Trying to maximize the number of clients served against the cost of your supplies? Are you under pressure to increase the number of clients served compared to last year – but also receiving feedback that the goods provided were not always the best quality? And to add to this, are the increase in prices stretching your budget? This is a common discussion we’ve had with many organizations: how to trade off the number of people served with the cost and quality of the goods provided.
There are several approaches organizations have taken. The first is to purchase the lowest cost goods so you are able to serve the highest number of people. We often refer to this as the “Something Is Better than Nothing” approach. On the other extreme, other organizations support a more limited number of clients and purchase very high quality goods – often, these are organizations that are well funded and have donors who can fund the purchase of these goods. There are, of course, many approaches in between – it is common for organizations to prioritize certain goods for quality and then purchase the lowest cost items for the remaining.
The reality is that the “Getting Something Is Better Than Nothing” approach predominates in many organizations. Often momentum is a key cause – funders like to see that programs are growing and that the impact of an organization’s work is increasing. So year after year, the program staff increase the target number of clients served in order to acquire the next grant. By getting caught in this loop, however, organizations can lose sight of the overall objective of their program.
Taking school supply programs as an example, what is the goal of providing children with school supplies for the new school year? Is it really to make sure that each child has something, or is it to provide a backpack that will last through the school year? What is ultimately the underlying objective – to make sure that the children have the confidence to thrive in school? Many nonprofits supplement their drives by purchasing a large number of backpacks using the grants or funds received –often these backpacks are the lowest cost bags – small in size, with zippers that break in the first few weeks of the school year. Talking to a mother who received backpacks from back-to-school event for her girls, she said to us, “Not only did we use our limited time to attend the event, but we had to go searching for a new backpack several weeks into the school year – it would have been better for us to skip the event and get the backpack ourselves if we were going to do it anyway!”
Realistically, nonprofits have limited budgets, so the tradeoff between the number of people served and the quality of supplies provided is a tough issue. So what can be done?
One of our partner organizations made the commitment to improve the quality of their school supplies after receiving feedback from volunteers that many of the backpacks they purchased didn’t last the packing process. This organization organizes an annual school supply drive that serves about 1,000 students every year. They grappled with how to increase the quality of their products without providing a perception that their program was declining (serving fewer students). Partnering with Roonga, we came up with a solution where they improved the quality of backpacks, removed a few items from their school supply list, and kept the target number of people served the same year over year. The overall cost of the program was slightly higher, but the outreach team also emphasized the importance of upgrading the quality of the products being distributed to the students. Their school supply program was just as successful as the previous year, and the volunteers admired the improvement in the quality of the new backpacks.
Because limited budgets are a harsh reality of the nonprofit world, many of the decisions come down to deciding which supplies matter the most. Which items should we spend more money on, and which items can we eliminate or whose quality is less important? Below are some suggestions for specific types of programs/supplies:
School Supply Programs
- Prioritize the quality of the backpack. The backpack is often the most visible symbol of a student’s economic position – having a decent backpack that is “not one of the poor people’s backpack” can help boost a student’s confidence immensely. Although you’d be hard pressed to purchase a good backpack for under $4, you can still select a backpack in the $5-7 range that maximizes longevity and quality. Target the following characteristics in the backpacks you select:
- Size: Many of the backpacks at back-to-school events are simply not large enough. Often the issue is not the height, but the depth – the lowest cost 17″ backpack we like opens to a depth of 7.5 inches. Avoid getting narrow backpacks under 6 inches for elementary school students and for middle to high school students, target 8 or 9 inches or more.
- Good quality zippers: Zippers are notorious for breaking in low cost backpacks. Zippers have a number designation describing the approximate width of the zipper in millimeters when closed. Our favorite low cost backpacks use #10 zippers, and we have received very few complaints about broken zippers.
- Reinforced straps and bottoms are particularly important for the middle and high school students. As the backpacks contents and weight increase, it’s easier for the straps and bottoms to start tearing at the seams.
- School supplies you may want to pay more for:
- #2 pencils: There are frequent reports of low-cost #2 pencils breaking or not sharpening well. Ticonderoga is the gold standard for teachers, and many of our partner nonprofits opt to purchase Ticonderoga pencils for their children.
- Crayons and markers: Crayola crayons and markers can be quick costly on the budget if you don’t catch a great deal. Some organizations select Crayola products particularly for children in mixed economic environments where the low income children go to school with the higher income families.
- Binders: Many lower cost binders can be flimsy and don’t stay together for long. They can fray at the edges within a few months. Historically, the prices of the binders from our wholesale vendors and our retail vendor has not been too different, so it may be worth paying the additional cost to purchase the higher quality ones.
- For the remaining school supplies, we have not noticed a great discrepancy in the quality between the branded and the off brand options. Teachers often request Elmers glue or EXPO markers, but we have not received feedback that the offbrand items do not work well. You still need to do your research and make sure the offbrand option is a good one (because there are still poor quality options!), but it’s not worth paying the premium for these brands . Leveraging off-brand items where there are huge differences in price will make the most of your funds.
- Shampoo, conditioner, body washes, and other toiletry items: It is really important to understand how long you’d like the supplies to last for your clients. Travel size hygiene supplies come in a dizzying variety of sizes. Shampoo, for example, can come in 1 oz bottles all the way up to 4 oz (and more for the full size bottles). Estimates for the number of uses can vary depending on the product, but many sources online have tested a 1.5 ounce of shampoo to last approximately 10-15 uses. In general for all items, the smaller the sizes, the lower the cost, but if you are only servicing your clients monthly, make sure they have enough of the basic essentials to make it through the month! If the cost is to high, trim some of the non-essentials.
- Towels and washcloths: Towels are typically measured by weight. The weight is either reported in GSM (grams per square meter) or pounds per dozen towels (not individual towel). The heavier the towel, the more material is in the towel. Lightweight towels may be preferred because they dry faster, but be aware that many low cost hygiene kits include very thin towels that you can practically see through and don’t last long. We prefer washcloths that are at least one pound per dozen (cheap ones can be half a pound per dozen). Bath towels vary in size and weight. For a 27”x50”, the towels we recommend are at least 10-12 pounds per dozen. As a comparison, many premium towels can weigh 15 lb- 20 lb per dozen or more.
- Feminine hygiene products: There is always a shortage of feminine hygiene products and shelters. If you decide to purchase or run a drive for these, make sure you include tampons and pads, for various body types and needs (heavy, moderate, light).
The challenge of balancing the number of clients served against quality of goods is ongoing. As prices fluctuate year over year, and vendors develop new products, produce selections and costs require monitoring and adjustments. And there is no one-size-fits all answer. These decisions are driven by each organization’s own goals, targets, and philosophies.