Monday, September 12, 2011


This weekend PETA Pack volunteers put on a fabulous vegan bake sale outside the Silverlake Trader Joe's to raise money for PETA's investigation fund. I stopped by and picked up a few delicious goodies (the pumpkin muffins and chocolate coconut truffles were outstanding!). They raised close to $200 and, from what I could see, it only took about 5 people to pull it off.

No doubt, bake sales are a fun way to introduce your work to the public and get volunteers engaged. The nonprofit I run holds a bake sale each winter that brings in a similar sum, and it seems to be the favorite fundraising vehicle of parent groups everywhere.

But are bake sales productive fundraisers? Consider how much each baker spends on ingredients and packaging. It's easy for me to shell out $20 for the ingredients and cute little goody bags to whip up some tasty treats for a bake sale. Add in the hours spent to plan and organize, bake and wrap, set up and sell (some of which might be paid staff hours), and the price tag on this type of fundraiser quickly adds up.

If each volunteer donated the equivalent cash they spent on ingredients, the organization might come out about even. They'd save the money spent on staff time and probably get half the cash or more - especially if someone prices your cupcakes at $1 each without knowing they cost $1.50 to make (that's happened to me). If each volunteer, instead of baking for hours, took 30 minutes to place a few phone calls to people they know and ask for a donation, the organization would easily exceed bake sale revenues. Simple! Increased revenues from significantly reduced staff and volunteer hours, but something that few volunteers will sign up to do.

The fact that bake sales (and car washes and rummage sales and other labor-intensive fundraisers) are so popular says something about how we relate to money. More people are comfortable giving away proxies for money, like their time or a dozen cookies, than actual cash. And more people are comfortable asking someone to spend 3 hours working a bake sale than asking for a $50 check (even if that someone is a lawyer who could have billed $600 during her 3 hour bake sale shift). We believe it is better to earn money than ask for money, even if earning it is more expensive for the volunteer, even if it is more expensive for the organization. Dollar-for-dollar, hour-for-hour, these types of fundraisers are less productive than the alternative: directly asking for money.

Of course, there is more to be measured from a bake sale than dollars alone. It's a fun event, so people want to get involved, which builds your volunteer base and makes supporters feel more deeply connected to your cause: you'll be able to count on those people in the future. It's a great way to do outreach: what better way to teach someone about your cause than by getting them to buy cookies? In specific cases, it can actually help some groups fulfill their mission. This is true in the case of PETA, who used their bake sale to introduce the general public to veganism in a tangible (and tasty!) way. Their bake sale would have been worth it whether it made a dime or not.

As donors and volunteers, I think it's important we start considering how we can be most productive and start being honest about when our time could do a lot more to help the causes we love. Look at the well-meaning groups who raise tens of thousands of dollars to fly themselves to poor countries so they can volunteer their time to build schools or dig wells. Without a doubt a new school makes a huge difference for a poor community. These groups are probably doing good work, and they usually bring one expert with them that this type of project needs. But just imagine how much that airfare - that tens of thousands of dollars - could do if it went to an established charity on the ground instead of the Airlines. It could certainly employ local workers to build schools or dig wells instead of college students, and that temporary employment could change outcomes for the families who benefit.

Is it better to do something than nothing? Almost certainly. Could we do more good if we focused on productivity instead of our own personal enjoyment? Absolutely. But in the example above, using the monies more productively by leaving the fundraisers at home means it's unlikely those monies would have been raised in the first place. It's a safe bet that traveling to a foreign country to make new friends and learn about other cultures was the driving motivator for many, and the driving motivator for their donors (mostly parents and friends no doubt). A similar fundraiser to employ local workers in a poor town unseen likely wouldn't have engaged people in the same way - it easily could have flopped and left the town with nothing.

So are the people who participate in these fundraiser selfish? Not anymore than the rest of us, and perhaps less than the general population. In the same way that most people don't think that buying a new car is a trade off for saving the lives of others (it is), those who help with a less-productive fundraiser don't think that they could run a more-productive fundraiser in it's place. Part of the blame for this rests with nonprofits that continue to run less-productive fundraisers while claiming the event is about raising money, instead of being honest that its purpose is volunteer engagement and outreach.

If we really care about a cause, and our goal is to raise money for that cause, it's time we start doing what it really takes: writing checks and asking our friends to do the same.

-Selfish Blogger

BTW, I'm running with PETA Pack. You can support my PETA Pack run here.


  1. $20 for cupcake supplies?!?! You are doing it wrong. I never spend more than $10 on pot luck/bake sale ingredients. But, that aside...

    I don't think nonprofits should be "more honest," in this case. The entire success of the community/volunteer engagement rests on the volunteers/community believing they are helping the cause. It puts them in a place where they feel they've *already* done something good, which makes them more open to receiving a new message ("these vegan cupcakes aren't half bad," or "the arts center folks running that table sure were nice. I bet Ashley would like going there,") but I think that if you told them "We don't make hardly any money off of this," you'd lose the entire effect. To put it another way, it's community outreach, with the added benefits of recouping some of your costs.

  2. I don't know how most nonprofits do it, but with both nonprofits I've worked for, the staffers didn't get paid for events like this. I know that in one example you gave above, everyone involved volunteered her time, so there were no staff hours lost, and they probably really *would* rather donate their time than their money, because it's on a weekend, when they wouldn't be making other money. Happy to disagree for once with the Selfish Blogger! =)


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