Zilch: Get What You Want for Nothing

How to profit by behaving like a not-for-profit.

Zilch: Get What You Want for Nothing
A Priceless Story: Zainab Salbi, founder of Women for Women, has raised money with the help of her own tale of surviving war. | Photographs by Rennio Maifredi A Priceless Story: Zainab Salbi, founder of Women for Women, has raised money with the help of her own tale of surviving war. | Photographs by Rennio Maifredi

Recently, I was in a meeting at the offices of a ginormous global conglomerate. Eight of us sat around a big, beautiful table made of incredible wood no doubt harvested from some disappearing rain forest. They served the most amazing, still-warm oversize oatmeal cookies with white chocolate chips. We were discussing the launch of a new ad campaign, so the mood should have been corks-popping celebratory. But the day before, the corporation’s budget for the project had been slashed. By “slashed,” they meant down to a mere $2 million, and everyone in the room was either dejected or panicky. The top exec — who was wearing handcrafted leather shoes so lovely that the left one could have been sold on eBay and fed a family of six in Rwanda for a year — announced that he had the answer: The team would call other departments and cobble a “paltry” $1.5 million from other budget lines. “I’m on it,” one member grunted, poking at her BlackBerry. “I know the sports marketing group can pull some T&E funds, and global marketing should free up something too.” Everyone looked relieved. The best response to not having enough money? Get more money.


Not having money is familiar to me — I’m the CEO of a not-for-profit — but this ostensible solution of theirs was not. I ventured some suggestions that I thought might be smart and cost-effective. “Have you thought about using free online tools like Twitter to promote this campaign?” Silence. “Have you thought about leveraging partnerships?” More silence. “Maybe we could create an event, or hook into a trend so that we can generate some buzz?” They looked at me as if I had three eyes and six arms.

Right then I realized: I’m not like them. I am an alien from the Land of Zilch, where you can’t just borrow from another budget line. On Earth, creatures like me are called not-for-profit business leaders.

Seeing as how I couldn’t get the attention of the other folks in that ginormous company’s conference room, I decided to write down some thoughts about what people like them might learn from the alien not-for-profit girl. Everyone loves to talk about how not-for-profits need to behave more like businesses. But after watching giant for-profit companies pull out the begging bowl, I know there are also plenty of lessons my sector can offer. Here are three about the power — and the potential — of zero.

Ask Smart
How to raise money when you have nothing to offer in return

As I sat nibbling my cookie, everyone continued to gripe about their shrunken budgets until a senior marketing person interrupted and declared through clenched teeth: “This is ridiculous. Can’t we just tell Yahoo to do it for us?” Nobody in that room works for Yahoo. Nor does this ginormous company own Yahoo. The only connection is that their company buys a lot of ad space from Yahoo.

When a not-for-profit needs something, we don’t tell anyone — we ask. Turns out we’re pretty good at it. In 2008, contributions to not-for-profits topped $300 billion. Frankly, I’ve always thought it shocking how much money charities raise. Donors have to be satisfied with our heartfelt thanks, a shot at a seat in heaven, and maybe a tax deduction.


One of the masters of the ask is Zainab Salbi, founder and CEO of Women for Women International. Her father was Saddam Hussein’s personal pilot, and it was her own experience in the Iran-Iraq War that inspired her to care for the “back line” victims of conflict: the women and children. “I would wake up with the sound of a missile hitting a neighbor’s house and say, ‘Okay, it’s not me today.’ And you go back to sleep.”

In 1990, Salbi left Iraq, obeying her mother’s orders to accept a marriage proposal from an Iraqi man in the United States. It was an abusive marriage, and after it ended, she founded Women for Women in 1993. The Washington, D.C. — based organization has since helped more than 250,000 women and distributed more than $78 million in direct aid and microcredit loans. While the organization does host galas and writes grant applications to major foundations, Salbi raises nearly $10 million a year from online contributions. She gets these gifts without any face time with donors. They never see her pleading brown eyes, or hear her accent, which always reminds me of her personal journey.

Some people give away their bank-account numbers to those poor Nigerians who have won the lottery and just can’t seem to access their funds. That scam I understand — there is the lure of a big payout. But how amazing are the emails that can coax $10 million out of people’s wallets without the promise of anything? How do you raise money when what you offer in return is zilch?

One, Salbi’s cause — call it her “product” — is compelling. Her organization is one of the few on the ground in several of the countries where it operates. It helps enormous numbers of women, giving them not just aid but a hand in developing a trade and starting a business.

Two, she tells a good tale about her organization, and she tells it well. In her case, it happens to be Women for Women’s genesis story that helps position it in the marketplace. Smart companies weave such narratives into the ask — and the organization at large.


Three, she’s specific. The vaguer you are, the less likely you are to get a yes. Salbi doesn’t ask you to help women everywhere. She requests help for a specific program in a specific country for a specific number of women. On, there’s a link that says, “Make a donation to help women survivors of war.” You can sponsor “your new sister” for $27 a month. You can pick a region from a drop-down menu: Afghanistan. Bosnia. Congo. Iraq. Kosovo. Nigeria. Rwanda. Sudan. If you don’t give specifics, you force the buyer to do the hard work of connecting with your product.

Specificity brings a sales pitch into the realm of the concrete and the possible. One great example from the private sector: the Special K diet. If Kellogg just said, “Special K is good for you,” who would buy it? Instead, it offers the Special K Challenge, a detailed and customizable plan for weight loss that has driven significant sales for the brand.

