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Bright ideas in nonprofits: sales



Sales teams are anomalies for nonprofits. As a for-profit game, sales works in opposition to a nonprofit’s primary goal: to help people in need rather than help themselves. As it goes, a nonprofit’s resources are supposed to be tied up in furthering its mission.

Nonprofits are looking to drop the stigma attached to driving sales within their organizations. After all, fundraising marketing is sales. Thanks to the example of organizations like DonorsChoose, nonprofits are finding innovative ways to create effective sales programs now more than ever.

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DonorsChoose is an organization that provides teachers and students around the world with the classroom supplies they need to teach and learn. What makes their sales approach unique is their ability to treat the organization like a business rather than a standard nonprofit. Backed by a robust executive team and three regional partnership and business development teams, they’ve capitalized on two unique opportunities identified in the marketplace: social connectivity (particularly in younger demographics) and the social responsibility and philanthropic inclinations of businesses and business people alike.



Nonprofits are looking to drop the stigma attached to driving sales within their organizations.

The average nonprofit approaches sales through soliciting donations from individuals. DonorsChoose, however, has developed a marketing strategy for nonprofit organizations that can act as a funding arm, taking cues from the development of social media technology. Through marrying their social consciousness initiative to the brand’s online interactions, DonorsChoose has uncovered the financial potential of a tactical social media presence. “The greatest challenge for nonprofit leaders in the connected age is adopting a new mind-set for social change. Power is shifting from institutions to individuals throughout society…. Successful connected-age organizations are those that facilitate broad networks of social activists.”1 By operating online in a manner that directly reaches the public and engages them where they are most active, DonorsChoose has been able to open up a new method of program sales.

BrightIdeas_kids_learning_classroom male teacher sitting floor hands raised

As well, strategic partnerships with socially influential individuals like Harvard Business School researcher Michael Norton, coauthor of Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending, are part of DonorsChoose’s wider social consciousness engagement initiative. In his TEDxCambridge talk, “How to buy happiness”, Norton gives voice to how donating money to charitable organizations or other people makes people happier than when they spend money on themselves.2

In the second pillar of their sales innovation, DonorsChoose has sought out collaboration with business leaders and organizations. Fortune magazine reported the massive, cross-country success of this method: “[DonorsChoose] went live in all 50 states, thanks to a $14 million donation that included money from eBay Founder Pierre Omidyar and Yahoo Co-Founder David Filo.”1 What’s more, DonorsChoose went even further beyond traditional business partnerships by developing a number of unique initiatives in conjunction with these corporations, like eBay’s partner project, which gave 19,900 DonorsChoose gift certificates to users of eBay’s Giving Works program. In another similar effort, Google provided clients of its AdSense program $100 gift cards for DonorsChoose, a project that gave these clients the freedom to choose where their donations went.

As opposed to ignoring sales and leaving it in the for-profit sector, organizations like DonorsChoose have faced the challenges head on and provided unique alternative solutions to traditional funding methods. They’ve also built an internal structure that serves several functions and is inspired by real life businesses. Because promotion and fundraising remain a cornerstone to building transformational nonprofits, it’s important to recognize that the tools to benefit a nonprofit organization sometimes need the help of modernization and strategic philanthropic partnerships.


[1] Edmiston, W., Nelson, D.L. (2012). Chapter 18 in Organizational Behavior: Science, The Real World, and You (8th ed.). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.
[2] Norton, M. (2011). How to buy happiness. Retrieved from
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