Volunteers Can Teach Professionals A Lot About Raising Money—if They Let Me

Fundraising is an increasingly credentialed field. Certified Fundraising Executives, or CFREs, are now commonplace, and fundraising degrees and training programs have mushroomed on campuses across the country. However, from our observations, volunteers without professional designations are often more effective at convincing people to give than development executives with several initials behind their names.

Why is that? Personal relationships and trust are at the heart of raising money for charity. And volunteers are often better suited to tap into that feeling and ask colleagues to give because they have first-hand experience contributing their own time and money to the organization.

Through our work in leadership and fundraising positions on the United Way of Central Maryland, we believe that volunteering can teach professionals a lot about how to raise money. Especially at a time when nonprofits are struggling to attract volunteers, those who donate their time to fundraise should be even more appreciated for the unique skills they bring to the organization. They include parents asking for dollars for PTA, undergraduate cold calling alumni for university scholarship funds, anyone promoting a GoFundMe campaign, or Santa ringing the bells outside of Target.

What volunteers understand about fundraising, and what professionals in the race to meet organizational revenue goals sometimes forget, is that an individual’s relationship with money and the ability to stay connected to their donation may be the difference between giving a gift or walking away completely. .

Giving to charity is a deeply personal and emotional decision, and volunteers are often in a better position to understand that complicated reality. Consider your own feelings and the timing of your fundamental relationship with money—how you earn it, what you save it for, where you invest it, and how you spend it—bubbles to the surface when asked to donate.

We have observed time and time again that when volunteers come clean about their own feelings and motives about giving to charity, their peers reflect the same sentiments and intentions. When a volunteer shares, for example, what giving to a capital campaign means to him, potential donors are more likely to imagine themselves contributing to the same campaign. And in our experience, these donors are more likely to give a gift when approached by an engaged volunteer than if a professional made a formal organizational offer – no matter how well delivered.

Donor attitudes and behavior resonate differently with volunteers than they do with professionals. As donors themselves, volunteers have a unique perspective on the needs and aspirations of nonprofits and organizations those who support it. This extends to the eternal problem of giving time versus money.

Fundraising professionals know the importance of giving time, but they are uncomfortable with the prospect of time being a substitute for financial gifts. After all, time doesn’t appear on the balance sheet at the end of the fiscal year. Volunteers who give their time to raise money for organizations are not immune to this thought; they just don’t see it as a fight worth fighting. Development staff can learn a lot from them on how to productively approach this perpetual conflict.

Take, for example, a volunteer who makes a nominal financial donation but spends her time promoting an organization to her network and, in the process, gathering new donors and community partners. This devoted supporter has found the path of giving that makes the most sense for her — even if the nonprofit prefers donations to come from her wallet over the time marked on her calendar. Continuing to prioritize more dollars over the gift of time risks alienating such donors.

Volunteers have a lot at stake in this game — more in many ways than a paid professional. They volunteer their time out of personal convictions and are often pressed for the mission of the organization. But in soliciting other people’s money, they are risking their own reputation and credibility.

Keeping promises

Development staff need to keep that in mind and make maintaining the volunteer’s reputation a top priority. They need to appreciate what happens when they don’t keep a promise a volunteer made to a prospect, forget to thank a new donor, or only engage with them superficially. Such behavior not only reflects badly on a non-profit organization, but also tarnishes the reputation of the volunteers who bring those donors to the organization.

Volunteers understand that everyone’s reputation is at stake when asking for money, and a successful request is as important to how it enriches a new relationship as it is to how much money comes in.

Our intention here is not to pit voluntary fundraising against professionals. Instead, we want to encourage more conversation and collaboration between the two about issues that often go unspoken. What, for example, do volunteer fundraisers in the field see that isn’t on the professional radar? What organizational realities do professionals have to deal with when asking for money that volunteers don’t consider? What is left out when an organization treats the gift of time as just the cherry on top of a large financial donation? What is at stake — personally and professionally — when volunteers leverage their network and reputation for an organization?

For many people, this conversation will feel risky and uncomfortable. But it is also necessary and long overdue. Collaboration between volunteers and professionals is mutually beneficial. Volunteers provide authority and perspective that helps fundraising professionals engage more authentically with donors. And professionals facilitate opportunities that help volunteers use their own talents and networks — assets that make volunteers critical partners in driving the organization’s mission.

The time has come for these two fundraising groups to pool their collective knowledge and skills and work together for the good of the organizations they each want to support.

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