How to Recruit and Support Fundraising Volunteers

How to Recruit and Support Fundraising Volunteers

An organization I worked for in South Carolina had an annual drop-in for volunteers.  We recognized last year’s volunteers.  We invited people who might be interested in volunteering so they could meet existing volunteers and hear first-hand how much our volunteers love volunteering with us. 

Each year it was a great event.  I’ll never forget 2007. 

That was the year that potential volunteers kept coming up to me during this event and saying “Hey! I’d like to help with fundraising!” 

By the end of the night, I had our golf tournament committee full, our silent auction committee full.  I had volunteers signed up to ask for sponsorships, put up flyers around town, and hand-address appeal letters.  It was an incredible evening.  It seemed everyone wanted to be a fundraising volunteer. 

And then, I woke up.  It had only been a dream.

I don’t know who among us has ever had as many fundraising volunteers as they’ve needed.  In fact, my experience has usually been that as soon as you say the f-word (fundraising, that is!) people skiddishly start backing away from you in fear. 

Okay, I’m lying.  They don’t slowly back away.  They turn-tail and run full-out as far away from me as fast as they possible can.  It is as if I’ve dropped a bomb on them.  There is a palpable FEAR OF FUNDRAISING. 

People don’t typically come forward and beg to sign up to be a fundraising volunteer.  So how can you get the volunteer support you need for your fundraising program?

I find that people are much more willing to help with fundraising if you don’t call it fundraising. In volunteer recruitment, don’t drop the f-bomb (fundraising, that is!).  Fundraising scares people, but the tasks that fundraisers do—except for the direct ask—don’t generally scare them.  To recruit people to help with fundraising, ask them to help with specific assignments.

You can ask people to help plan the gala—or even more specifically—to help plan with the food and decorations or the silent auction, to help with the poster and flyer distribution and publicity, to help write thank you notes, help stuff envelopes for the annual appeal, help the campaign committee make decisions about how much to ask different donors (in fundraising speak: evaluate prospects), or introduce a staff member to someone they work with at their company.  These specific tasks all enable fundraising, are all apart of fundraising, but calling them “fundraising” won’t help either you or the volunteer.  In fact, attaching that label to those tasks will probably slow your prospective volunteer down, attaching psychological buckets of concrete to his or her feet.

One friend of mine who works with a public library recruits volunteers to work on an annual book sale of used books.  Her volunteers all love books and love handling, sorting and taking care of the books that are sold that day.  But they don’t like fundraising.  The minute they start to thinking of the book sale in terms of fundraising—which it is—it’s a successful annual fundraiser for the friends of the library—the volunteers are unhappy.  They don’t like fundraising and don’t want to do fundraising.  As long as they think simply about the books, about recycling great books and finding them new homes, they’re extremely content.  Yes, they know they’re selling them and raising money, but that’s not their focus.

If I get lucky enough to persuade a volunteer to be willing to participate in asking for funds—perhaps a volunteer on an event campaign agrees to assist with solicitation of corporate sponsorships—there are a couple of things you can do to set the volunteer up for success:

  1. First, make sure the volunteer has all the materials the volunteer is going to need to support the ask. The  volunteer is probably going to need a 501(c)(3) letter, some materials about the event, a sponsorship commitment form, a fact sheet or brochure about the organization, a written request on letterhead, and perhaps a few other materials.  Make sure the volunteer is equipped with whatever information the potential sponsor is going to request of the volunteer before agreeing to commit to the sponsorship.
  2. Training.  Make sure the volunteer is set up for success with training and preparation.  Don’t send the volunteer out cold.  Let the volunteer know what to expect.  Prepare him or her for the possibility of no.  Tell him or her what some common objections are.  Let him or her know which kinds of decisions he or she is able to make (for example, is your volunteer empowered to extend the deadline to pay or to break the sponsorship payment into 2 or 3 payments?).
  3. Make sure the volunteer starts with a win.  I make every effort to ensure that my fundraising volunteers who are asking have on their agenda a first ask to someone who I know is going to say yes.  I try to match my volunteers with a slam dunk on their first at-bat (to mix my sports’ metaphors) because it strengthens their confidence and because fundraising successes are fun.  I want them to experience that right away so they can remember that in other points in a campaign when things may not be going as well.
  4. Finally, I give my fundraising volunteers assignments a teaspoonful at a time. I give out names of prospective donors or sponsors to call on one at a time with new volunteers. This forces frequent check-ins and gives lots of opportunities for check-ins and coaching.  I find that if I give volunteers several assignments, several names, they can easily feel overwhelmed and procrastinate, but if I give them one name, one person to call, it seems much more manageable in their minds.  When they’ve called that one person, they call me to report and get their next assignment.  Usually the volunteer is bubbling over with excitement (because, remember, I’ve tried hard to engineer a success).  We re-hash the conversation and then talk through the next prospect.  Each time the volunteer calls in, we talk about how things went and I can make suggestions for things to try next time or affirm great things that the volunteer has done.  If a volunteer works with us long enough, I may begin to give them more assignments than one at a time as I feel more comfortable that the volunteer will follow through and that the volunteer’s skills are strong. 

Fundraising is a team-sport.  There are lots of different things that have to be done for fundraising to succeed.  Many of those things don’t have to be labeled “fundraising.” The non-fundraising fundraising tasks are great tasks to use to recruit fundraising volunteers who don’t like the f-word.  For those more comfortable with fundraising, willing to help with asking, there are several things you can do to provide them ongoing coaching and set them up for success so they can be a star member of your fundraising team.