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Development Dilemma: Fundraising with Volunteers

In our weekly column, consultants with decades of nonprofit experience answer your questions about fundraising, boards, strategy and more. To ask a question and be featured (anonymously!) in the column, email your questions to info@twbfundraising.com.

This week’s question will be answered by Gene Brandt.

The Dilemma

“I am having a lot of difficulty getting our volunteers to follow through on their fundraising assignments. I’ve decided that if we are going to be a successful fundraising organization, we are going to have to recruit staff to get the job done. Does it make sense to reduce the importance of our volunteer fundraisers and spend time instead building a professional fundraising team?”

Gene’s Response

This is a question with more than one correct answer! While I have always been a proponent of effective utilization of volunteers in fundraising, I have also encountered very persuasive fundraising professionals who believe that using volunteers is simply not practical. In their minds, volunteers are just not reliable—they don’t prepare for their assignments, they procrastinate, they really don’t want to ask for money anyway, and in too many instances, they simply don’t follow through with their agreed-upon prospects.

As a consultant, I have witnessed all of the challenges of working with volunteers, but I have also seen many examples where volunteers have made the difference between a modestly successful fundraising effort and an extremely successful one. The success of volunteers is reliant on how hard a particular organization is willing to work to put key volunteers in situations where they can add the most value and be the most successful.

Whether you are a professional fundraiser or a key volunteer, proper training and preparation are essential elements of successful major gift fundraising programs. We work with our clients to train development officers and volunteers alike. Even experienced professionals or volunteers who have been involved with fundraising before benefit from a refresher course on how to effectively solicit a major prospect. Preparing for each solicitation as if it were a mini-campaign is also essential—you will, in many instances, get only one shot with a particular prospect. As a result, careful preparation, knowledge of the prospect, and the ability to discuss your project in detail are all important elements of a successful solicitation.

My observation is that each professional fundraiser has a different style and approach, and in the same way, volunteers will bring different experiences and expertise to the table. It is important to get to know your volunteers well enough to determine how they can best be utilized within the fundraising process. Some are best at cultivation. Some can be helpful with acknowledgement and stewardship activities. Then there are those who are comfortable (or can be made comfortable) asking for gifts—actually soliciting prospects.

It is very rare indeed that one of my clients would send a volunteer (or two) out by themselves to solicit prospects. We believe in teamwork, and in the case of major gift solicitations, the team approach always seems to work best. Here is where effective management of volunteers comes in. You can send a major gift officer from your organization out to make a call on a particular prospect, and you can be sure that the call will be completed, that the prospect will be asked. But if you want to be sure that the solicitation is completed with the most opportunity for success, it might be that your major gift officer would be more effective going with one of your key volunteers. I have watched this team approach work over and over again in campaigns and I remain convinced that it can be the most effective way to solicit your organization’s best prospects.

To raise major gifts this way may be frustrating, it may be more difficult to get appointments, and it will undoubtedly take more time to prepare, but over the years, I have witnessed outstanding results utilizing volunteers in this fashion. Working with volunteers may be difficult, but because major gift fundraising is a relationship-centered business, I really believe that adding the right volunteer to your solicitation team will make your fundraising effort that much more successful. Don’t look at volunteers as a way to replace professional staff; rather, view volunteers as a significant enhancement to your fundraising team.

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