Are Volunteers Worth The Effort?

Recently, I listened as a well-respected higher education advancement leader say that using volunteers in the advancement function was mostly ineffective.  Today’s advancement shops, she argued, are staffed with professionals who are well-trained with specific skills making the use of volunteers obsolete.

Even during campaigns, her position was that campaign cabinets and other volunteer groups rarely complete their tasks efficiently and effectively.  Consequently, major gift staff spend too much of their time managing volunteers instead of making asks.  It’s a poor use of time that cuts into ROI.

Basically, she argued that volunteers were not worth the effort.

I disagree.  But I have come to better understand why some philanthropy leaders might express such positions.

First, let’s be clear.  We raise more money when we engage others in the process.  There is no other conclusion anyone who has done this work for any amount of time can make.  Major donors make gifts when the right person asks for the right amount in support of the right purpose and at the right time.  It all starts with the right person and, in many instances, a volunteer with some form of social or personal leverage on the prospect can be the right person.

Second, let’s discuss why some advancement leaders might hold this anti-volunteer position.  I think there are two reasons:

  1. They are engaging the wrong volunteers.  Advancement professionals should involve the most affluent and influential donor prospects as volunteers.  Instead, when volunteering goes bad, you tend to see far too many volunteers – beyond those with the highest capacities to help – involved.  I once worked with a well-known university with 19 separate advisory councils.  How much staff time do you think it took to manage each of those volunteer groups?  Far too much.
  2. They are engaging volunteers in the wrong tasks.  Once you engage those volunteers with the greatest influence and affluence you ask them specific questions about other donor prospects, institutional priorities, and campaign strategies.  And you listen to them.  And you work with them to implement.  When volunteering goes bad, you tend to see volunteers who are involved in task-oriented activities.  They aren’t being asked for their advice, they are being told what task to perform.

Engaging volunteers does make sense.  But the volunteer engagement plan must be targeted to attract the right volunteers and specific in asking for their advice, counsel, and efforts.

Coming to the conclusion that utilizing volunteers is a non-starter simply because the volunteer programs have not been implemented effectively, is similar to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  If you find yourself moving away from using volunteers in the advancement process, I can assure you that over time, you will raise significantly less money.


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