A number of Massachusetts nonprofits have turned to special license plates for supplemental revenue, but while the tags can generate a steady source of new funds, organizations need to appeal to a broad audience – and be prepared to market hard.
Consider the Cape and Islands plate—featuring Nauset Light in Eastham and the cliffs of Siasconset in Nantucket and Gay Head on Martha’s Vineyard—which raises an average of $1.2 million each year to support the economy of the Cape and Islands.
The program is a great way for a nonprofit to receive funding, but organizations wishing to apply for a special plate must first understand what is in store, said Paul Rumul, chairman of the Cape Cod and Islands License Plate Committee.
He should know. Since that plate was launched in 1996—93 years after the first license plate was issued in Massachusetts—Rumul’s group has issued more special plates than any other organization, raising more than $17 million.
“In order to be successful, you need to appeal to a large audience statewide,” according to Rumul.
One of the most crucial elements of any license plate campaign is its marketing, said Rumul. His organization has a designated marketing team that works to build awareness about the product all over the state. Each year, his team uses a $100,000 budget to market the license plate through online advertisements, radio commercials, and its Facebook page.
Rumul’s team knows it will sell plates to Cape and Island residents, but also strives to target people who live in other parts of the state but own summer homes on the Cape and Islands. Ultimately, he said, the special license plate will be seen in all areas of Massachusetts, increasing the benefits of the license plate program for organizations affected by the Cape and Islands plate.
Five different organizations working with the Cape Cod and Islands License Plate Committee. distribute the funds to nonprofits in the form of grants. Any nonprofit organization wishing to receive a grant must prove it will use the funds to improve economic development or enhance tourism on the Cape and Islands.
Though a nonprofit may have a tight-knit and dedicated base of supporters, this does not guarantee the license plate program will be beneficial, according to Rumul. Organizations that reach a wider audience and can appeal to drivers from western Massachusetts to the tip of the Cape are more likely to gain large revenue from the program, he said.
One in Every 22 Cars Has a Special Plate
The Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV) offers 18 special license plates. There are approximately 222,326 registered special plates in the state, said Ann Dufrense, a spokeswoman for the RMV, which means that about one out of every 22 of the 4.8 million cars registered in the state sports a special plate.
Given that, on average, about 11,200 of each plate have been issued, the Cape and Islands plate has been especially successful, with more than 48,300 issued to date. Next most successful has been the Red Sox/Jimmy Fund plate with about 42,600 issued.
To obtain a special plate, nonprofits should follow the RMV’s list of criteria that can be found on its website by clicking here. The criteria, created under a 2002 law, require the organization to post a $100,000 bond and collect applications and a $40 fee from 1,500 customers before the plate can be manufactured. Before taking these steps, any organization interested in applying for a special plate should meet with a representative from the RMV to discuss the process in detail.
Once the plate is manufactured, 1,500 more must be sold within the first two years, so that the total number of plates reaches at least 3,000. Organizations may also collect 3,000 signatures in place of the $100,000 bond.
According to the RMV’s website, drivers pay $90 every two years to have a special plate. Initially, the RMV collects a portion of the first payment, but subsequent renewal fees go directly to the nonprofit organization.
Since 2003, the Massachusetts Animal Coalition (MAC) has raised approximately $678,000 from its special plate with close to 8,000 plates issued. The coalition distributes its revenue from the license plate program as grants to organizations that spay/neuter dogs, cats, and rabbits.
Ultimately, the program has been successful for MAC, said board member Kara Holquist, but it did face challenges during the application process. The Animal Coalition plate was one of the first to be made under the 2002 law.
“Being one of the first programs to need to get the pre-orders and post the bond required some learning curve,” said Holquist
The license plate program is a lot of work, Holquist added, but organizations that represent a broad issue or cause are likely to find it beneficial.
“Fantastic Revenue Source” for Firefighter Memorial
Some special plates have a very specific purpose, but still attract thousands of drivers across the state. The Massachusetts Fallen Firefighters Memorial plate has 6,665 registered drivers. Revenue generated from this plate, which originally funded the Fallen Firefighter Memorial statue at the State House, now sustain maintenance and activities of the memorial.
“The special plates are a fantastic revenue source as well as a continual marketing campaign to bring awareness to the memorial and the brave men and women who protect residents across the Commonwealth every day,” said Melissa Hurley Sullivan, executive director of the Massachusetts Fallen Firefighter Memorial.
Other successful plates benefit from relationships between professional sports teams and nonprofit organizations. The Red Sox, Patriots, Bruins, and Celtics all have their logos alongside the names of nonprofit organizations on license plates. The Jimmy Fund, one of the Red Sox’s official charities for nearly 60 years, has pulled in approximately $5 million from its special license plates since 2002, said David Giagrando, director of corporate partnership at the Jimmy Fund.
This fall, the RMV will release a new version of the Jimmy Fund plate with updated letter prefixes; because all the number combinations with the current letter prefixes have been exhausted, said Giagrando. The need for more letter and number combinations shows the growing popularity of the plate, he said.
Last April, the Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts (GSEM) began collecting signatures for their potential special plate. The organization is teaming up with the Girl Scouts of Central and Western Massachusetts (GSCWM) to get 3,000 signatures by September 30, said Stacy Wilbur, a spokeswoman for GSEM.
“This plate could have a lasting effect on girls and the programs we want for our girls,” said Wilbur.
The organizations use Facebook and Twitter to show the more than 38,000 families involved with Girl Scouts that license plate signatures are needed, said Wilbur. The two Girl Scout organizations are joining forces for the first time with this project, she added. If they collect 3,000 signatures and manufacture the license plate, Wilbur said revenue derived from the plate will be distributed based on where the funds come from. For example, funds from plates registered to drivers in towns in central Massachusetts will benefit GSCWM.
Note: Originally published July 2010 on massnonprofit.org