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.


One Simple Way To Make Your Meetings More Productive

Workplace meetings are important.  Studies show that collaboration in the workplace (meaning, when two or more people communicate to share ideas and achieve common goals) leads to all types of beneficial and excellent outcomes.  From increased staff member retention to coming-up with more effective decisions, plans, and solutions, collaboration works.  And while collaboration can happen in a variety of communication channels – face-to-face, virtual, real-time, or asynchronous – research findings clearly state that face-to-face interactions are the most productive.  We engage more and better in face-to-face settings and we communicate more deeply in those settings.

So, we need face-to-face meetings and most will agree we need them to be as productive as possible.

Here, then, is a simple, yet powerful way to make all of your upcoming meetings more meaningful, engaging, and productive.  It doesn’t cost any money.  No one will have to go to any training.  And, it is something you can start doing right now.

Keep your mobile phone completely out of sight during your meetings.  

That’s it.  Don’t bring your mobile phone into sight.  Keep it in your pocket, your purse, or wherever it will be out of sight.  Of course you also should silence the ringer.  But that isn’t enough.  MIT sociologist, Sherry Turkle’s latest book, “Reclaiming Conversation,” is based on her 20+ year study of the impacts of technology on social engagement.  And one small, yet important, finding is that when a mobile phone is placed on a table – even face down and silenced – during a conversation or meeting, people report that the conversation deteriorates.  In fact, 82% of people say that!

Here’s why professor Turkle says introducing technology into face-to-face conversations is troublesome:

“If you put a cell phone into a social interaction, it does two things: First, it decreases the quality of what you talk about, because you talk about things where you wouldn’t mind being interrupted, which makes sense, and, secondly, it decreases the empathic connection that people feel toward each other.”

So, for your next meeting.  Or, perhaps, for all of your meetings, do yourself and your institution a favor – keep the mobile phones hidden.  Not only will you become more productive and effective.  You also will engage your colleagues in a deeper and more meaningful way.


The Most Important Resolution

About half of Americans state a specific New Year’s resolution.  Most of these resolutions are focused, as one might imagine, or enhancing health or well being, gaining more education, or increasing one’s financial situation.  And while all those resolutions are fine and good, I do wonder if focusing on resolutions that endeavor to make ourselves better represents a misunderstanding of how best to achieve a “better life” (whatever that might mean in your circumstance).

Here is what I’m getting at:  Most all of the New Year’s resolutions you hear about, or might make for yourself, are focused on what you could be doing for you:  Lose weight, get a better job, enhance your education, etc.  But, at their core, most of these resolutions have a different, broader aspiration. The broader aspiration associated with most resolutions is pretty simple:  If I achieve my goal, I’ll feel better/look better/experience life better/etc.  In other words, my life will be better.

So, if you are moving into 2017 and have a desire or stated goal with the underlying aspiration to have an even better life, let me encourage you in a slightly different way.  Let me suggest a re-framed resolution for your consideration.  One that is not based directly on you, but provides you with benefits that are enormous and extensive. Here is the most important resolution you can make for yourself:

Give more.

Give more of your time to others.  Be more generous with compliments and praise.  Give more of your money away.  Focus on what you have with gratitude, instead of what you perceive to be lacking (in yourself and in others).  Give more of your attention when you are listening.  Be more helpful.  Be more generous when celebrating someone else’s happiness.  Just be more grateful and practice more generosity when opportunities are presented to you.

When we commit to living our lives more generously, we experience more happiness, confidence, and peacefulness. The more we give, the more we receive.  It’s not opinion or theory.  Wonderfully, we are hard-wired to receive emotional, social, physical, and other personal benefits when we act with generosity.  When we give more, we become the very best version of ourselves.  And when we are operating with an enhanced spirit of generosity, we just might find that we are making progress on our other goals as well.

My every hope for you is that 2017 will be your most generous year yet!


The Real Reason Your Annual Fund Matters

Tactically, and even strategically-speaking, the Annual Fund for most non-profit organizations is credited with serving 2 purposes.  The Annual Fund:

  1. Provides important (often-times budget relieving) annual gift income to fund current organizational priorities, and;
  2. Serves as a (hopefully expanding) pool of future major donor prospects for the organization.

