Bad Rap Logo Dog T-Shirt

Many groups know that they could make money and benefit from the associated advertising when selling merchandise with their organization’s name, logo, or photographs of cute animals; they just don’t know where to begin. This is a great example of what I mean (and you’ll come to know this phrase very well) when I say that the organization that can best utilize their time, money, and skills wins the prize. It is a balance we are all searching for, but for a non-profit organization, all three of those variables are often in diminished proportion to the rate of need. Groups who keep the elements of the “Advertising ESP”-Exposure, Simplicity, Price/Profit in mind are virtually assuring themselves that the selection process and final decision will be well-thought out and will produce the best efforts for choosing what inventory to carry and the company/method to supply it.

FOTOT (Failing Organization Train of Thought): You know you need some t-shirts for your adopters, sponsors, members, and staff, but you wouldn’t know where to look to make those shirts a reality. Guess you’ll just have to explain to everyone that you don’t think it’s possible to have things like that made in your area. It’s too hard to find out the information, you don’t have the time, and nobody buys that stuff anyway.

Think Again!

Not only are you doing a disservice to your loyal adopters, supporters, volunteers, and staff, you are denying members of the public the opportunity to support the group in a method that provides them with a substantial item they can use, wear, or give as a gift. Your group gets free advertising each and every time that item is worn or used, so why not take advantage of it?

Whether you are attending a local festival, hosting an open house, or holding a pet adoption event, having merchandise available for purchase not only gives you something to talk about, it opens the door for unsolicited donations. You’d be surprised how many people will stop and shop at a booth with nicely printed shirts, mugs, and buttons just to see the products. Once they see the organization behind the merchandise, they happily purchase something or make a cash donation.

Previous adopters love to buy merchandise from the organization that changed their life through the adoption of their precious pooch. “We adopted him from you guys three years ago and couldn’t be happier. Do you have a shirt in my size?” They want others to know where they found their little furry beloved, and they will happily tell the world about your group.

You have an open house and encourage the community to come out to tour your facility, but people aren’t interested in taking home a pet, they’d rather contribute with a purchase of a bumper sticker for their car to help advertise their favorite group.

A pet adoption event offers another opportunity to gain exposure in front of an audience that may be unreachable by other methods. Having animals available for viewing is essential, but what about the family who has reached their limit on pets and they just want to show some support for you? You just suggest a donation, right? No. If they aren’t familiar with your group, they are very unlikely to hand over a cash donation. Suggest a calendar. It’s practical, and they can find out more about your group (because you’ve embedded the calendar with all your contact information, including your mission statement and great Web site).

SOTOT (Successful Organization Train of Thought): You know you need some t-shirts for your adopters, sponsors, members, and staff but you wouldn’t even know where to begin to look to make those shirts a reality. You see other organizations selling merchandise, so you KNOW it is possible. You resolve that you will spend a specific amount of time researching all available options until you have your goal in your hand.


Turn to the first source of information we all knew before the internet-your local phone book. Trophy shops, print shops, screen printers, and clothing manufacturers are great locations to inquire if any local companies provide the service you need. Get quotes (in writing with offer expiration dates), view samples of their work, find out what types of materials they require of you (formats for photos, graphics, etc…), minimum order requirements, product and workmanship guarantees, limits for colors, fabrics, and items, and specifically inquire about their turnaround times. DON’T FORGET: Take your IRS 501C3 letter with you and show it proudly. If they have a nonprofit discount you’ll never find out if you don’t ask.

Search online for print on demand options (POD). Use the same parameters for information that you used for the local vendors. Compare and contrast the two before you make a snap decision.

Potential Obstacles

You’ve done your homework and you know which vendor you want to use to print your merchandise, but now what? Now you need graphics to place on the items. If you don’t know how to make or acquire these items, you’ll need someone with technical design skills to lend a hand. POD vendors often have on-site design gurus who will, for a price, create the images. In addition, they may charge “print setup fees” that you will need to factor into the price. Having a local contact may help establish networks that may negate the fees. For example, in return for your business and loyalty, you receive a free run of t-shirts for your next walk-a-thon from your new “sponsor.”

Don’t overlook the price of keeping all that merchandise on hand. You need to keep your items clean, fresh, and ready for purchase. You ordered twelve of each sweatshirt size in twelve colors. Can you properly store that many bulky sweatshirts? You might have gotten a great “bulk discount” and you are ready to supply everyone with a sweatshirt, but where are those items being stored? How will you transport the items to the events? Are you spending more time unloading and loading the merchandise than selling it?

Find or Create Pet T-shirts at CafePress


If you can’t create the images/illustrations for your products, and you don’t want to pay the shop professionals, turn to the internet, and local schools. Professional artists and designers are online and you can view their portfolios and query them about reduced or even free options. In exchange, you allow them to use the designs they create for you as part of a school project or to supplement their portfolio. Students are often encouraged to look for a project that they can work with over a semester. If the school requires students to accumulate volunteer hours, you might just find some handy volunteers who can take care of all your technological needs while helping them reach their goals. It NEVER hurts to ask.

Online POD vendors are readily available. You are in charge of what items and products display your images. They keep the inventory of items until you either need a large order for an event or your customers order from them directly through your online store.
Shop or Create What's on Your Mind at CafePress
provides all registered users with a basic store where your customers can view and purchase your merchandise with the profits of said purchases being deposited into your account. You set your own profit margin (above an established retail price mark), and benefit from having yet another location online where anyone and everyone can learn about you.

For a yearly or monthly fee, you can upgrade your store and access additional features and options. I suggest trying out the free version first to get you started. You may quickly discover that your customers want more products, and you will simply respond by upgrading the store and adding more items from the CafePress item catalog.

Don’t forget that POD services like Shop or Create What's on Your Mind at CafePress have forums and tutorials that will help guide you through the production of your items. You might just end up turning out the designs yourself! Forum members are a great source for assistance and ideas. Perhaps you posses a hidden skill or just need a little guidance to help realize your potential. You never know who you will encounter online and the number of people who are willing to lend a hand.

A volunteer who doesn’t have the time to have a physical presence within your group may opt to set up a CafePress store using their own or your furnished designs, with the profits going to your group. The group benefits from the increased exposure and profits, and you now have a great item to write about in your newsletter.

The shop you create is always open. If you want to tinker with the design elements, create seasonal products, or just bask in the flow of orders, you can do it anytime you wish. While there may be an initial learning curve, you’ll quickly admire the simplicity behind the program. Let’s be honest, if you have to struggle too much with it… you won’t do it.

Finding a balance between having enough merchandise on hand, keeping your print orders current, and storing the inventory can be a challenge, but it doesn’t have to be the proverbial last straw that puts the period at the end of the discussion. Offering branded merchandise for purchase is a smart addition to your marketing and advertising plans. Groups who keep the elements of the “Advertising ESP” at the forefront of their pursuit will achieve their goals and potentially exceed their expectations.

Questions to Guide You:

What are the costs? What exposure will item/design provide? What exposure will each method provide (local printing versus internet POD)? How easily can you access, alter, and order items in your inventory, including your design elements? How quickly will your orders arrive? What is the quality of the individual items and printing method? What profit are you making on each item?

Horror of Horrors: You’ve acknowledged that other organizations have merchandise available for purchase, so why not approach them for a referral? Not only may you stumble upon a diamond of a referral, you will be building some much needed networks and bridges with other groups.


Find or Create Pet T-shirts @ CafePress

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Advertising ESP – Branded Merchandise by J.M. Striegel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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One Response to “Advertising ESP – Branded Merchandise”

  1. sandrar says:

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.