This is the second article in a three-part thought leadership series that is focused on volunteers. Click here to access the first article, which focused on how members of arts boards can best support the organizations they serve. Click here to read the third article, which focuses on cultural institutions can rethink auxiliary groups.
Engaging volunteers can be a difficult task. That challenge is particularly heightened during this unsettling period.
While many of our clients have seen an uptick in meeting attendance since shifting to a virtual format, they are also discovering the limits to substantive engagement in the absence of the networking component. As a result, they’re finding virtual meetings provide a less-than-optimal experience for volunteers—especially those organizations with relatively large advisory committees.
Despite those challenges, there has never been a more important time to engage our trusted advisors in the fundraising effort as our institutions place an increased emphasis on philanthropy. Volunteers are crucial to our institutions’ long-term survival and success; our studies have found that they give, on average, six times more than regular major gift donors when they are substantively involved in the mission of the organization they serve.
To ensure members remain active in their support of the fundraising efforts, I’ve mapped out below several strategies below that I’ve recommended our clients use to effectively leverage their volunteer committees.
Volunteers care deeply for our institutions and want to help us weather the pandemic. But to remain effective ambassadors they require a greater level of information than they would in “normal” times. The uncertainty of the spread of the virus presents challenges because the issues that institutions face are ever-changing and, in turn, so are their contingency plans. The fluidity of the situation has made it difficult for many institutions to keep staff informed, let alone their volunteers.
We suggest that our clients increase the frequency of their communications with their volunteer leader. We’ve found that regular written communications from institutional leaders laying out the current state of affairs are particularly effective. Institutions should not be afraid to be open about their challenges and to admit that they do not have all the answers as many volunteers appreciate candor and transparency.
We also suggest institutions increase the frequency of their committee meetings to ensure that they can share the latest developments with them. The format and structure of these virtual gatherings is important so that in addition to helping institutions disseminate information, they can also foster an open dialogue with volunteers and seek out their perspectives. There are many ways to do so. For example, some of our clients frame the discussion by sharing key questions and/or issues where we would value their input. By providing volunteers with the time to prepare for meetings makes it more likely that meetings will feature robust, meaningful discussions as opposed to the traditional question-and-answer format that does not foster substantive give and take. It’s also helpful to prepare leaders to facilitate these discussions to draw all members of the committee into the conversation.
The magic happens between meetings
Committee meetings are important, but we believe the real value is derived from what happens between meetings. This is even more true during the time of COVID-19 as our fundraisers need more support in order to advance gift discussions virtually. In GG+A’s webinar on the virtual arc of engagement, Melinda Church and I emphasized the importance of introducing different “voices” to our prospect strategies. Volunteers can join our institutional leaders and beneficiaries to deepen the engagement of prospects and they can be particularly effective in endorsing institutional leadership, reinforcing mission and priorities, understanding donor motivations, and providing testimonials for why they support the institution and why others should join them.
Develop a personal narrative
We recommend that our clients lead their boards through an exercise to articulate each member’s personal narrative. Inevitably, their first interactions with prospective donors will touch on the topic of how and why they got involved. By assisting volunteers in developing their story, we can better prepare them to thoughtfully engage other prospective donors. We encourage board members to answer the following questions:
- How did they connect with the institution?
- Who connected them to the institution?
- How would they describe their experience at the institution?
- What kept them connected despite their busy lives?
- How might they compare their engagement with their involvement with other organizations?
- Why have they given to the institution in the past?
This exercise also prevents volunteers from projecting their own interests onto prospective donors by helping them appreciate that everyone has their own personal narrative and volunteers can play an invaluable role drawing out other’s stories as a means of cultivation.
A note on board diversity
Many nonprofit organizations have identified the need for diversity among their volunteer committees, relative to gender and ethnicity. These additional perspectives are crucial to shaping and advancing the mission of our organizations and to deepening the engagement with a wider constituency of prospective donors.
Too often though, advancement leaders believe that diversification limits their ability to set giving expectations for their committee. Our firm believes that the two are not mutually exclusive and that we should not make assumptions about our ability to recruit members with both the capacity and inclination to support our institutions.
The broader mission
There’s no doubt that the challenge of engaging volunteers has grown over the last few months. Yet, the importance of doing so is all the more important amid the myriad stressors that nearly every institution faces. That’s why it is crucial to rethink the old ways of interacting with donors to find solutions that meet the moment.
Would you like help thinking about how you can leverage volunteers at this moment? You can reach Pete by clicking here.