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How Best to Use Your Volunteers for Fundraising

By Tina Cincotti

Question: Our executive director is hesitant to have volunteers help with fundraising because they aren't as intimately familiar with the organization as the board and staff, and our work and mission are complex. The problem is that this leaves all the fundraising to our small staff and a few dedicated board members.  Is someone occasionally not being able to answer a donor's question or mixing up a detail a small trade-off in return for the impact of having hundreds of volunteers helping with fundraising? What is your take on using volunteers to help with fundraising?

Anonymous (Names removed to protect the innocent.)

Dear Anonymous,

This is an excellent question and something I'm asked a lot.

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Fundraising hasn't always been a profession.  It used to done exclusively by volunteers.  But now, more and more of us tend to think that fundraising should only be done by certain people -- people with a high level of experience or expertise. 

Lucky for us, that's not the case!

Your volunteers certainly need training and support, but truly anyone can be an effective fundraiser. 

At its core, fundraising is one person asking another to get involved, to lend their support, to stand up for something they believe in.  No one is in a better position to do this than someone who cares enough about the cause to volunteer their time.  And someone who has hopefully made a donation of their own.

Donors respond to passion.  All the organizational knowledge and fundraising finesse in the world doesn't replace genuine enthusiasm and love for the mission.  And while fundraising strategies and solicitation tactics can be taught, passion cannot.  You've either got it or you don't.

If they're asked a question that they can't answer, who cares?

Empower them to say that they don't know, and that they'll find out and have someone get back to them.  (And be sure to get back to them!)  But given the choice between passion and factual knowledge, I'll take passion every time.

Don't get me wrong... it's not that I think your staff isn't passionate.  But they are getting paid.  Volunteers -- whether they're board members or not -- have no financial self-interest in the donation.  Volunteers are calling as a peer, as a fellow supporter.  And that gives them a kind of authenticity and credibility that paid staff simply do not have.

Additionally, the bigger team of people you have involved in fundraising, the more connections you'll be able to make with donors, the more supporters you'll be able to cultivate, and the more money you'll raise.  There are a limited number of hours in the day, and the staff can only do so much.

Here are some guidelines for making fundraising a positive experience for volunteers and the staff who are working with them:

  • Everyone asking people to donate should be encouraged to make a gift of their own.  (If you're a board member, this should be an absolute requirement but that's a whole other issue...)  It's easier to ask for a contribution if you've already donated yourself.  It allows you to talk personally about why you give and ask them to "join you" in giving.  After all, you're not asking them to do anything you haven't done yourself. 
  • Be specific about what exactly you're asking people to volunteer to do.  Don't recruit people to "help with fundraising."  Recruit people to "help make follow-up calls to a fundraising letter that went out earlier this month one night next week for a 3-hour shift."
  • Spend time preparing so you are able to maximize your volunteers' time.  Nothing is worse that coming in to volunteer and feeling like they're not ready for you.  Have all the materials ready to go.  Things like -- a calling script, a list of people to call with background information on each person, tracking sheets, pledge forms, copies of the letter or invitation you're calling to follow-up on, and possibly some "frequently asked questions" about the organization.
  • Give a brief training before your volunteers get on the phone.  Give them the big picture of what you're doing, explain the goal for the evening, tell them what to expect from their calls, go over the materials, and have them role play the script a few times to get comfortable with it.
  • Have volunteer roles that don't involve soliciting.  Don't advertise them because most people would rather NOT ask and do paperwork instead.  But, for those who aren't ready to pick up the phone and really want to help, put them to work collecting tracking sheets, processing credit card payments, pulling together follow-up mailings for those who pledged, etc.
  • And, of course, thank your volunteers the next day -- by phone or with a personal note -- and send them an email after the phone-a-thon or campaign ends to tell them the final results.  Give them credit for what was accomplished.  Without them, it wouldn't have been possible.

A fund development expert with a passion for social change, Funding Change founder Tina Cincotti gives grassroots groups the skills, tools, training, and confidence they need to raise more money while building stronger relationships with their supporters. With nearly 15 years experience, Tina specializes in fundraising assessments and evaluations; creating strategic development plans; writing solicitation appeals, newsletters, annual reports, and online content; improving donor relations and donor communications; coaching executive directors and staff new to development; and motivating boards to be more engaged in fundraising.

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