Charitable organizations survive primarily on donations, with the holiday season (and year-end tax deadline for charitable contributions deductions) making December the most active time for charitable giving. As a result, charities must get creative to stay afloat the other 11 months of the year.
There are five main ways charities and non-profits raise funds and stretch their dollars: using volunteers, hosting gala fundraising events, selling products, sponsoring events, and advertising to bring in more donations.
- The holiday season and year-end are lucrative for charities. The rest of the year, they have to hustle.
- Charities and non-profits are allowed make money to fund operations and pay a reasonable compensation to those in paid positions.
- Galas, special events, and product sales all raise funds.
- Donations, especially of time, keep many charities afloat.
Donations bring in cash, but most charities stretch the money further by relying on the time that generous individuals donate to their favorite causes. And Americans are generous with their time: In 2019, 30% of Americans volunteered time, working for a combined total of 5.8 billion hours (worth an estimated $147 billion), according to the Volunteering in America report from AmeriCorps.
As of April 2022, data from AmeriCorps and recent Current Employment Statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (calculated by Independent Sector) places the figure at nearly $200 billion, with the value of a volunteer hour amounting to $29.95.
There are even nonprofit organizations that help other nonprofits maximize their armies of volunteers. Most charities find volunteers to be a critical resource for their basic operations.
Many charities hold an annual gala event to help raise funds. These events can be quite costly upfront, but they can bring in a significant infusion of cash. One of undoubtedly numerous examples is the off-Broadway York Theatre Company’s annual Oscar Hammerstein Award Gala, which began in 1988. It includes a dinner, speeches, award presentations, and performances. Celebrity recipients have included Stephen Sondheim, Sir Cameron Mackintosh, Harold Prince, Carol Channing, and Angela Lansbury.
Charities can bring in big sums from a fundraising gala through a mix of wealthy ticket buyers and corporate sponsorships. Local food and liquor merchants often contribute their goods to the cause. Silent and live auctions for travel events, products, and other services donated by businesses can add to the funds gained from these events.
Selling a product for the cause is a moneymaker for many charities and non-profits. The annual sales of Girl Scout cookies and Boy Scout popcorn are two high-profile examples of this.
Cookie sales have been a lucrative revenue stream for the Girl Scouts since 1917, when a troop in Muskogee, Okla., launched one to raise money. The concept went nationwide in 1922. Girl Scout cookie sales bring in nearly $800 million a year. Indeed, the World Economic Forum says that the Girl Scouts make more money off cookies than Oreo. With an estimated 2.5 million girl and adult members worldwide and a yearly membership fee of only $25, cookie money clearly outpaces membership charges.
Total Boy Scout popcorn sales are harder to pin down as an annual total, but according to the West Side News & Greece News, which covers suburban Rochester, N.Y., in 2020, 9,000 boys across five counties averaged $1.2 million annually in sales. In 16 counties in South Central Wisconsin and Northern Illinois, the Boy Scouts of America Glacier’s Edge Council calls the sale its “largest annually," and it accounts for more than $600,000 in cash and prizes. When you consider that the Boy Scouts have 2.2 million youth members between the ages of 5 and 21 nationwide, that’s a lot of popcorn generating a lot of dough.
The percentage of Americans who volunteer their time to good causes every year, according to the Volunteering in America report from the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS).
Events and Performances
Gala events attract wealthy donors, but charities also rely on events that attract a wider audience. Nonprofit groups in the performing arts have an advantage in this area and can present concerts, dance performances, and music recitals. Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, for example, does very well with themed musical shows that include Broadway Bares, Broadway Backwards, the Red Bucket Follies (formerly Gypsy of the Year Award), and the Easter Bonnet Competition.
The artistically challenged need not despair, though. The top fundraising events, according to Onecause.com, include silent auctions, walk-a-thons, cook-offs, shoe drives, and an old favorite—the car wash.
Even for charities, spending money can be necessary to raise funds. Advertising and promotions can expand a charity’s reach and awareness among potential donors. As with volunteerism, advertising doesn’t directly generate revenue but can lead to donations—a celebrity endorsement can multiply the impact a fund-raising campaign has.
How Many Americans Volunteer Their Time to a Charity?
According to data from AmeriCorps, in 2019, 30% of Americans donated their time to charities, accounting for 5.8 billion hours (worth an estimated $147 billion). AmeriCorps upped that dollar amount to nearly $200 billion in 2022 and put the value of a single volunteer hour at $29.95.
Are Charities Allowed to Sell Products to Raise Money?
Yes, they are. While not strictly a charity, the Girl Scouts sell cookies, which bring in nearly $800 million yearly, more than the Girl Scouts make in membership fees.
What Are Other Income-Generating Strategies for Charities?
Aside from selling products, charities can also raise money through gala fundraising events, benefit performances, and good publicity, leading to increased donations.
The Bottom Line
There are many ways an organization can raise money, and charities are among the best at doing so. From product sales to fundraising events, charities have many options when looking for ways to generate funding.
However, many charities and non-profits must create enough revenue to ensure longevity because donations rarely cover both operating costs and the work a charity exists to do. This is why you hear about charities "making money" or "generating revenue"—it's essential for a charity to operate somewhat like a business if they want to continue doing good.