Fundraising has become a much more complex and sophisticated process over the past 20 years. What was once a field dominated by key lay leadership and supported by professional staff has now become inverted — highly trained, degreed, and certified staff who are accompanied by key volunteers and donors who are along for the meetings in order to make it feel like its still a volunteer driven process.
But should it be that way? I dare say — no — it shouldn’t!
The key to any successful nonprofit organization is one that has deeply committed and active volunteer leaders who engage on behalf of the organization as part of their active, daily lives. These are leaders who take their roles as stewards of the organization seriously and undertake even the most difficult of leadership tasks — fundraising. It is easy for volunteers to become co-dependent on professional staff because its their job, they get paid, but at the end of the day it is the lay leadership that bears the full responsibility of ensuring that the organization has the necessary resources so that the organization can work to fulfill its mission.
But how do we strike the balance? How do we turn back the clock? Should we turn back the clock?
Refocusing development activity and engaging volunteers is not an easy job, in fact, it may complicate matters even more by adding a layer of complexity to the role the professionals play. But, philanthropy and development at their core is all about volunteerism. The argument about whether donors give to organizations or donors give to people is the subject of another article. The reality is is that philanthropy is something that people choose to do — it’s not something that they are required to do, the same as volunteerism. Becoming a leaders is something that people choose to do and when they give of their time to an organization (assuming they are properly on-boarded and trained) it is that spirit that feeds strong and deliberate philanthropy.
I’ve always believed that despite my ability to make a connection, have a conversation, identify a passion, and connect that passion to a cause, true and lasting philanthropy is best achieved on a peer-to-peer basis. Frequently, as a paid professional, I’m viewed as the ‘heavy’ or the ‘muscle’ or the ‘closer’ — someone to come in and apply some science to a relationship and bring home the big bucks for an organization. But in reality, that perception can be misguided. Often, I’m viewed as the person that is coming to complete a transaction, not create a transformation. I believe that philanthropy is more about transformative experiences, rather than transactional relationships — and donors know it! When they take my call, drink the coffee or lunch that I buy them (or more frequently that they buy me), they know what’s coming and they are prepared with their questions and objections and we begin the negotiation. Hopefully, if I’ve done my job correctly, the ask and the expectation are in line with one another and the deal is closed. But that’s only the transaction. It’s hard for donors to relate to me as a peer — a donor to donor — which can be so much more powerful of a connection.
Volunteers and lay leaders have the unique ability to make those connections on a peer level. They donate at a similar level, they volunteer in similar places, they establish a rapport with one another that isn’t predicated on a paycheck. It’s mission oriented, it’s values based, and it’s one based on anchoring a donor or a prospective donor to the mission of the organization. When a volunteer is the center of the relationship, the donor understands that that person has made a personal investment of their time, talent or treasure in the cause or organization. They’ve made the personal commitment that resonates with the donor — they make a case that is most compelling. If the volunteer is authentic in their role and embraces the work they are there to do, the prospective donor or prospective volunteer will see that authenticity and will be more open to whatever the ‘ask’ may be. And, by the way, this can have a powerful impact on the staff as well as they see the mission of their organization come to life through the volunteer which makes the work that much more meaningful.
So take the time to reflect on how you engage your volunteers and challenge your staff to create more meaningful experiences for those key leaders. Your staff is still an incredibly important part of the equation and has to be side-by-side with the volunteers by creating the right case, preparing the right ‘ask’, and setting up the volunteers for success by having a model or framework for philanthropic success that volunteers can operate within. But it is that partnership that is critical to the ongoing success of any development program.
Remember, philanthropy is much more than fundraising — volunteers know that, donors know that — don’t forget that!