Nonprofits Offer a Cause to Sell

With a smart strategy in place, you can feel good about meeting the custom apparel needs of nonprofits.

With a smart strategy in place, you can feel good about meeting the custom apparel needs of nonprofits.

When Jenny Rearick and Sloan Coleman of four-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, eager to support its mission. The pair started out helping with graphic design services, then offered to print some T-shirts at a discount for the cat rescue. “We had just been printing shirts for ourselves and craft shows,” Coleman says. “It kind of rang a bell that nonprofits were actually a demographic. [Tenth Life] was one of our first customers.”

Since printing those first 75 shirts, Tiny Little Monster has become Tenth Life’s go-to decorator. The shop designs and prints T-shirts for the nonprofit’s annual Hissin’ Hustle 5K fundraising race, in addition to filling the odd special order, like a custom baseball shirt for the nonprofit’s director to wear when throwing out the first pitch at baseball game. “We started out doing maybe 150 shirts a year for them, but it’s grown to about 500 a year,” Coleman says.

With fun runs, bike races and other fundraising events each requiring their own spirit-building, commemorative T-shirt, nonprofits have a lot of promotional needs, but limited time and budgets. The first step to winning such clients is to get onto their radar, either by becoming a volunteer or getting involved in other community events. “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.”

Before approaching a nonprofit, do some research to familiarize yourself with the group’s mission and branding colors. Do whatever you can to make ordering 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. Consider offering a streamlined e-commerce solution and online designer, to help nonprofits simplify fundraising. Allowing a nonprofit to create timed campaigns and promote them via the web saves effort for both 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 upfront 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.”

For the most part, the T-shirt rules the nonprofit world, because it is both inexpensive and packs a powerful branding punch. Josh Vaughn, general manager of the Habitat for Humanity ReStore in St. Louis says he used to buy pricier polos for some employees, but switched to purchasing T-shirts exclusively due to high worker turnaround. “A T-shirt with one-color ink is really cost-effective,” he says. He also orders custom shirts – generally a few dozen at a time – for special volunteer events, like annual tulip bulb giveaways and recycling drives. The shirts build team spirit and give volunteers a uniform look, Vaughn adds. – TH

By the Number

1.04  Million The number of tax-exempt public charities in the U.S.

Source: National Center for Charitable Statistics (nccs.urban.org)

Product Picks

T-shirts are often the go-to for nonprofits, but don’t discount the appeal of other items.

Black Duck Embroidery and Screen Printing (asi/700415; circle 89 on Free Info Card) decorated this pigment-dyed, garment-washed cap (PWU). Great for charities that spend significant time outdoors, the 100% cotton twill unstructured hat has a lived-in look and is slightly brushed for softness and comfort. Available from SanMar (asi/84863; circle 90 on Free Info Card).

For environmentally focused nonprofits, consider the appeal of recycled polyester apparel. This Extreme Eperformance Ladies’ Tempo textured polo (75112) from alphabroder (asi/34063; circle 78 on Free Info Card) features contrast piping and moisture-wicking properties. Decorated by A&P Master Images (asi/702505; circle 91 on Free Info Card).