While these purposes are important, they are not the real reason why your Annual Fund matters.

Instead, your Annual Fund is critical to your organization’s long-term success because it is the primary giving channel to affirm and champion the cause of consistent giving at your institution.

To understand how crucial this purpose is, we must remind ourselves that giving is good.  In fact, giving is a fundamental good.  Non-profit organizations regularly refer to themselves as being in a state of “community.”  A robust giving culture makes that “community,” more compassionate, more other-centered, and stronger.  Being a regular giver encourages us to be more invested in concerns bigger than our own.  Individually and collectively, we become better when we give.  As Thomas Plante, professor of psychology at Santa Clara University states,

“Giving to others is adaptive in community living. As social animals, we survive as a species when we cooperate with others and care for those in need. Thus, from an evolutionary and socio-biological perspective, we are wired to help others within our community, and doing so helps all of us survive and thrive.”

Today, more schools, more non-profits, more healthcare institutions are discussing seriously a future without the Annual Fund.  While different funding approaches are being discussed, most all of the scenarios involve the organization becoming more transactional and business-like and less cooperative and caring.

In other words, students will pay full tuition at schools, fees for various services will be increased at non-profits, etc.  The idea is to have less financial need for an Annual Fund.  But, again, I’m not at all convinced that organizational financial need is the primary purpose of a thriving Annual Fund.

When we misunderstand the fundamental purpose of the Annual Fund – an important component of the non-profit enterprise – we run the risk of making decisions that injure the very specialness of the non-profit enterprise itself.  Non-profit leaders should be careful when making decisions based on perceived short-term, financial needs.   Getting rid of the Annual Fund is one of those decisions.

Ultimately, if we strive to reduce the centrality of annual giving within our organizations, we will debilitate the longer-term, qualitative distinctions that make our organizations important to our shared human experience.  We need the Annual Fund.  And not always for the reasons we think.



Don’t Forget To Invite These Donors to Give Before December 31

Over the next 3 weeks, donors will be making far more charitable gifts than at any other time during the year.  It is the season of giving – and donors respond.

As you implement plans to encourage and remind donors to support your mission during this period of generosity, there is a group of donors who can sometimes be overlooked.  If your institution operates on a fiscal year, the overlap between the beginning date of your fiscal year and the end of the calendar year can offer a special opportunity.

Here is how it works:

Let’s suppose your institution operates on a July 1 – June 30 fiscal year.  Currently, you would be working in fiscal year 2017.  Because of the difference between the fiscal and calendar years, you could query your database to run a report of those donors who made their most recent gift to your institution sometime between July 1 – December 31, 2014.   That date range represents the beginning months of fiscal year 2015.

After reviewing this list of previous donors, you might call a few of the larger donors and say something similar to the following:

“Thank you for being a generous donor in support of our mission.  We remain grateful to dedicated donors like you who provide needed resources each and every year.  You last made a gift during our 2015 budget year and as we approach the end of 2016, we wanted to reach out to you to see if we can continue to count on your generosity.  We want to count you among our donors in 2016.  Would you give consideration to continuing your support by making a gift of $____ ?”

Here’s the short take:  Many sybunt donors believe inaccurately that they give in support of your institution each and every year.  The reality is that life gets busy and, sometimes, well-intentioned donors miss years.  In their hearts and minds, though, many believe themselves to be loyal annual donors.

The purpose of the above strategy is to assume that all recent donors desire to view themselves as loyal annual donors.  Your responsibility is to communicate with them accordingly.  By verbally connecting the 2015 budget or fiscal year with the 2016 calendar year that is coming to a close, you are presenting the timing of their most recent gift in a manner that hopefully will encourage their continued giving.

The fact that you are clarifying their last gift time frame by using words like, “budget,” or “fiscal,” or “calendar,” is not nearly as ear-catching as hearing the back to back years of “2015” and “2016.”

An effective strategy with inconsistent donors is to assume they believe themselves to be consistent annual donors.  Then, accurately but carefully communicate with them about their past giving so that they just might be encouraged to become consistent annual donors.

Good luck and finish 2016 strong!



