Is free really free? Assessing the real impact of product donations

“There’s no such thing as a free horse.” We jokingly remind each other of that truism at the barn where I keep my decidedly not-free horse, whenever someone contemplates adopting a supposedly free animal.  A quick reminder of the bills for the vet, farrier, tack, grain, blankets or multitude of other equine needs proves the lie behind that claim.

And so it is with many product donations…free is great until you look at the costs and obligations required of the receiving nonprofits to put the products to good use.

This isn’t a case for not giving nonprofits access to the products & services that fuel growth in the private sector.  Rather, it’s a plea for corporate leaders to look deeper into how to use their products to effect actual change in the world.

A few considerations:

  • Free is not bad, just not the entire answer. Sure, price matters and making products affordable is absolutely critical. But only dealing with price will not make the product useful for nonprofits. Consider how to set up a pricing structure – including what portion should be free – based on the entire picture.
  • What’s the need? Consider how your targeted organizations will use your product. How does your corporate-intended product translate to nonprofit needs, like fundraising, volunteer management, case management, advocacy? Does it directly support their mission, by providing the actual goods they need? How well does your product solve for their unique requirements?
  • Break down the segment.  There are more than a million nonprofits in the US. Which of these can benefit from your product?  Is it best for a few select organizations or should you make it widely available to all?
  • Look at the whole picture. To make your product really useful, consider how the nonprofits are going to integrate it into their operations. For technology products, do they need certain developer skills? What’s the ongoing customer support required? What are the logistics of getting the product to your customer – and what do they need once they have it?
  • Supply a solution. Ultimately our goal should be to help nonprofits address a challenge, with a comprehensive, appropriate solution.  Be ready to work across organizations to cooperatively assemble the solution for maximum impact. That includes pro bono support, financial assistance to hire the right staff, integration with their existing systems and operations…whatever it takes to make the answer improve their results.

Our corporate products may be the missing link in helping nonprofits to run efficiently, communicate effectively, advocate widely or serve ably.  Just make sure you’re not giving them a “free horse.”


Judy Levine
Judy Levine
As an expert in corporate citizenship and social responsibility, Judy excels at strengthening brand visibility and leadership in corporate philanthropy. Her background includes leading integrated philanthropy programs and outreach for the Foundation, a highly recognized leader in the corporate social responsibility space. As the VP of Marketing & Engagement, she built demand generation and awareness programs and led employee volunteer programs for the 10,000+ employees. She developed expertise in pro bono as a VP at the Taproot Foundation, the national leader in facilitating pro bono service from the business community. Prior roles in her career included marketing director and VP positions with such companies as MarketTools, Nuance and MCI. Judy has been a featured speaker on CSR at industry conferences and is currently on the advisory board of, an initiative to provide nonprofits with access to communications technologies. She has a BA from Brown University and an MBA from Columbia Business School.