The Volunteer Job of the Century! - Part 2


Finding, Tracking, and Redeeming Coupons

A Conversation between Becky Cole and Cynthia Adams

Last time Becky and I discussed why and how she uses coupons, discounts, gift cards, etc. to support different nonprofits with gifts of in-kind products. This week we will talk about the process Becky uses to secure products, how often she donates these products, and how organizations recognize (or don’t recognize!) these gifts.

Cynthia: You have all of these different corporate resources you’re drawing on to help you use coupons, gift certificates, points, etc. to acquire products you can donate to nonprofits. How do you actually manage all of this? It seems sort of overwhelming to someone, like myself, who can barely remember to take a coupon to a store before it expires!

Becky: Let me share with you some thoughts on my process – which also involves setting limits.

The circulars for the next week sales come out on Wednesday night. I plan for about an hour (two at the most) that night to figure out what's on sale, what kinds of special promotions are in play, and what coupons are available. I have a spreadsheet that I have created that easily lets me line up what I might buy using coupons, promotions, and rewards, so this helps me put together a shopping plan. I found this spreadsheet is also useful when I am in the store so I can adjust if things are not available or if the price in the circular doesn’t ring up correctly at the counter.

Unless there are special circumstances, I typically shop on Sunday. That's because some of the previous week's promotions are still in play and often can be combined with the current week's promotions, if it is a better sale.

Cynthia: Sounds like timing is important – both for monitoring how much time you invest in the process, and how and when you shop?

Becky: Actually, I am okay with not buying certain items one week if there is just not enough of an incentive to spend the time shopping for them. The sales and promotions rotate, for example Pantene shampoo won't usually be on sale during the same week as L'Oreal shampoo, so I just wait until it comes back around. 

Cynthia: My brain is going every which way right now! Let me focus this discussion a bit on money. How much are you spending? Do you actually budget it? How does all of that work?

Becky: I do set a limit on how much I will spend each week. I budget $10 to cover tax and anything that might not be covered by the coupons, etc. And I also have a game I play where my goal is to pay less for the items than I do in tax. It feeds the competitive side of me.

Cynthia: Now, that I can understand. Turning it into a game might actually work for me.

Becky: I look for a ratio on the return. For example, I won't spend $10 on toothpaste if I am going to get only $2 back in reward money. If with coupons and promotions, I can get it for $3 or $4 with the $2 in return, then I might buy it. However, with things like shampoo and makeup, there are additional rewards. With CVS, for every $30 you spend, you get $3; with Walgreens, it's $5 for $50, so I consider those thresholds when making purchases.
Cynthia: How do you decide what to buy?

Becky: Through experience I have learned what is a good buy and what will be most useful to an organization, so I focus on those items. I mostly purchase higher end items. For example, I don't buy the 99 cent bottles of shampoo unless I need to meet a promotion. Much of what I buy is also dictated by the sales.

Once I have collected products then I simply ask around to different organizations to see if they have use for what I have. A couple of organizations are my favorites, but I am also always looking to see who else is out there.

Cynthia: Besides sharing all of these in-kind gifts with organizations in your area, is there any other upside for you?

Becky: Absolutely. One upside is that I can try things for myself that I may not have otherwise considered. For example, when a company is introducing a new product they often offer a BOGO sale, so I can give one of the items away and keep the other.

Cynthia: Call me stupid but what is a BOGO sale?

Becky: BOGO is Buy one Get one. Sometimes it's free and sometimes the second one is a discounted price.

Cynthia: I am really curious as to what a successful week might look like to you?

Becky: Good timing on that question, Cindy. I think this week has been especially successful. I spent a total of $2.28 plus tax and acquired $182 in supplies from CVS, and I have around $37 back in extra bucks, too.


To add to the fun, I went grocery shopping a couple of nights ago and got five boxes of cereal for free using coupons. Once that purchase cycles through, I will have accumulated enough points from Kellogg's to get nine boxes for $1 from Walmart.

Cynthia: This all sounds like a lot of work – but certainly work that a volunteer can do for an organization. I am also wondering what kind of recognition you normally get from a nonprofit when you make these kinds of donations? I know a lot of nonprofits really don’t have an in-kind tracking program, which I think is a big mistake.

Becky: It actually is less work now that I have a process that I follow, and it has become a habit that I’ve incorporated into my life. For example, I make my spreadsheet while I am watching television. I won’t go to a store just to buy cereal to donate, but will pick up cereal while shopping for my own groceries. And when I shop on Sundays, I make it into a special outing by going out for a meal using a restaurant coupon. It becomes a “both/and” activity rather than an “either/or” and I am getting something while I am giving.

I look for nonprofit organizations that not only mirror my interests, but also acknowledge in-kind donations as being important. Everyone who writes a check gets listed in an organization’s annual report, but if I am left out (because they don't value my contributions as much as getting a check) then I move on. When I am donating $6,000 in shampoo, it means an organization has $6,000 in their budget to spend on services. It's amazing to me how many organizations don’t recognize that value.

Cynthia: I totally get that. I offer a webinar for nonprofit organizations focused on the importance of establishing an in-kind contributions program. As you and I both know, these programs can strengthen the overall financial health of almost any organization. As with all aspects of nonprofit finances, there are IRS rules regarding what can and cannot be considered an in-kind donation. Which makes me wonder if you know how the organizations you work with track your product donations. Do you see some commonalities between groups on how they track what you provide?

Becky: There have been several differences in the receipts organizations have provided to me. One organization, for example, lists the product types on my receipts, which seems smart. Another group just gives me a generic receipt and has me fill it out. Another organization didn't give me a receipt or even an acknowledgement. After they ignored my request for a confirmation of the donation, I simply haven’t donated to them again.

Cynthia: I am really concerned about organizations that don’t track in-kind donations of products and services. It just seems like a huge, black hole that many nonprofits fall into.

Becky: It’s true. I often just receive a generic donation form or nothing at all! I need some sort of documentation on my end so that the IRS can't say I made up the donation, but it’s frustrating to have to ask for it.

One piece that escapes me is why organizations don’t appreciate in-kind donations on the same level as cash donations. Every dollar I spend on supplies means they have a dollar to spend on their program services. And more importantly, these donations address the sustainability issue most funders look for in an organization. When a funder asks “Who else is supporting your organization?” it is a huge mistake to think they are referring only to cash donors. Organizations that engage in-kind donors can impress funders with their flexibility in enlisting support and their drive to sustain their organizations.

Cynthia: Are there any ‘outstanding’ groups that you’ve donated to?

Becky: Stepping Stone Emergency Housing is the only youth and adult shelter in Anoka County, MN. Stepping Stone's executive director has invited me to take a tour of the facility, which really shows respect for the amount of work I put into providing these donated products. Good people doing good work.

Cynthia: Any final words for our readers Becky?

Becky: What I have found to be very interesting is that of all the organizations I have donated to, only one has put me on their mailing list. That just seems like such a missed opportunity on their part.

Cynthia: I appreciate all of your good work on behalf of these organizations, Becky, and I am eager to get feedback from our readers about your efforts!

Action steps you can take today
  • Read Part 1 of Becky and Cynthia’s conversation
  • We would love to hear from you regarding this two-part post. And please let us know about any other corporate coupons, gift certificates, and points that you would like to share with our readers.