The 5 Questions You Should Be Answering In Prospect Management Meetings

Prospect Management Team (PMT) meetings are often under-utilized as a major gifts program management tool and, sometimes, completely misunderstood.

The purpose of PMT meetings is rather straightforward:  to ensure that all major gift prospect managers within a unit, division, or institution are aware of the prospects with whom other prospect managers will soon be engaging.  Sharing with all team members the purpose and expected outcomes of upcoming donor and prospect interactions helps coordinate visits with prospects who may be involved with more than a single prospect manager and gives everyone a chance to inform or weigh in on a visit or interaction prior to it occurring.

The PMT meeting is a communication and coordination meeting as opposed to a major donor prospect strategy-setting meeting, which should be occurring in regularly-scheduled one-on-one meetings between the prospect manager and her supervisor.  Additionally, because the focus of this meeting is on the prospects with whom major gift prospect managers will be engaging, the discussion is decidedly forward-looking.   There should be little to no discussion about the interactions with prospects that have already occurred as that information can be found in the contact report that was filed and/or distributed.

During the PMT meeting, there are 5 core questions that should be answered by prospect managers reporting on their upcoming visits and interactions with major gift prospects.  The 5 questions are:

  1. Who are the prospects have I scheduled for upcoming visits/interactions?
  2. When, specifically, am I visiting with each of these prospects?
  3. What is the purpose of each of the visits I have scheduled with these prospects?
  4. What is the gift invitation amount that I currently have in mind for them?  (whenever that invitation to give might come)
  5. What is my best understanding of the purpose of their next gift? What does this donor wish to support?

The PMT meeting should not be a lengthy meeting – no more than 1 hour, even for larger teams.  The above 5 questions should constitute the core agenda of the meeting.  However, in too many situations, the agendas of PMT meetings are not well-structured and discussions about upcoming special events, annual giving updates, or reporting on past donor interactions (just to name a few of the diversions), dominate the meeting.  These tangential discussions have the unfortunate impact of frustrating team members and encouraging a general negative attitude of “why are we having this meeting, again?”

When each prospect manager adopts the habit of answering these 5 questions about their upcoming prospect interactions, PMT meetings become far shorter in length, more streamlined and helpful, and, ultimately, lead to stronger coordination between the members of the major gifts team.  And, by practicing a discipline of answering these 5 questions and holding other team members accountable to do the same, you quickly will experience an increase in effectiveness throughout your major gifts program.



The Intersection of Politics and Giving

The 2016 U.S. Presidential election is now behind us (although my Facebook feed would suggest otherwise).  If we can remove the divisiveness from the election for just a moment and look at what the candidates proposed about charitable giving policy, we will see that neither of the major party candidates were focused on enacting tax policies to encourage greater generosity.  In fact, according to the Tax Policy Center, while President-elect Trump and Senator Clinton proposed very different tax plans, both plans would have the impact of decreasing charitable giving in the U.S.

In and of itself, the agreement of both democrats and republicans on tax policy that would negatively impact U.S. charitable giving may be surprising to some, but it is certainly not news.  Leaders of both parties have suggested such changes for a number of years.  I have written previously that the U.S. government should expand, not reduce, opportunities for more Americans to act with generosity.

However, the intersection of U.S. politics and giving becomes a bit more interesting when one looks at a state-by-state comparison of giving.  As the liberal-leaning, “Huffington Post,” reported in 2013, being generous is, “One Thing Red States Do Better Than Blue States.”  The thrust of the article can be seen in the below map which shows the states in which individuals give to charities more generously (red) or less generously (blue) than the national average.  Although the map was produced in 2004, more recent data support similar findings.

Giving By State


So, while some researchers and observers have twisted these findings to suggest that republicans are more generous than democrats (the above map does look familiar, right?), or claimed that this data shows that wealthy people are less generous than poorer people, or that church attending parts of the country are more generous than parts of the country that attend fewer religious services, I believe these claims to be superficial and inaccurate.  Instead, I believe what more insightful analysis has suggested – that Americans of all socio-economic strata give at similar levels when they are made aware of and become connected to the need.   When individuals within communities are meaningfully connected, we give in support of each other.

