How Volunteerism Grew One Nonprofit’s Bottom Line
In a recent blog, we wrote about the crucial role that volunteerism plays in the success of peer-to-peer campaigns. Get it right, and good things happen. Get it wrong, and you can expect revenue to flatline, if not decline. We’ve seen it happen over and over. The trick is to build guardrails that give volunteers room to act with some level of autonomy but still give them enough structure to ensure a successful outcome.
Giving people a sense of autonomy says to them, “I trust you.” Taking it away tells them they are just a cog in your fundraising assembly line.
Nevertheless, the phrase, “… putting creative ownership of walk in the hands of local volunteers,” makes a marketing director’s skin itch. It terrifies risk management employees. It makes staff people desperately want to seize control.
On many occasions, walk managers at the national and local levels have shared with us their attempts to control volunteers. Some control is necessary to meet legal requirements, manage risk and protect the brand, of course. But typically, the control exerted has far more to do with staff comfort and performance metrics than with risk containment.
An incredibly overt example of this came out during a conference with one of Turnkey’s clients. The chief development officer recounted her struggles to control the brand assets and structure of her walk series.
“It’s like they don’t understand that it is our walk, and they are here to help us,” she said of volunteer involvement. There was an awkward silence. This particular walk grew quickly in the hands of volunteers, then when it reached a critical mass in terms of achieving income that was significant to the national office, staff seized control.
Then the walk stalled, and volunteers grew ever more restless. This is a cycle repeated often in the small nonprofit environment: Volunteers start the program, volunteers grow the program, then staff takes control as the asset becomes important to the bottom line.
In a 2016 interview, Sandra Hijikata, chief development officer at the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, said that engaging volunteers is critically important in peer-to-peer. “A staffer running an event can only grow so much, and then they hit a ceiling. That leads to staff assuming control, then getting burned out, which leads to volunteer disenfranchisement.” She said that many events become pure acquisition tools versus relationship-building tools that lead to networking and long-term stewardship.
“In the past, [peer-to-peer] at JDRF has often been more of a pure acquisition tool than a retention and engagement tool,” Sandra said. “We’ve made it harder for ourselves. It’s become a churn machine rather than a relationship machine.”
The for-profit business world knows that it’s easier to upsell an existing customer than to acquire a new buyer. Similarly, if nonprofits are continually in acquisition mode, they aren’t looking at the long-term value of a donor. Acquisition is expensive no matter what method you use but especially if you can’t retain donors. Staff gets wrapped up in acquisition, rather than achieving goals.
“The easiest thing to do to make goal is go out and find new participants, rather than figuring out how to engage and retain the ones you have today or had last year,” Sandra said. “There has to be a marriage between how much time we spend on building relationships and acquisition.”
When JDRF launched OneWalk, the chief executive officer at that time wanted more brand consistency across the nation. Part of that exercise was an event audit. As a result of going back and taking a look at the events, the organization realized that it had become lax with implementation, whether with staff or volunteers.
The OneWalk pilot in its second year saw a 6 percent increase from 2015 to 2016, less from a new brand and more from improved implementation and volunteer handling. “It’s the balance of the partnership between volunteer and staff that is the key to growth for us,” Sandra told us. “I have to say it was a combination of role clarity, focusing on doing the right things during implementation, and building relationships through the engagement and involvement of people.”
Otis Fulton, Ph.D., spent most of his career in the education industry, working at the psychometric research and development firm MetaMetrics Inc., Pearson Education and others. Since 2013, he has focused on the nonprofit sector, applying psychology to fundraising and donor behavior at Turnkey. He is the co-author of the 2017 book, ”Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising,” and the 2023 book, "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape," and is a frequent speaker at national nonprofit conferences. With Katrina VanHuss, he co-authors a blog at NonProfit PRO, “Peeling the Onion,” on the intersection of psychology and philanthropy.
Otis is a much sought-after copywriter for nonprofit fundraising messages. He has written campaigns for UNICEF, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, the USO and dozens of other organizations. He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia, where he also played on UVA’s first ACC champion basketball team.
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” She and Otis are also co-authors of the books, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising" and "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape." When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.