Easy Ways for Nonprofits to Get into Ecommerce - Good360

Easy Ways for Nonprofits to Get into Ecommerce

Keeping a nonprofit well-funded and sustainable is tough business.

It’s no wonder then that the most innovative nonprofits are behaving more and more like their for-profit counterparts in the business world. They’re experimenting with developing different income streams and operating models to move away from relying solely on donations.

That has led some nonprofits to take a close look at one of the biggest growth areas in the consumer economy: e-commerce. The good news is that it’s not as difficult to dive into e-commerce as most nonprofits would believe, thanks to a proliferation of digital platforms and tools.

Shopify for the win

One of the easiest ways for nonprofits to get started with e-commerce is to sell their own branded merchandise such as t-shirts, hats, tote bags, and hoodies. Many organizations already produce these kinds of promotional goods as part of their fundraising activities.

But to move beyond just selling merch at one of your events, you’ll need to create an online store that anyone can access 24/7. Thankfully there’s Shopify, which has grown into one of the leading e-commerce platforms for online sellers (half a million stores and counting).

For nonprofits, there are a number of really good reasons to use Shopify:

  • It’s affordable. Shopify offers a 14-day free trial and discounts for qualified nonprofits (contact Shopify support with your documentation). Its Shopify Lite plan starts at just $9 per month.
  • It’s simple to use. You can easily and quickly create an online store using one of Shopify’s pre-built themes, some of which are free. No one at your organization needs to know code or even graphic design to get a Shopify store up and running. Shopify also offers extensive tutorials to get you started.
  • It’s reliable. With Shopify’s built-in hosting, you never have to worry about your store going down due to a traffic spike.
  • It’s integrated with a huge number of apps and online services, available on the Shopify App Store.
  • It also offers a physical point-of-sale solution so you can sell through your online store from anywhere.

Creating your own merchandise

But what if you don’t already have merch to sell? You can create your own products working with a graphic designer and a local t-shirt printer. An easier route may be to use one of a number of online merchandise makers such as CafePress or Zazzle.

Perhaps the best way to create merchandise, especially if you’re a cash-strapped organization,  is to go with an on-demand solution such as Printful. What a service like Printful allows you to do is create all kinds of merch, from t-shirts to tote bags to iPhone cases, without ever holding inventory. The items are printed and shipped only when a customer orders something from your online store, so you never need to shell out a lot of money upfront or risk holding merchandise that doesn’t sell.

The other nice benefit of using Printful is that it’s integrated directly with Shopify, so you can have merch for sale in your store but never actually hold the inventory. The items are printed, packaged and shipped directly from Printful’s warehouses.

Finding a designer

Many nonprofit organizations have access to a graphic designer who’s responsible for producing their promotional materials and online assets. However, there are many nonprofits and charities who can’t afford the cost of keeping a designer on staff. Luckily, thanks to the Internet, you can hire a designer affordably for one-off projects.

Try finding a designer through Upwork or Fiverr.com, which are online marketplaces for talent. A few other good places to look for design work is on Dribbble or Behance.net. These are sites where designers showcase their best work. However, their rates are not posted publicly, so you’ll need to reach out to each designer individually to start a working relationship with them.

You could also consider using sites such as 99Designs and DesignCrowd, which crowdsource designs from various designers based on the creative brief that you submit. You pay a set fee and pick the winning design.

Another excellent option is to run a contest and crowdsource a design from among your own supporters. This is a great way to energize your audience and get them engaged with the work that you’re doing.

What kind of products to sell

The options for merchandise are almost unlimited. Among the most popular items are t-shirts, tote bags, coffee mugs, water bottles, USB sticks, and stickers.

Whatever you create, the key is making sure merch that supports your organization’s values and mission, and reflects well on your brand. For example, if your organization helps U.S. veterans, you might want to sell only merchandise that’s made in America. In fact, the more closely aligned your products are with your brand and mission, the more likely your supporters will be to purchase from your store.

Selling handmade arts and crafts created by artisans within your own community can also be a great way to support your local economy as well as showcase one-of-a-kind products.

A word about taxes

Nonprofits can sell products and services for a profit as long as these activities are related to your organization’s purpose. We all know about the Girl Scouts of America and their famous cookies. That’s a nonprofit that makes upwards of $800 million every year selling Thin Mints and Samoas.

But you should check with your accountant and/or attorney before launching an e-commerce business to understand what taxes you might have to collect or pay as a result of your online sales.


Phat Chiem

Phat Chiem is the co-founder of StoryCraft, a brand storytelling and content marketing agency based in Santa Monica, Calif. Previously, he was a senior editor for Yahoo and a staff writer for the Chicago Tribune. He holds an MBA from Pepperdine’s Graziadio School of Business and Management.