the Neiman Marcus and Victoria Secret catalogs always have at least a few outrageous gifts as their centerpieces, so try to come up with some aspirational items or naming opportunities that complement a large range of more affordable items.

  • Online Storefront:

Without an online storefront—especially for symbolic gifts—the costs for processing will soon outweigh any income. Make sure your online storefront can easily list all the items by price and by product line (meals, medicines, emergency relief, etc.). You’ll need autoresponders for gift acknowledgements as well as being able to provide third-party messaging for gifts made in honor of another recipient.

  • Photography:

The truism of a picture is worth 1,000 words is a mainstay for catalogs. Supporters/buyers want to see the impact of their gift as well as the item itself. Make sure you have the bright, happy photos of recipients of the goat, cow, immunization, job training, or homeless shelter depicted to deliver impact for the supporter.

  • Timing:

The year-end holidays provide the critical time for gift-giving, but they also interfere with other year-end promotions. Determine if your catalog/promotion can be used on alternative dates such as Mother’s Day, Veterans Day, Earth Day, Rosh Hashanah or other widely-known activities and celebrations. Piggybacking your messaging in parallel with other general media provides support when buyers/supporters are looking for gift-giving.

  • Audience Selection:

Invariably, senior management will want to know if the catalog operation is cannibalizing donations that would have been otherwise made to other sources. Our experience is that Mid-Level and major supporters welcome the opportunity to make these symbolic gifts to extend the brand, but lower-dollar supporters are more resistant. Aim your initial marketing to your Mid-Level and monthly giving audiences where the purchases will certainly be of higher value and easily differentiated from other donations before extending the offer to lower-dollar audiences.

  • Ongoing Efforts:

Once the online storefront is put into place, promoting the purchase of symbolic gifts requires little ongoing investment. It can be promoted online, via email or social media, and through low-cost piggybacking of materials in the normal direct mail efforts to generate awareness, with larger pushes during key gift-giving seasons. Printed catalogs can be mailed only to previous purchasers or Mid-Level/monthly giving supporters to minimize costs, with no external outreach for acquiring new supporters.

Starting a catalog operation has a significant upfront cost to build the online storefront, set pricing and acquire photography, but the ongoing costs of running the storefront and digital-only marketing can make the investment pay off.

Unlike Heifer International, most non-profits view their storefront as an auxiliary source of income, never to exceed a few percentage points of their overall income from small-sum donors. If this looks significant to you, explore the concept with a timeline to launch in the fourth quarter of the calendar year to generate the highest initial impact. 

You might be surprised by the reception and pleased with your results!

Blog written by Ron Bell | Managing Partner and Founder