It seems that I am continually reminded of the vital importance of volunteers in fundraising. Frankly, I can’t think of a single campaign in which I have been involved over the years that did not boast at least a few very active, engaged volunteers. Obviously, campaign leadership is critical to success, and volunteers who play such an active role are essential to the enterprise. But, the importance of volunteers goes well beyond leadership roles.
As campaigns get past the initial quiet leadership-gift phase, volunteers become even more important. Solicitations at this stage are often spreading out beyond the organization’s “immediate family,” and it is essential that teams are put together who know each prospect and who are willing and able to ask for the gift. We have learned over the years that it is absolutely critical to ensure that all volunteers who participate in solicitation activities be properly trained prior to taking their first assignment.
I think that preparation is the most important element in volunteer success. We tell solicitation teams to prepare a tactical plan of how they envision the solicitation will occur. Obviously, they must have familiarized themselves with the case for support and have agreed in advance on the size of the request and the purpose. Equally as important, they should be ready to talk about their thought process regarding their own personal commitment to the campaign (yes, they must have made such a commitment before you send them out to ask others).
With that type of preparation, we encourage role-playing exercises, so that they can test various ways of asking for the gift, and find out what makes them most comfortable. I have often suggested that first-time solicitors test their “asks” in front of the mirror a number of times, to become familiar with the actual words.
We also walk volunteers through the entire solicitation process, encouraging them to develop a dialogue with the prospect—avoid making the meeting a monologue with the volunteer doing all of the talking. It is human nature to keep talking after you have asked for the gift, but volunteers must take a breath and let the prospect respond, particularly at this very important moment. Finally, we encourage active listening, and sharing information with the development team after the solicitation is completed. How many times have you asked a volunteer (or perhaps even another staff member) to play back an important prospect meeting, only to find that very little is remembered? When I was calling on prospects, I would often arrange four or even five appointments in one day. There was no way to remember all of what was said during those meetings, so I developed a habit of dictating my notes into a hand-held recording device immediately after the appointment was completed. This way, I could remember more of what was said, and hopefully could fulfill any promises that I made to the prospect during the meeting. You might have seen me standing in the cold on Michigan Avenue, talking into my hand—I am sure it was quite a sight! I feel that volunteers should be encouraged to jot down notes or record their remembrances of the meeting in a similar fashion. These notes can be particularly valuable in future solicitations of the prospect.
We are big believers in the power of volunteers to expand and enhance the fundraising function for our clients. However, we must properly prepare them to be most effective in their work on behalf of our organization. In future blogs, we will discuss specific activities and how to best prepare our key volunteers for success. In the meantime, please feel free to share stories or specific questions regarding the use of volunteers in fundraising that have come up in your organization.
For first-timers, soliciting major gifts can be a daunting task. This guide was developed to help volunteers learn the planning processes and strategies that help to make a successful ask.