Volunteer Leadership Means Big Money
Volunteer leadership can mean big money. As an example, the American Cancer Society Relay for Life is the largest volunteer-driven event in the world.
Volunteers have more decision-making abilities in Relay for Life than in the vast majority of other income events. Relay volunteers make many meaningful decisions about event location, income goal, logistics, event date, etc. The biggest visible difference in method from other, lower, fundraising models is the extent to which volunteer leadership actually leads. Relay volunteers lead.
Relay sprang from nothing in 1985 to more than $400 million per year at its height. In spite of that gargantuan success, no other nonprofit has been able to put the volunteer-driven model to work in the same way. Why is that? Why have no other organizations been able to get volunteers to handle events in the same way, or fundraise at the same levels?
As usual, Turnkey turns to data and psychology to understand volunteer behavior—or lack of it, in this case.
Otis Fulton, Turnkey’s psychologist, tells us, “Economist Daniel Pink looks at what research tells us about what people really find to be meaningful in his book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. He describes why the traditional carrots-and-sticks paradigm of extrinsic rewards and punishments doesn’t work, pointing instead to a trifecta of intrinsic motivators.
“Three common factors lead to better performance and satisfaction in all aspects of peoples’ lives—at work, at school and at home. People achieve a sense of personal satisfaction when they have the opportunity to experience: 1) autonomy: being self-directed, 2) mastery: improving at something important and 3) purpose: involvement in something meaningful beyond themselves.
“Motivating for maximum performance begins with autonomy. To paraphrase Daniel Pink, people need autonomy over what they do (task), when they do it (time), whom they do it with (team) and how they do it (technique). When these conditions are met, people become engaged, and engagement leads to mastery—becoming better at something that matters. Finally, the opportunity to be involved in a greater good results in a ‘purpose motive,’ which many people embrace as central to their lives.”
What we also know is that it is hard to let other people make decisions that impact your own performance metrics. Staff members have a hard time letting go of control of the event. If the event fails to make goal due to volunteer failure, staff is still accountable. Maintaining that control, however, is costly. A volunteer’s autonomy, competence and mastery can’t exist if the volunteer is fully under the control of a staff person.
My guess is that staff empowers volunteers, but not in a way that triggers that holy trinity of feelings that lead to action. As an example, imagine I am your event staff and you are my volunteer. As your event staff, I am going to put you in charge of tent erection. In an effort to not overburden you, the volunteer, and to make sure you do it correctly, I am going to tell you where to get the tent, where the tent should go, when it should be up and when it is being taken down. This ensures I don’t end up fixing it later.
When you compare your volunteer job to the things we know might make a person motivated—autonomy (none), mastery (none) and being part of something bigger (this is likely the only thing keeping them hanging on)—there is not much there that makes you likely to continue volunteering in a Relay-esque manner.
Relay, however, figured out how to walk the fine line between enough control to keep the brand and people safe, but not so much that they inspired feelings of lack of autonomy, and lack of ability to achieve competence and mastery.
There are other elements of volunteer handling that contributed to Relay’s success—relentless recognition of not just fundraising, but of leadership volunteerism. Volunteer leaders are recognized for their—wait for it—autonomy and mastery in the context of a big Relay universe, which is for sure something bigger. And recognition, of course, reinforces a person’s internal label, which inspires that person to more of the same behavior.
But that’s just me. Good news for you—Danielle Dodman, formerly of the American Cancer Society Relay for Life and now with MDA, will talk about her experience as she and her team attempt to bring the volunteer-driven model to MDA. You’ll hear the trials, the tribulations, the successes and the failures from this frank, PowerPoint-assisted conversation between Danielle and Katrina VanHuss, CEO of Turnkey. Our psychologist will sit in too! Register to be part of that conversation here.
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.