7 Hot Markets to Penetrate Now: Break Into the Nonprofit Market

Cause marketing is an oft-bandied buzzword these days, with for-profit companies eager to partner with nonprofits to help build up consumer goodwill and trust. It’s a fancy term for something the average decorator has been doing forever, helping nonprofits spread their message with custom gear. More than 40% of decorators surveyed in this year’s State of the Industry poll count at least one nonprofit as a client.

Tactic 1: Get involved

One of the easiest ways to get on a nonprofit’s radar is to become a volunteer or get involved with community events. Many decorators only learned of a group’s apparel needs after joining. “A lot of it is relationship-based and networking,” says Marshall Atkinson, chief operating officer of Visual Impressions in Milwaukee. “If you just sit in your office like a spider waiting for the fly to land, you’re not going to do anything.”

Tactic 2: Do your homework

Before approaching a nonprofit, do some research. Find out when their fundraising events are scheduled and familiarize yourself with their mission and branding colors. An environmentally focused group, for example, may be interested in garments made with recycled polyester, says Nadia Santoli, communications manager for alphabroder (asi/34063).

Tactic 3: Make it easy

Most nonprofit workers are overworked and underpaid – or not paid at all. Anything you can do to take the burden off fundraising, and collecting and distributing apparel orders will impress these harried idealists. “I’m a dime a dozen, as far as what I do,” says Michael Savino, owner of Winchester, VA-based Artisan Grafix. “It’s the service and trying to simplify their lives that sets me apart.”

Tactic 4: Consider online fundraising

Streamlined e-commerce software and online designers – not to mention the ubiquity of social media – give decorators tools to make fundraising simpler than ever. Allowing nonprofits to create timed campaigns and promote them via the Web saves effort for the client and decorator. Plus, many Web stores are set up so nonprofits don’t have to worry about outlaying their own funds or getting stuck with unwanted inventory if the campaign flops. “The way we’re set up, nonprofits take no up-front risk,” says Gabe Peters, vice president of Rector Communications (asi/305623), which runs fundraising site Ink the Cause. “We handle product and ship and take money and distribute the proceeds back to the organization.”

Tactic 5: Offer something extra

What do you bring to the table besides being an order-taker? Atkinson says, these  customers will ask for freebies, so prepare to answer. Perhaps you have special nonprofit pricing, a corporate sponsorship program, unique online marketing tools or the opportunity to add on promotional products as donor gifts. – TH

From the Buyer’s Mouth


The Habitat for Humanity ReStore in St. Louis relies on volunteers to help it pull off special events like tulip bulb giveaways and recycling drives. Each event requires a custom T-shirt to build team spirit and give volunteers a uniform look. “We usually have smaller orders, less than a couple dozen T-shirts at a time,” says Josh Vaughn, general manager of the ReStore. “Sometimes we have special events that come up and weren’t planned for, and we need the shirts right away.” Vaughn was on his third vendor before finding Tiny Little Monster. The Maplewood, MO, shop turns orders around in two weeks, offers stellar customer service and competitive pricing; its 10% nonprofit discount was just icing on the cake, Vaughn says. Vaughn also buys custom T-shirts for store employees, shying away from pricier polos and hoodies because of high worker turnaround. “A T-shirt with one-color ink is really cost-effective,” he adds.

Case Study

How We Landed Our Local Cat Rescue

When Jenny Rearick and Sloan Coleman of 4-year-old screen-printing shop Tiny Little Monster adopted a cat from Tenth Life Cat Rescue in St. Louis, they also asked about volunteer opportunities, wanting to support a cause they believed in. The pair started out helping the nonprofit with graphic design services, then offered to print some T-shirts at a discount for the cat rescue. “We had been printing shirts for ourselves and craft shows,” Coleman says. “It rang a bell that nonprofits were a demographic. [Tenth Life] was one of our first customers.”

Tiny Little Monster does more than just print shirts for its customers, nonprofit or otherwise, priding itself on being able to help organizations create striking graphics and choose the best-value garments to meet their budgets.“Our business is very much geared to people who have never ordered before,” Coleman says. “We make it as easy as possible. … We’re kind of like a T-shirt printer for the people.”

Nonprofit Market

What You Need to Know Now

Nonprofit revenue made up 5.3 % of the U.S. gross domestic product last year, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, making philanthropy a small, but significant, slice of the economy. The bulk of that revenue comes from donations, meaning fundraising events are a very big deal in this market. As an apparel decorator, you’re ideally suited to help nonprofits meet their goals. Here’s a closer look at the numbers and what they mean for you.

of decorators sell to nonprofits, making it the fourth-largest niche market, tied with construction. However, nonprofits only account for 5% of overall decorated apparel sales (source: Stitches 2015 State of the Industry Report).


the number of tax-exempt public charities in the U.S. (source: National Center for Charitable Statistics,
Tip: Philanthropic behemoths like the American Red Cross may be too large for the average embroidery shop to tackle. Look around your community for smaller organizations, like animal shelters or beach cleanup groups, which are desperate for your expert guidance.


Hot Apparel: Your basic T-shirt is the powerhouse of the nonprofit world, outfitting volunteers and fueling fundraisers of all stripes. Check out this Hanes ComfortBlend EcoSmart tee (5170), a 50-50 cotton-polyester T-shirt decorated by Michael Savino of Artisan Grafix. Savino worked with a group assisting New Jersey residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, raising $5,000 for recovery with these Jersey Strong T-shirts.


The amount of money nonprofits raised online in 2013 (source: 2014 M+R Benchmarks Study,


The amount of money the American Heart Association raised from its 2014 Heart Walk, a 4.9% increase over 2013 (source: Peer to Peer Professional Forum,
Tip:Many nonprofits rely on 5K walks, fun runs and bicycle races to raise money. A race day T-shirt featuring the nonprofit’s logo and event sponsors is a typical giveaway.

The percentage of American adults who volunteered for a nonprofit last year (source: Bureau of Labor Statistics,


$335.2 billion:The overall amount of money given to charitable organizations in 2013 (source: Giving USA 2014,

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