Five Essential Tools for New Nonprofits (and they're free!)
Starting a nonprofit organization can feel overwhelming. You have all the responsibilities of a for-profit business, plus the extra work involved with fundraising, grant writing, and developing a board of directors. If you're new to the nonprofit sector, or if you're a smaller nonprofit that's starting to grow, these are five of my favorite (free) resources to start your organization off on the right track!
(Note: None of these are affiliate links- I don't get a penny for recommending them!)
Before you buy any computer hardware, software, or subscriptions for programs and apps like Quickbooks or the Adobe suite, TechSoup should be your first stop. TechSoup is itself a nonprofit, and it partners with various donors to offer a variety of discounted hardware, software, and other resources for nonprofits. You must be a 501c3 or a public library to join (and they may require documentation to verify your eligibility), and some donors set other requirements or restrictions on their donations.
I've used TechSoup for both equipment purchases and software purchases, and though my org had mixed experiences when we purchased refurbished hardware (computer towers arrived dirty and were glitchy, but they replaced them quickly at no charge) it's the software where I find TechSoup really shines. For many products you either pay a discounted rate for the product or pay a small fee to TechSoup to get access to steep discounts and special pricing from the donor. For example, as of this writing (April of 2019), you can get a single license of the desktop Quickbooks Premier 2019 (with the Nonprofit Edition) for just $50, which Intuit is currently offering on its website for $379. Microsoft Office (with Word, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook, Publisher, and Excel) is available on TechSoup for $29/license, while a similar package at regular price (though it also includes Access) is $439. You can get the full Adobe Creative Cloud All Apps by paying a $5 access fee to TechSoup, then a discounted rate of $19.99/month (or at least 60% off current pricing) for the first year and 40% off every year after that. Other options include software for fundraising, donor management, webinars/conferences, and a variety of other options.
My one word of caution here is to make sure you understand what you're buying. Is it a one time download of the product or something you'll have to pay for monthly? Are there limitations on how often you can purchase products? For example, our desktop version of Quickbooks was no longer going to be supported, and so we decided to switch to Quickbooks Online, and got a great deal with the discounted pricing. However, for a bunch of reasons (that's another post for another day), the online option didn't work out for us, and we needed to upgrade our desktop version. Intuit only allowed one purchase per fiscal year, and so we ended up having to pay full price for the desktop version.
This turned out to be essential for our organization. The program has changed since I first started using it, and now organizations go through TechSoup for verification of eligibility. Google offers its G Suite Basic product free for nonprofits under your own domain (which you must own). So instead of having a free email account like yourorganization@ gmail, you can have yourname@ yourorganizationname .org. The administrator has access to create new user accounts for people in your organization and to do things like reset passwords. They also have a QuickStart Guide for nonprofits to help get you started.
I think one of the biggest benefits for nonprofit organizations is that you can add email accounts for everyone in your org under your domain for free, and you use GMail to access them, which is supported on most smartphones and just about everywhere. One of the other things I really like about G Suite is that small orgs don't need to worry about having a server anymore, and Google tools like Drive, Forms, and Calendar let you share access and collaborate with your team from a cloud-based system, and to use readily available apps for smartphones and tablets.
Mailchimp is a platform for managing email lists and email marketing. If you're going to have any kind of email list, whether you're sending to donors, community partners, or the people you serve, using some kind of platform for managing email is essential. Why? Email marketing for commercial purposes in the US has to comply with the CAN-SPAM Act, including requirements for unsubscribe/opt-out options, and nonprofits are not exempt from following the law. Your emails may not all qualify as commercial, and thus some may not be subject to these requirements, but you'll likely cross that line with at least some of your marketing and promotions. Trying to handle unsubscribe requests manually is not only cumbersome, not having those links and information built into your emails will likely come across as unprofessional and your recipients may wonder about the legitimacy of your organization. DO NOT, and I can't stress this enough, assume you can just send group emails out from your regular email account. You will eventually get your domain and/or account flagged for spam, and you may have trouble getting your regular emails delivered. I was recently working with another local organization who had this happen in the middle of a campaign for a big upcoming conference, and they had to scramble to switch over to an email platform in the middle of planning the event.
There are LOTS of different email marketing platforms available, each with their own pros and cons, like Constant Contact, ConvertKit, Drip, and AWeber, to name a few. If you're looking for advanced features around landing pages, segmentation, market testing, and automation sequences, you'll likely want something more robust than MailChimp, but those features come at a cost, and these services generally charge a (sometimes significant) monthly fee. For a small organization just growing or getting started, the free version of Mailchimp will likely meet most of your needs until your list is more established or you want those extra bells and whistles. Mailchimp is free up to 2,000 subscribers and 12,000 emails/month, which will likely meet your needs for quite a while.
Mailchimp's user interface does require a bit of a learning curve, and it's not as intuitive as just typing an email in your Gmail, but you can also create things like signup forms for your website to help build your mailing list.
Doodle polls are somewhat infamous in nonprofit-land, but not through any fault of their own. Doodle is a paid scheduling platform/app but also offers a free online scheduling tool that you'll likely encounter soon if you haven't yet. It allows a meeting organizer to specify possible meeting times, and for other participants to mark the sessions for which they'd be available, the theory being that it allows the meeting planner to easily identify the best time for a meeting.
The infamous part comes from filling out Doodle Polls for meetings that never happen, finding no one has mutual availability, or that the meeting planner waited too long to pick and now everyone's availability has changed. Again, that's not Doodle's fault, it's really a handy tool to use, just remember that with great Doodle comes great responsibility!
If you use Pinterest, Facebook, or other social media sites, you've likely seen a certain style of graphic (I made one for this post, above), flyers, or invitations and wondered how people have the time or skill to make them. That's where Canva comes in. A few years ago, you'd have to be a whiz at Publisher, InDesign, or some other graphic design platform to create this kind of work. Now apps and platforms like Canva let you design great looking graphics with a much shorter learning curve, plus they offer ready-made template options for social media posts.
Canva offers a free version for anyone and offers its premium version free for nonprofits. One of my favorite features (which requires the premium account) is the ability to build a brand kit with your organization's colors, logos, and fonts to keep your communications looking consistent and professional. Another great thing about Canva is the access to stock photos and images, which is really handy. There are a decent number of free options, but you can also access others, many of which are just $1, which is a big time and money savings over using a separate stock photo site.
And one more thing...
I couldn't write a post about free resources for nonprofits without a quick plug for the free and low cost online courses Axom Education offers. We focus on the needs of new, smaller, and growing nonprofit organizations, and we know you're trying to do big things on a budget! Our free Board Basics course is a great orientation for new board members and nonprofit leaders, and you can see all our nonprofit resources here.