Say Thanks
Need brand ambassadors? Get them with your gratitude.

Huge corporations often pay their brand ambassadors thousands of dollars, and if that person has a recognizable face and a career in the movies, the bill could run into the millions. Athletes are thrown money to wear little logos on their sleeves. Which is great if you can afford it. Yet even a small not-for-profit can easily have a sales force of thousands if not millions, without paying a penny.

The first step to energizing your base — your donors and customers, your potential ambassadors — is to show that you care about them. Thoughtfulness isn’t just good policy; it’s an effective means of winning people over. When people feel respected, they quickly become fans, friends, and stakeholders.

Charles Best, the founder of, is adamant about expressing kindness and active gratitude to those who support his cause. The DonorsChoose Web site is a clearinghouse for donation requests from individual teachers in underfunded public schools. Featured projects have a specific ask, and donors can search the site for projects that resonate with them: One teacher requested books including R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series, which he thought his young readers (and especially the nonreaders) would love; an educator in Mississippi, which has the highest obesity rate in America, requested a ping-pong table as a tool to get students moving; another wanted to take kids to visit an Ivy League college two hours away.


Best and his staff don’t let donors slip away into cyberspace after they click to give. He requires teachers to take pictures of the projects that donors have enabled. His staff then sends those pictures to the donors, along with thank-you notes from the children. The dividends of this strategy: A donor who supported the project to send kids on that Ivy League visit was so touched by the photos and cards — something he said he’d never received from another organization — that he has since become a repeat giver and sent friends to the site. “It’s the same as the Tom Sawyer method to convince his friends that whitewashing the fence is a privilege,” Best says. “You are doing more than turning your customers into advocates. You are turning your advocates into staff.”

Hire for Passion
Experience isn’t everything, and it can’t replace heart.

As I looked around the big company’s conference room, I saw the need for chocolate, Advil, and several good shrinks. It was like a Dilbert strip, with the stress and the dysfunction choking me. And these were people making a lot more money than I could ever pay my staff.

So what was the difference? A big part of it is that great not-for-profits can amplify the contributions of top talent by maximizing one key asset: passion. To us, passion almost always trumps expertise and experience. Not that there’s anything wrong with experience and expertise — there’s just a lot more right with passion.

Not-for-profits naturally attract idealists, but not all of them are passionate. If I had to choose between a passionless Ivy League grad with 10 years of experience and great skills and a high-school dropout with less experience or skills but an abundance of enthusiasm, I’d take David over Goliath every time.

This young guy named George once interviewed for a PR job at my not-for-profit. He didn’t know much about media, but he’d spent a lot of time trolling our Web site. He demonstrated a keen appreciation of our purpose, brand, and target market. Plus, George was a long-distance runner in college, and I like runners because they’ll go toward a goal for ridiculous lengths of time without the promise of much glory.


We hired George. Actually, I created a job for him, and not in PR (the kid had never seen Access Hollywood!). I thought his perseverance might make him a good fund-raiser, so we tried him in cause marketing. He turned out to be lousy. I considered firing him, but he was the first person to work every morning and the last in the office each night. He texted me ideas on Saturday nights. He even pulled his younger sister into the office as an intern during school breaks. So we moved him to our technology group — even though he didn’t have much tech experience. In fact, he didn’t have any.

George bought Dummies books. He taught himself MySQL and HTML. He read everything he could find, in print and online, to learn about search optimization. He was the first to volunteer for brainstorming or troubleshooting.

When our chief technology officer was hired away, George wanted the job. Instead, I brought in a guy from the outside who had tremendous experience. I thought it would be a great opportunity for George to absorb information and ideas. But the new guy was a bust. He didn’t listen. He was set in his ways, insisting that we use a different system for our site — and that he work in the seclusion of his home, not the office. He was so expert that nobody was good enough to work with him; he thought we ought to be grateful for his very presence. He failed to inspire or motivate anyone, and he certainly had no interest in teaching the incredibly hungry George.

I canned him.

I still didn’t name George CTO. Instead, I gave him a new title (director of technology) and dangled the CTO job in front of him. He responded like a long-distance runner. He didn’t just work hard; he applied himself with imagination and inspiration. Less than a year later, he had reinvented our entire site — content-management system, architecture, user interface, the works. As a result, we won a 2009 Webby, the online Oscar. And it wasn’t in the not-for-profit category. We beat MTV and Marvel Comics to win best site for youth.


George is now our CTO, and while he still runs miles every day, I think I’m seeing a little more swagger.

Shortly after the meeting in that ginormous company’s ginormous conference room, I realized that Zainab, Charles, and George would probably be able to do more for the company than the legions of consultants it has on retainer ever could. That firm has become a behemoth in which the people are driven by numbers and angst. There’s little passion. There’s plenty of smarts, but it isn’t being applied to the right things. Clearly, its employees have read tons of business books, but so what if 50% of them have Good to Great on their shelves? They have to be great, not just read about it.

They can afford to look beyond their world for inspiration and fresh ideas about how to do more with less. Here’s one more: Come work for a not-for-profit. There’s no better way to learn about managing with zilch than to do it on the job.

Zilch: The Power of Zero in Business goes on sale June 24. Copyright 2010 by Nancy Lublin. Published by arrangement with Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin.