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.
Katrina VanHuss is the CEO of Turnkey, a U.S.-based strategy and execution firm for nonprofit fundraising campaigns. Katrina has been instilling passion in volunteer fundraisers since 1989 when she founded the company. Turnkey’s clients include most of the top thirty U.S. peer-to-peer campaigns — Susan G. Komen, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the ALS Association, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, as well as some international organizations, like UNICEF.
Otis Fulton is a psychologist who joined Turnkey in 2013 as its consumer behavior expert. He works with clients to apply psychological principles to fundraising. He is a much-sought-after copywriter for nonprofit messaging. He has written campaigns for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, The March of Dimes, the USO and dozens of other organizations.
Now as a married couple, Katrina and Otis almost never stop talking about fundraising, volunteerism, and human decision-making – much to the chagrin of most dinner companions.
Katrina and Otis present regularly at clients’ national conferences, as well as at BBCon, NonProfit Pro P2P, Peer to Peer Forum, and others. They write a weekly column for NonProfit PRO and are the co-authors of the 2017 book, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising." They live in Richmond, Virginia, USA.