Focus On: Volunteers: Mind to Muscle to Money
According to conventional wisdom, the world of fundraising for nonprofit organizations includes separate camps of volunteers and donors. Donors shall give their money, volunteers shall give their time, and never the twain shall meet, right?
Not necessarily. Increasingly, fundraising officials at nonprofits are seeking volunteers willing to make the leap to financial sponsorship. Volunteers are being asked to contribute money precisely because they’re already physically and emotionally involved with the organization. If they’re more or less committed to the cause through volunteer work, it makes sense to ask them to make a monetary contribution.
Jean Anderegg, director of development at Habitat for Humanity of Northern Virginia, says that her organization always gets a good response when it asks volunteers to donate money.
“If someone is bonded to the organization and you make them see that they can be fuller partners by becoming a volunteer and a donor, most people will be willing to do that,” Anderegg says.
The opportunities for bonding are good at a nonprofit such as Habitat, a volunteer-driven organization that builds homes for low-income families. The largest percentage of its volunteers are involved in actual hammer-and-nails construction work and have a fair idea of the amounts of money Habitat must raise to buy the materials it needs to fulfill its mission.
“Sometimes for our volunteers it takes a little while for the light to go on,” Anderegg says. “I tell them, ‘If it weren’t for donors, that two-by-four you’re hammering against that wall wouldn’t belong to us.’”
A good point, but what if volunteers say their job is to hammer the nails, not to buy them? What if they say their volunteer work is enough?
“Well, a lot of people do say that,” Anderegg says. “And we say, ‘That’s wonderful, thank you so much.’ But unless we ask the people who are coming to us, we never know.”
The ‘feel good’ experience
Joanne DelGiorno, managing director of direct response marketing for the American Diabetes Association, makes a similar point with regard to people who do advocacy work for diabetes research — writing letters to politicians, making phone calls and so on.
“The more a person gets involved in an organization and has that ‘feel good’ experience, the more it will draw them into the cause,” she says.
Both Anderegg and DelGiorno articulate basic truths about human nature. Many, if not most, people who volunteer like to be able to measure the extent of their own contributions, which is why volunteering to serve Thanksgiving dinner to the homeless is such a popular activity. Plus, people are sometimes likely to be even more generous if they feel like they’re genuinely helping someone.
For DelGiorno, the proof is in the numbers. The ADA, which is headquartered in Alexandria, VA, has found that making direct mail appeals for contributions is especially effective when soliciting people who have done advocacy work for the organization.
In lieu of lists
“[Volunteers] help us save money in acquisition because we don’t have to buy lists of names of possible donors,” DelGiorno explains. “We already have the names of people who have some connection with diabetes. Their response rates are sometimes triple of what a cold list is in acquisition.”
Vivianne Potter, director of direct response at Amnesty International’s New York office, says fundraisers at her organization draw on a list of people who volunteer for the Online Action Center, a program on the Amnesty Web site that allows citizens to access politicians and other officials.
“In a sense, they’re volunteers,” Potter explains. “You can sign up for the Online Action Center whether you’re a member of Amnesty (or a donor) or not. We have a program in place where we attempt to convert people who are Action Center people into donors or members.”
Amnesty International periodically solicits Online Action Center volunteers via e-mail and includes them on its acquisition lists. “They’re one of the strongest responding lists that we handle,” Potter says.
“Many people think of themselves as members because they’re really doing the work,” she explains. “They write letters, participate at protests and so on. We’re just starting to develop a more intentional campaign to get those volunteers to become actual financial supporters.”
Not every nonprofit can use volunteers in a way that creates the sort of bonds you see at Habitat For Humanity locales, where the tie that binds is physical labor. But one key concept can be successfully applied at all nonprofits: The likelihood of a volunteer becoming a donor increases according to the amount of hands-on involvement the volunteer has in the organization.
“On the work site we can have anyone from the chairman of some company to the receptionist at another company to a low-ranking enlisted person in the military,” Anderegg says. “And all those people are equal when they come to the site. So it’s really our job to try and translate to those people that we need their support.”
Not just physical labor
Volunteer involvement can mean building a house or dressing a turkey, but more often it means making phone calls, sometimes for fundraising purposes. Amnesty International uses only professional telemarketers, but the situation is different at some Habitat for Humanity locales.
“Some of our board members and key volunteers [are put to work] making fundraising calls,” Anderegg explains.
Fundraising calls at the American Diabetes Association are done by telemarketers, DelGiorno says, except in cases where certain high-level volunteers are used to expedite major-gift initiatives.
“In general, those volunteers already have a relationship with a donor or a company,” she explains. “That relationship may be useful to help obtain the gift.”
It’s safe to say that the same rules apply in motivating volunteers to make fundraising calls as in motivating them to contribute money:
- Make them feel like they have a piece of the action rather than like they’re being patronized or pressured.
- Let them know that their contributions are valued.
“We thank volunteers a lot,” Anderegg said. “We try to make their day as rewarding as possible.”
David McKenna is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer.