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Rethink your giveaway ideas, and stop buying squishy things

I’ve stood behind a lot of tables at fairs, gatherings, events, and community “outreach days”. Aside from being a weak way people talk themselves into believing they’re “out in the community” while getting a terrible sunburn, these events were often of dubious value.

We’d hand out pens, stickers, candy, and a number of other things that made us look like stalkers trying to lure children, hopefully with a parent in tow to talk to about some organization.

I remember being at IU and all the residents at the dorm received a squishy foam “house” figure, because, you know, “housing”, I guess. All I can remember thinking was, “With the money you spent on these, maybe we could have a working washing machine?”

Anyway, the idea is if you hang out at these events and pass out stuff to people as they come in or walk around, people will learn all about you and take on a whole new appreciation for your work.

The reality is usually just random people walking by who can’t resist taking whatever free thing they can get their hands on.

I once stood behind a table at an event handing out stuff, including printed materials, and no one wanted the printed stuff. One woman literally just walked around a series of tables around and around and at one point asked, “Have I been here yet?”

“I don’t know, ma’am…” as I went into my pitch. She wasn’t interested, she just grabbed more candy and went on her way.

I’ve also been working a table when a woman came by and started to take markers and an iPad that was on the table, as if it was free. Anything that wasn’t nailed down was just there for the taking, I guess.

Time to do better with giveaway freebies

You should rethink your welcome kit and promotional materials. Just because you saw one kid once get excited about a sticker doesn’t mean much. Especially if your target audience is adults.

First, how much money do you spend on kitschy giveaways? Your nonprofit’s budget can afford that? What could you do with that money if not for that?

Second, do you have a closet full of pens, pencils, erasers, stickers, bags, and candy sitting around?

No one ever got excited about a free ink pen. And I mean “excited”, the kind of thing a person would actually really want.

So ask yourself: if you combined budgets and put all that little stuff toward something really good, what would it be?

Maybe there wouldn’t be as much stuff to give away. Or maybe, you’d hand out one really nice, high quality thing — like a bag, umbrella, or other utilitarian thing that would be attractive and strong enough to use for groceries, or would withstand more than six drops of rain.

This is a quality vs. quantity thing. You have to decide which side you want to be on. Would you rather have 100 people getting an ink pen and brochure they’re likely to throw away or lose, or 25 people getting a bag they’ll use over and over again?

If you’re worried about visibility, recognize that of those ink pens, most people will just toss them or lose them. Or they end up at the Olive Garden in a waiter’s apron. When’s the last time you looked at the pen you signed the receipt with?

A really good bag, for instance, that can actually get used and holds some real, noticeable, value, is going to get seen by bored shoppers in the checkout aisle. Or in the parking lot, or along the street to work.

I’m not saying you have to run out and get Estee Lauder quality stuff, but a little more emphasis on increasing value goes a long way.

What about printed materials?

Alongside all the kitsch you give away, there’s probably some cards, brochures, or other printed materials.

Depending on what kind of work you’re doing, see where you can add value there.

For example, we’ve done some consulting before with local drug rehabilitation centers.

Those drug centers have a printed card, but what about having a magnet instead? Something that can stick on the fridge in plain sight for longer? To someone who is serious about rehab, that’s a good way of staying connected, like a post-it note on the bathroom mirror.

We’ve also had ideas for a local association to include a perforated ticket in their invites they can use to give away to a friend. The event was free, so this was a good way of spreading the news about their event and letting people feel good about inviting a friend in a quality way by handing a physical ticket.

All of this, of course, is useless if the printed materials don’t look good. If you’re hobbling things together in Word in your spare time, you’re overworking and reducing impact. Your local police department wouldn’t look so authoritative and professional if the patch on their arm was written in Comic Sans or Times New Roman would it?

Even if people can’t describe or quite put the finger on why they’re not “feeling it” with what’s in their hand, they at least know when something feels cheap, like a knock-off, or just low quality. And if you’re thinking it doesn’t matter because your constituents won’t notice or care, you’re not showing them much respect by thinking that.

Step it up, consolidate, save, and focus like a laser on what’s worth keeping and doing. Your work, clients, donors, and community will appreciate it.

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Photo of Justin Harter


Justin has been around the Internet long enough to remember when people started saying “content is king”.

He has worked for some of Indiana’s largest companies, state government, taught college-level courses, and about 1.1M people see his work every year.

You’ll probably see him around Indianapolis on a bicycle.

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