Don't Kick a Gift Horse in the Mouth

By Jill Paul, Mentor, JCamp 180

Consider Amazon Wish Lists

Many camps receive gifts-in-kind in lieu of monetary donations. Yet sometimes when you think of the used microwave with unrecognizable stains or the old sofa that droops in the middle that were received in the past, it's easy to give up on in-kind gifts - they seem to be more hassle than they are worth.

But…what if your camp actually got WHAT it needs WHEN it needs it? What if you received

  • …144 orange ping pong balls…for whatever  you use 144 orange ping pong balls for!
  • …two blue coolers of the exact type and size your outward bound group needs?
  • …50 boxes of crayons for your arts and craft programming?
  • …the exact set of tools your handyman needs to keep your camp facilities in tip-top shape?
  • ….a new set of knives or mixing bowls for your cook?
  • ….a shiny new whistle for your Camp Director?

And what if you could make this process for your donors super simple? Imagine if your donors could easily find exactly what you need. Imagine if they could select items that are both within their budget AND connect with what they are passionate about at camp. And imagine that you can thank these donors prominently online by featuring the gifts they purchased for camp on Facebook or an eNewsletter. "Wow, I can actually visualize my gift being used at camp," they might think.

Amazon Wish Lists

Amazon Wish Lists allow organizations to share a specific list of needed items on Amazon with supporters. As items are purchased from the wish list, they are removed so that just the right amount of each item are sent to camp. It works just like a baby or wedding registry.

In fact, Ellen Alexander, Development Director at URJ Henry S. Jacobs Camp, has used an Amazon Wedding Registry to provide the opportunity for camp supporters to purchase needed in-kind gifts.

"After four summers, I finally hit the nail on the head," Alexander said. After creating the registry on Amazon and promoting it to their parents, alumni, and other supporters, the camp began receiving gifts. Alexander used the camp's popular Facebook Page to make the process especially successful. She posted photos of the gifts being used at camp to show their direct impact. For example, she might post a photo of a super cute kid with materials purchased for arts programming. "Thanks <Donor Family> for the super awesome clay for our art program. We can't wait to dig in. YOU can support our camp wish list too!" A link to the list on Amazon continually promoted the additional items still needed by camp.
Has it been successful for URJ Jacobs Camp? "I estimate we brought in close to $10,000 in retail items from approximately 65 donors for an average gift of $154.00," said Alexander. Gifts included a keyboard and drum kit, three sewing machines, 10 tents, eight water jugs, a bubble machine, countless crayons and markers, and more.

Lessons Learned

URJ Henry S. Jacobs Camp found a number of tactics that work better than others.

Make it a Wedding Registry. Really.

Alexander started with a traditional Amazon Wish List, but ran into some problems. For example, it is more difficult to limit the number of items of an individual request. "I don't know what I am going to do with three sewing machines," said Alexander.

She also found that sometimes gifts would arrive from the wish list in a box with no name or address. Even after spending lots of time trying to determine who the donor was and how to reach them, some donors were never thanked appropriately. "Finding the donor who wrote 'Lots of Love, Maw Maw' on their gift was impossible," Alexander said.

It was Amazon that recommended the Wedding Registry as an alternative. (Click here for URJ Henry S. Jacob's Camp's Wedding Registry.) Wedding Registries allow you to specify the number of gifts you want and the number that have been received. They also provide the name and address of each person who purchased the gift. "A wedding registry gives you the names and addresses of orders for proper thank you notes," said Alexander. "And you can limit the number of items desired, too."

Alexander set the date of their "wedding" to the first day of camp. You could also set it for a time in mid-session when funds/supplies are low.

Photos, Photos, Photos

Alexander says that posting photos of desired items on Facebook was a key to success. "I posted a picture of a needed item on Facebook to see if I could find a donor," said Alexander. "It took off like wild fire." Staff can help by noting supplies that are running low during camp and taking the photos to post online.

Posting photos of items as they were received was also helpful. "It became a game with the parents and alumni," said Alexander. "They wanted to see their name on Facebook with a huge thank you."

Promote Sale Items

She also found that items that went on sale were a hit. For example, the aforementioned sewing machines were 66% off. Alexander will definitely monitor sales more closely in the future. A possible idea for Alexander is to stress items on the list that go on sale: "Hey! Crayons are 25% off. We sure could use some in Arts and Crafts. Support HSJ!" (with a link to the item on the registry).

Possible Drawbacks

All donors need to be thanked, whether they give cash or in-kind donations. As Alexander learned, be sure your gift list allows you to find the name and address of every donor so they can be stewarded appropriately.

What about cannibalizing your development efforts? The last thing you want to do is have a potentially generous donor purchase a small-ticket item (crayons or markers, for example) in lieu of giving a large monetary donation.

Alexander, however, has few reservations about this.

"Honestly, giving to me is about feeling good," Alexander said. "If a major donor feels good about donating a couple of boxes of lanyard string, who am I to judge?  Maybe it triggers a memory I can discuss later?  Maybe it just caught their eye?  Maybe it's fun to see a silly picture on Facebook?   I know our major donors have different streams of giving.  Why not add this this option!?"

Final Thoughts

Alexander found the process to be well worth the effort. The list has brought in $10,000 of necessary supplies. It has also provided great, engaging content for their social media channels.

"Don't say I wish I'd done this earlier," Alexander said. "Get started today. You can always use the items you receive later. We even created a pillow case-making Chug to put our three new sewing machines to work this summer!"