If we consider the many and diverse health benefits associated with giving, it would strongly suggest that our government would attempt to incentivize such behavior at the individual level.  And when we layer in the findings that connected communities give in support of those in need at higher levels than dis-connected communities, it is fair to question why both major political parties are in favor of tax policies that would discourage charitable giving.

And perhaps even more worthy of questioning:  With all the individual and communal benefits associated with charitable giving, why is this topic rarely lifted up as one of the top policy issues of our day?  Indeed, more giving may be the only practical antidote powerful enough to bind a divided and unsympathetic nation.



A Giving Revival

A wonderful benefit of my work as a consultant is the opportunity I have to interview some of the wealthiest and most generous individuals in North America.  I ask questions about their philanthropy – where they give, why they give, and how much they give.  I listen to their life’s stories.  And I attempt to better understand what positive impact they desire to make in this world.   When I engage with an individual or couple who embrace an ethos of giving, I am almost always inspired by their stories (yes, most achieved their wealth during their lifetimes), and come away with a renewed sense of faith in humanity’s goodness and magnanimity.

But recently, I have interviewed a few individuals who haven’t embraced a philosophy of giving so completely.  They maintain a more rigid and self-interested worldview.  They speak about what they don’t have as opposed to what they do have. They don’t view themselves as financially blessed.  And, simply put, they don’t evidence a generous spirit.  Let me offer two recent anecdotes:

I interviewed a private higher education governing board member of financial means who said to me, “My gift is my service on the board.  And I give a lot of time to this institution.”

I interviewed a public higher education foundation board member (again of means) who said, “My spouse and I believe that paying our taxes is our giving.  With 40% of our income being taxed, do you realize how many people we support each year?”

These sorts of sentiments are troubling, and I fear they are becoming more commonplace – at least my sense is that I’m hearing these types of perspectives more often.  They are troubling not only because they portend a future that is more egotistical, self-centered, and less supportive and caring of others.  But also because a life lived without practicing the discipline of generosity is more hollow and less enjoyable.  Science is proving to us what our religious traditions have taught forever – that giving is good for us.  We are wired to give.  The giver truly does receive more benefit than the receiver.  The more we adopt a self-centered perspective on life, the more we forego all of the personal benefits that come with acting generously. 

Advancement professionals talk almost endlessly about building and strengthening the “culture of philanthropy” in our institutions, whatever that means.  I’m convinced, though, that we are missing a bigger, more important point.  Building culture is a rather unhelpful concept.  It’s nebulous and complex.  It’s impersonal.  And no one really owns culture building.  So, instead of focusing on building a culture of philanthropy, I would suggest that we need to be promoting something much more personal and life-changing.  We need to champion something much more fundamental and transformative for healthy human interactions.  We need to be promoting a social revival – a “Giving Revival.”

A Giving Revival is part education, part inspiration, and wholly metamorphic – for individuals and for our institutions.  Promoting a Giving Revival entails not just talking about the importance of giving, but formally and regularly educating on how your institution’s communal fabric grows stronger and more close-knit the more that generosity is practiced.  Promoting a Giving Revival means we stop asking people to give something and start inviting them to gain something by acting beyond their narrow self-interests.  Promoting a Giving Revival means we view our work not just as fundraisers, development officers, and marketers, but rather as champions of a lifestyle that promises profound personal rewards.

We work for institutions with noble missions aiming to transform the world.  It’s time for us as advancement professionals to transform how we approach our work.   If we truly are serious about advancing the altruistic missions of the institutions we serve, we must enthusiastically embrace the notion that broadly promoting a generous lifestyle is our best bet.  Our institutions and those we serve don’t need us simply to strengthen some impersonal “culture of philanthropy.”  No, we need to do something much more revolutionary.  We need a Giving Revival.  And if you start one, I can promise that the benefits will be immense.


It’s Lazy to Focus on “Working Harder”

You’ve heard it before.  You may have said it yourself – to yourself or to others.  You probably even believed it when you heard it or said it.  And you may have thought it would motivate people toward better results.

“We’ve just got to work harder.”

