3 Often-Overlooked Principles for Effective Volunteer Engagement

Effectively engaging volunteers – be they Board members, campaign leaders, special event volunteers, advisory council members, or others – can be a tricky proposition.  On the one hand, influential volunteers have an ability to open doors, leverage personal relationships, and tell the story of your institution with an authenticity that can be unmatched by those who are paid by your institution.  But, on the other hand, working with volunteers can be exceptionally messy and time-consuming.  Unfortunately, there is no formula, no template, nor science that adequately explains how best to engage non-paid, but influential and sometimes high maintenance partners.

In our firm’s work with non-profit institutions and organizations, we regularly experience advancement professionals who struggle to adequately engage and utilize the value of their volunteer resource.  At some institutions, volunteers are persona non grata – viewed as “not being worth the effort.”  While at others, they are engaged, but with a good deal of murmuring and frustration from advancement leaders.

At Gonser Gerber, we wholly endorse the engagement of influential volunteers.  Not only do they extend your institution’s reach and invite new donor relationships to be nurtured, the appropriate engagement of volunteers will serve to deepen their own relationship and sense of ownership at your institution.  Here, then, are 3 guiding principles to help you engage volunteers more effectively, artfully, and with much less frustration.

  1. Being unprepared is provocative. The quickest way to invite volunteers of influence and affluence to begin telling you what and how to do your work is to be perceived as being unprepared for meetings or other interactions.  Influential volunteers have typically enjoyed a great deal of success in their professional lives and are used to “calling the shots.”  If meetings are called without a crystal clear purpose, if expectations for their roles are not written and stated plainly, or if you struggle to articulate what “success” looks like for the term of their engagement, you run the real risk of volunteers coming up with work for you to do.   And typically, because volunteers are not advancement professionals, what they ask you to do is work that is neither helpful nor needed.
  2. Volunteers need to be led in order to provide leadership. There is a fine line between leading volunteers and encouraging them to adopt ownership or leadership of the campaign, event, or other activity for which they are assisting.  But here is the reality:  Advancement professionals should not be in the defensive position of regularly responding to volunteer requests.  Instead, you should be educating and leading volunteers in a way that answers most of their questions before they are asked.  In other words, you should be, at least, a few steps ahead of your volunteers.  It is only when volunteers are led effectively that they can adopt an attitude of leadership.  In other words, when you lead your volunteers well (starting with being prepared for their engagement), they will leave your meetings feeling supported by professionals.  This allows them to be more eager to leverage their influence in ways that will assist your institution.  You have educated and led them well.  Therefore, they are more inclined to represent themselves as champions of your institution to other constituents.
  3. More data is almost always unhelpful. One of the tell-tale indicators that influential volunteers are sensing less-than-effective leadership from advancement professionals is the request for “more data.”  This request typically emerges in the following way:  A volunteer might say, “Before I can go out and invite others to learn more about supporting this campaign/special event/etc., I need more information, more data.”  The problem with this request is that you know that “more data” is not a strong motivator to encourage someone to give or give more.  Research clearly tells us that data isn’t nearly the philanthropic motivator as compared to a personal connection (even through a volunteer) to an institution.  So, complying with their request is not only unhelpful, it perpetuates a falsehood about giving.  When a volunteer leader asks for “more data,” the effective advancement leader will pause to deftly explore and educate.  For instance, she might say, “Since we know from research that people give to people, and clearly you have strong relationships with these prospects, help me better understand how we can help you encourage their support.”

Volunteers are worth it – most of the time. Simply put, you can raise far more money by engaging influential volunteers than simply by doing it all yourself.  But volunteers only make good sense when you engage the right people (of influence and affluence) and have the capacity to engage them appropriately and expertly.

One final point to always keep in mind — you are the pro, they are the volunteer.

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