Philanthropy (Not Fundraising) Ends Veteran Homelessness in Montgomery County
Recently, I had a conversation with Debbie Ezrin, director of development and communications of the Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless (MCCH). Debbie had commented on one of my blogs in such a thoughtful way that I simply had to get to know her. She asked me in a lovely email to use the phrase “people experiencing homelessness,” instead of “the homeless.” As the parent of someone with an intellectual disability and not the parent of an intellectually disabled person, I saw her point.
As we talked, Debbie and I found another point of agreement: Volunteerism is the route to donations. At Turnkey, we believe that volunteerism is just one point on a spectrum of philanthropy, and donation is at another point. I wrote about this in the recently released Blackbaud e-book, “Fundraising Matters: Building a Culture of Philanthropy.” In the referenced piece, I discuss the psychological mechanism behind volunteerism leading to donation. But today, we will talk about Debbie’s experience on the same front.
Debbie agrees that volunteerism makes one inclined to donate. One of the frustrations of my career is the lack of accumulated data that allows us to show the statistical link between volunteer empowerment and revenue, making it very difficult to build a business case for investment in volunteer leadership. Expressing that sentiment to Debbie, she offered the graphic below that clearly demonstrates the similar trend in the value of volunteer hours donated and in kind and cash donations, denoting at least a correlation.
Anecdotally, Debbie said:
“On a personal level, the nonprofits in which I invest my time and which gave me recognition, that’s who I support.
I disagree with the philosophical approach in which volunteers and other givers are siloed from each other. A holistic view of donors (time or money) is more viable. They all see themselves as donors. A huge amount of our volunteer base supports our men’s emergency shelter program. For example, you volunteer to prepare dinner on a given night for 200 people. It takes a $250 minimum investment at the grocery to do that. If you wrote a check for $250, that would be considered a significant gift. But when a volunteer does dinner for $250 in groceries—plus their time—we didn’t consider that gift the same level of donation. The person writing the check to buy groceries for $250 was treated differently.
The reason given for this treatment was the thought that if the cash side of the house focused on meal donors, then that might cannibalize meal donors, and we might not have enough meals. They were siloed.
When I came onboard, I instituted a shift. Two and a half years later, it has proven to be the right approach to our development program.”
Debbie sees her donors on a continuum, as opposed to being owned by a revenue stream or an in-kind effort.
“People move up and down the spectrum. It is not linear, because we engage them as individuals. We don’t shy from moving them from cash to in kind to time. The more they give, the more their overall giving increases. Writing a very large check is not very interactive. If we get them to interact after the check, the next check is bigger.”
And success talks. At the end of 2015, the organization co-led local efforts to end veteran homelessness in the Montgomery County, Md., community, one of the first four communities in the nation to do so. Volunteerism played a huge role, both in boots on the ground and creating financial support. Debbie gives one example of volunteer hours parlaying into dollars:
“When we were working on this initiative, we had a specific goal of 20 veterans who needed permanent housing. The funding came in September 2015. The mandate was to end veteran homelessness in Montgomery County by Dec. 31, 2015. We had four months to get 20 people from the streets into permanent housing. The thing missing to let us succeed were resources to make sure the day the client moved in they would have all the household items they needed—linens, dishes, detergent, toilet paper. They needed that stuff day one. We came up with a finite list of must-haves they day they moved in, including a bed, a couch, knife, cutting board, etc. We recruited community partners (volunteers) who gathered all those items. They were there the day the vet got their keys to their home. These volunteers were there with a U-Haul to help the vet move in. We had 20 groups—one per veteran. They figured out all of it—storing it, moving it, getting it, moving them in. I characterize the effort as high-impact volunteer leadership with a lot of staff support.
Those relationships in those 20 groups were solidified and enhanced. And those 20 entities in the last 1.5 years continue to be significant supporters of the organization in significant ways. Those 20 groups gave us at least 200 people total. And of those 200, many have given cash personally since then.
One of the 200 has become a board member and significant giver. He was on a group that supported a veteran, but was not the primary contact. After his volunteer service, our soon-to-be board member was so inspired by this activity that he followed up and jumped in. That guy gave our vet books, clothing, glasses, and by spring 2016, he reached out and asked to join the board and is a significant donor.”
Debbie clearly and rightly connects this gentleman’s volunteerism to his later donation and board service. And this begs the question, why don’t we in nonprofit use volunteer service as a path to everything else?
Most of us feel like our actions arise from our attitudes—that they are driven by our existing thoughts and beliefs. But psychologists know that is true only a part of the time. In psychology, the way we come to understand our motivations is known as “self-perception theory.” We evaluate ourselves in much the same way as we evaluate others—by observing their behavior. When we evaluate ourselves by looking at our behavior, it feels different than when we evaluate others, because we have access to much more information—our history, emotional states, etc. But the process is the same.
Debbie’s board member’s positive attitude towards the program was a result of his actions helping that first veteran. The cart of behavior had gone before the horse of attitude. His initial lukewarm feelings towards the mission became stronger as he reflected on his behaviors and tried to make sense of his motivations. What he determined was, “I am the kind of person who supports veterans getting their own homes.” Once he began to see himself that way, it’s not surprising that he sought out a seat on the board. How we explain our behaviors to ourselves has a profound effect on future behavior and future thoughts and feelings.
Back to the question, why don’t all nonprofits thoughtfully use volunteerism to instill the idea of mission connection in constituents? Because doing that is work… hard work. It requires an understanding of human nature. It requires working across silos. It requires making people part of the development department who have never been part of it before. It requires recruiting and managing volunteers. Sticky, messy work it is, but worth doing.
For more information about Debbie’s work, take a look:
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.