In today’s world with tighter budgets and higher expectations, it’s said in most every situation and circumstance.  The direct response campaign gift total didn’t meet budget expectations?  Work harder.  The special event didn’t offer “special” gift amounts?  Work harder.  It may not always be uttered so directly, but the message is clear and rather universally understood:

“We have to work harder and achieve better results.”

Unfortunately, some leaders send the “work harder” message so regularly it would appear that they believe it to be a motivator.   It’s not.  And worse yet, it is tremendously unhelpful and just about the laziest message a leader can communicate to others.

Of course “working hard” is important to success, especially sustained success.  Most will agree that it is the right approach to take in just about every situation.  Everyone should give their best.  Everyone should try their hardest.  Everyone should stretch to reach their far edge of promise.  Your best effort should be a given.  It’s just the right way to approach life and work.

But, by focusing on the effort – encouraging people to “work harder,” or even to “work smarter” – leaders commit two fundamental miscues:

First, sending the simplistic “work harder” message communicates that you believe the work effort offered previously was sub par.  For most folks, the knee-jerk response to a “work harder” message is with frustration:  “I already am working harder!”  Most people do not engage productively when they feel attacked.  So, it is common for people to disengage when a leader suggests they aren’t working hard already.

Second, and, most importantly, focusing on the effort is lazy leadership and sidesteps the more complex work of determining how best to encourage those in your care toward greater results.  The “working harder” message is lazy because what motivates exceptional effort is almost never the effort itself, but rather the mission or goal which demands the extra effort.  Take the quote attributed to Muhammad Ali about training for boxing matches:

“I hated every minute of training.  But, I said, ‘Don’t quit.  Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.'”

If Muhammad Ali had focused on the effort he had to provide during his training sessions, he probably wouldn’t have long continued his punishing training activities.  Instead, he motivated himself by focusing on becoming a champion – a goal so attractive and compelling to him, that it made persisting through the pain and exhaustion possible.

As a leader you can lazily (and ineffectively) communicate to the team that everyone needs to “work harder,” to get better results.  Or, you can do the more complex work to better understand what motivates each member of the team, remind them of the importance of your mission, and point out their unique and important role in fulfilling a compelling vision.

In other words, you can suffer now, or live the rest of your life as a champion.



Responding to the Preemptive Gift

“Thanks for the lunch invitation.  I appreciating you visiting with me,” the donor said.

Before the gift officer could respond, the donor reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a check for $3,000.  “And before I forget, I wanted to make sure I gave this to you,” he said.

The gift was larger than last year’s gift of $2,500.  However, the gift officer was there to ask for $5,000 for this year’s annual fund.

The gift officer took the check, read it, immediately smiled and said, “Thank you.  You continue to be one of our most consistent and generous donors.  We are grateful.”

At that point, for most gift officers, the gift-giving discussion would have ended.  Perhaps the discussion would turn to the donor’s children, his business, the stock market, or the weather.  Just about any topic other than making a gift.  That’s because it might appear unseemly to continue pursuing an additional gift when one has just been offered.  Most gift officers take the preemptively given check, extend gratitude, smile, and move on to other topics.

But not the gift officer that was recounting this episode for me.  He is a capable, seasoned gift officer and his response was both instructional and a reminder for how we should approach our work in developing the purposeful donor relationship.  Here is how he responded after he said, “We are grateful.”

“I must tell you, though, my intent today was to ask you for a gift of $5,000.  Since we are now in the public phase of our campaign, we are asking every donor to consider a stretch gift.  You’ve been so loyal and this gift today is yet another example of your generous support.  Would you be willing to allow us to use today’s gift as the first installment on a commitment of $5,000 this year?”

“Yes.  Yes, I’ll do that,” came the smiling reply.

After receiving the preemptive gift, many, if not most, gift officers would not have shared their intent for the visit.  But this gift officer expressed gratitude and then went about doing an important part of our work – encouraging a donor’s best gift by setting expectations.  It didn’t take courage or daring to respond as this gift officer did.  It simply took a commitment to share his intent for the meeting.

“I went there to invite him to give $5,000,” the gift officer told me.  “When he preempted my ask, I thought, ‘well, he just showed me what he was thinking so I should at least tell him what I had in mind.'”

If we only accept what is given, we aren’t doing development and advancement work, we are simply fund raising.