Should a Non-Profit Charge for Services?

USA Swimming ConventionAt USA Swimming we recently announced a new marketing conference called #SwimBiz: Social Media, Sponsorship and Swimming. While that is clearly a shameless plug it actually prompted a good discussion topic. Should non-profit organizations charge for services?

#SwimBiz is a 3-day conference with 23 speakers, six meals and a chance to visit the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, for a $100 registration fee. Lodging and travel are not included. Speakers include representatives from the U.S. Olympic Committee, USA Today, NASCAR, UNLV, USA Swimming and more.

By marketing industry standards, a $1,500 registration fee for a conference is the norm, so $100 is cheap. By non-profit standards, especially in a member organization, it can be considered gouging for a service that should be provided as part of our mission.

Legally and within the non-profit structure, charging for services is common and fits perfectly within accepted guidelines. Even when an organization has a strong budget, it doesn’t always mean that the individual department running the service does.

But this is a philosophical question, not a legal one. Just because you can do something, does it mean you should?

Pro: Non-Profits Should Absolutely Charge for Services
Yes, it’s completely fair to charge as it allows the non-profit to stretch dollars and provide more services to its constituency, such as additional conferences, marketing kits or programs. Also, people put more value in something they pay for, whether it is $1 or $100. When people have “skin in the game” they treat it with more value. With so many webinars and services available at no cost, when quality conferences come along with a nominal charge, it sticks out for its worth and people are more apt to pay attention. It also allows organizations to bring in experts it may not otherwise be able to provide.

Charging a fee cuts down on no-shows or last-minute cancellations that leave organizers stuck with unused hotel rooms, uneaten food and under-utilized transportation where deposits or contracts are already signed. If we offer it for free are our actions inadvertently saying it is of a lesser value?

Con: It Is Wrong to Charge for Services
Our organization also serves other youth-serving organizations such as local swim teams, some of which serve under-served populations. Many swim teams typically aren’t in this business for the money, but for the love and passion of providing health and sports opportunities for kids. By charging a fee, it can create a barrier to the same members the conference it was designed to serve in the first place. The unintended consequence is alienating the organizations that could gain the most benefit. It also feeds a perception that the parent organization has more financial resources and should just offer these types of services.

Full disclosure: we did keep the $100 registration fee for our conference and will in the future, but my boss still feels we didn’t charge enough! There are some ways to make adjustments. Some of these we are doing this year and others are more “lessons learned” for future events.


  • If a non-profit does charge, keep the price nominal vs. making it appear as a profit center
  • Offer limited scholarships with an application process to those who truly can’t afford it
  • Offer live or on-demand video recordings in an education library
  • Create regional events to enable driving vs. airfare
  • Combine with existing major events when large quantity of attendees will already be present
  • Promote great insights and sound bites on social media throughout the conference
  • Invite speakers expertise outside of the headquarters staff to enhance the credibility of the conference


Please share your ideas of how non-profits can continue to deliver great services, manage the budget and keep members feeling they are getting the most for their membership.


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