The Pros and Cons of Engaging Volunteers in Fundraising

Dear Kim,

For years I have been told that board members and volunteers need to be trained and enlisted in reaching out, meeting with donors, thanking them and asking for support. I work somewhere that has prioritized that. But all of that comes with the cost of a lot of staff time. Some volunteers aren’t very good at it with training. What’s the downside of just having staff do that work?

Yours,

~Wondering about Volunteers

Dear Wondering,

Your question is excellent. If we were to make a list of pros and cons of having volunteers engage in fundraising, the con list would include a number of powerful arguments: as you note, some volunteers aren’t very good, and I would add many more simply won’t do it. You can’t really make volunteers do fundraising, but you can hire staff for these positions, and if they don’t work out, you can fire them. But the downside of just having staff do the work is also long:

  • At a practical level, organizations which have done a good job building a broad base of donors are rarely big enough to afford the number of staff it would take to truly steward those relationships, and even when the money is available, there is a moral question as to whether you should spend it that way.
  • Donors who want to meet with staff, often want to meet with the Executive Director. A big complaint of development staff is how hard it is to set up meetings with donors.

Now we get to the important reasons:

  • Many donors like to be contacted by board members and volunteers. Everyone knows fundraising is hard and so when a board member or volunteer is willing to do it for free, the donor knows that the volunteer really must care.
  • Donors are often friends and colleagues of the volunteers and board members. Board members will know what is happening in donors’ lives, whether they like to come to events or not, whether this is a good time to ask for an increase, etc.
  • Staff come and go with much greater frequency than board members or volunteers, and even when someone leaves the board, they remain in the organizational family in a way that a staff person rarely does, unless that person becomes a volunteer or board member.
  • Having a broad base of people willing to ask, to thank and to engage with donors, builds power in the organization. Board members and volunteers who are out asking are also talking about your issues, educating friends and family about what your organization does and why it is important, and these same people are all available to write to a legislator, show up at a rally, sign a petition. Friends and family themselves engage in peer-to-peer fundraising, hold house parties, name your organization as the one to honor for a birthday, or give to in memory of someone.
  • Every nonprofit organization is part of something far bigger than its own mission. We are part of building communities and even a country we can be proud of. We cannot “staff up” to meet our bigger mission and so the time it takes to work with volunteers is always worth it, even when they are not terrific. Successful fundraising requires a focus on the big picture and in that picture—the picture of a successful and equitable democracy—activist engagement is critical. 

~Kim

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