The world changes; opportunities arise; internal needs shift. Effective nonprofit leaders know to redeploy their team, recruit people with specific capabilities, and sometimes – reluctantly – lay off staff whose skills no longer align with what is needed in order to make room for others whose do. Staff have job descriptions, are organized to maximize their talents, and are evaluated to assess and enhance performance. And yet – when it comes to utilizing volunteers in major fundraising efforts, how frequently are these same axiomatic management principles deployed?
Fairmount Ventures has worked closely with innumerable nonprofits to mobilize volunteers to support capital campaigns and fundraising initiatives. We’ve been party to efforts where volunteers have added tremendous value, and have gone on to continue to be actively engaged well beyond the initial fundraising campaign. We’ve also been called in to resuscitate floundering fundraising efforts, finding ways to pivot in order to take a different path to success.
What’s the difference between successes and slogs? Here’s some of what we’ve learned.
- No short cuts. If a feasibility study reveals that a campaign needs the door-opening, trust, and wisdom that volunteers can bring, then invest in the time to build the team. Creating and activating this cadre of volunteers is not prelude to the campaign, it is the campaign. Nonprofits that become impatient with the pace of this step typically regret it when their campaigns stall due to a too-small donor pool or lack of volunteer engagement. The importance of assembling the right human capital in order to secure financial capital cannot be overstated. PS – Don’t skip the feasibility study.
- Customize value propositions. Whether the volunteer is a board member, long-time supporter, or new prospect, approach each person as if they are a customer. Clearly articulate to each individual the value in leaving their comfort zone and spending time raising money for you. Don’t assume that serving the mission is sufficient motivation, or that what compels you will also drive them.
- Build the constellation. Successful fundraising committees intentionally forge a combination of superstars, rock stars, and pulsars. Superstars are people who provide visibility and credibility that attract others to the fundraising effort and can be called upon at key junctures, but will likely be less active in ongoing activities. Rock stars are strong leaders you can depend upon to work with staff on implementation. Like their astronomical namesakes, pulsars have strong gravitational attraction within their relatively smaller fields of influence to help reach new audiences. Different people will play different roles; figure out the mix that you need and then play to everyone’s respective strengths. And, don’t lose heart when you have a few black holes, i.e., people who make promises but do not deliver. At minimum, aim to get their pledge and OK on publicizing their gift, to help spur momentum.
- Find the energy source. Some fundraising committees function best when they meet as a group: these members enjoy each other’s company, and want to learn from and deliver for each other. Staff’s role is to support and guide this team, letting members build on each other’s energy. Other fundraising committees function virtually, i.e., staff work with volunteers on an individual basis. This organizing principle applies when committee members come from very different sectors or geographies. Both work, so be purposeful and analytic in determining which to use.
- Make them proud. You are asking volunteers to put their reputation on the line with their network for your cause. Equip them with solid information about the need, cost-effectiveness, and impact of the campaign. Prepare high-quality collateral print and web materials that speak to the quality of your organization’s work, and will be a great reflection on them – and don’t forget to get them business cards. Establish internal systems to steward prospects and donors with care and make them feel special.
While there isn’t a simple formula for effectively engaging volunteers in fundraising, there are proven ways to analyze the marketplace and your organizational dynamics, test ideas, and craft a plan that optimizes success for your nonprofit. In 28 years, Fairmount Ventures has raised over $800,000,000 on our clients’ behalf as testament to our approach. Let us know if we can help you develop a strategy to maximize the role of volunteers to exceed your fundraising goals.