Publishing can increase nonprofit organization income for some kinds of nonprofits by Dr. Rudolph Rosen
I regularly give talks to groups of students coming from a wide range of university majors on the general topic of fundraising and nonprofit organization income. Student interest can range from learning about financing nonprofit charitable causes, to venture funding of commercial technologies, to everything in between.
I sometimes call my lecture, Fundraising from A to Z. I’m serious about introducing students to the full range of fundraising options.
It’s amazing how limited most people see fundraising, or understand it. Even many seasoned fundraising professionals have a limited range of experience. So I try to at least identify and define the full range of options to raise funds in the hope that something the students learn may enable them to think outside the usual box in the future. “Pull a Rabbit Out of your Hat” is even the title of an entire section of the “Advanced Techniques” chapter in my fundraising book, Money for the Cause.
I proceed with Fundraising from A to Z by asking students to name techniques used to raise funds. We then discuss each, starting with a brief definition and then we seek to describe a few examples. The discussion follows along lines of thinking based on student responses. Sometimes students are practicing fundraisers or executives of organizations. Depth of coverage varies, but students rarely come up with more than 10 to 15 fundraising techniques of the many dozens available.
Nonetheless, as I teach students in this fashion of open discussion, I learn from them as well as they learn from me.
So it was as we were going through one of the techniques that often sounds unethical to many that I was surprised when a student drew an analogy between raising funds through operating a vanity press (some considered this unethical) and funds received for publishing scholarly works (all considered this ethical). I suggest it’s all nonprofit organization income from publishing — but is it really?
In going through various ways to raise funds, most techniques brought up are clearly ethical if not totally righteous when applied to just causes. But I expose students to all techniques, even some that can be questionable, ethically and legally, pending how applied. I let students explore the notions of right, wrong, or situational. I make judgements only as necessary to make sure truly inappropriate or illegal fundraising techniques are exposed for what they are, but generally I let discussion flow.
We were discussing how organizations with certain membership characteristics can raise funds through publications catering to members’ interests. In the course of this I mentioned the option to operate a vanity press. After explaining the term to the students, several of them expressed the notion that taking money from a member-author to publish personal stories of possibly little or no consequence to anyone but the writer sounded like a scam.
I told students a way to increase income even further is to offer editorial services, for a fee, to make the member’s writing more readable (e.g., by fixing bad grammar). Students saw this as a waste of resources when an organization is supposed to be doing good.
As discussions continued I explained it was just another fundraising technique. After all, many organizations’ magazines, newspapers and newsletters include articles written by members. Although there are usually no fees assessed to authors, why not expand the concept and charge for the privilege of publishing. Some members might actually buy some of the books, which the organization could sell.
What happened next changed the way I thought about the vanity press concept.
One student then said it sounded like a professional society, where researchers pay to have their results published and the supporting professional society receives funds for that.
I never thought of professional society publications as a vanity press, but everyone in the room got the message. These were students just at the point of being introduced to professional societies. There are differences, for sure. Scholarly publications are intensively reviewed. Not all scholarly papers are accepted, but authors are often assessed fees for publication. A vanity press publishes what it receives, for a fee.
After letting it all sink in, the students decided “pay for publishing” was completely ethical, at least as long as content met acceptable standards. I didn’t challenge them on what they meant by acceptable. I quickly moved them on to another topic.
The Bottom Line for Publishing and Nonprofit Organization Income
Many organizations are happy to break even on publications, but that need not be the outcome for publishing. A membership-trade organization for which I was executive director earned over $1 million net revenue on publishing books, magazines, and newspapers in four languages servicing members’ interests. The overall publishing house operated on about $3 million annual budget, with part of the annual revenue based on “vanity” publishing by members. That “unrestricted” income helped power the nonprofit’s administrative overhead and mission-related work.
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(c) Rudolph Rosen 2017
Rudolph Rosen is author of the book, Money for the Cause: A Complete Guide to Event Fundraising a peer-reviewed textbook on fundraising management and increasing fundraising success through effective business management and volunteer and staff empowerment and training.