Think creatively to deepen ties with your volunteers

Volunteers want to help. They want to contribute to your organization in ways that feel meaningful to them. Sounds obvious, right?

But while many of us recognize the need to provide means for volunteers to help in ways that are, well, helpful to our organizations, we often fail to think creatively to determine the best ways for a volunteer to help. There’s good reason for that. Change is hard and tailoring engagement to individual volunteers can feel overwhelming.

That said, I know from experience that when institutions put some basic practices in place that provide a structure that fosters creative solutions, they often bolster their engagement with their most valuable donors—those who give their time and resources for the institutions. In doing so, those institutions increase the value that those volunteers provide.

Keep it simple

Throughout my career I’ve found it helpful to ask volunteers to maintain a regular cadence to their work. The cadence that has worked well for my institutions is at least one assignment per quarter. That pace ensures that volunteers are engaged yet not overwhelmed. It also helps the institution get to know the volunteer so that it can find ways to tailor its assignments to the individual.

I should note that these assignments do not need to be complicated or time-consuming. For example, a campaign manager may find some campaign board members enjoy writing handwritten letters to donors. While a note may take relatively little time to produce, it can be extremely powerful. I don’t get many handwritten notes and, when I do, I pay attention. A handwritten letter shows that someone—perhaps even someone of prominence—took the time to draft a note on behalf of an institution he or she values. Similarly, I’ve found other volunteers are particularly effective messengers when we ask them to make a stewardship call to thank someone for their gift.

It’s true that the value of a volunteer activity is not necessarily correlated to the time required to complete a task. Of course, there are some activities that some volunteers are drawn to that require more work but align with their interests and/or strengths. If someone enjoys hosting events, I’ve found it helpful to ensure that we don’t always call on them to host a large event at their club or home; instead, I’ve occasionally engaged them to host a small lunch with five or six donors.

By maintaining a steady stream of engagements, with most being relatively simple and in line with the volunteer’s interests, the institution can avoid overwhelming volunteers. It also builds ownership for the volunteer; think of it as like buying stock in a company.

Keep it fresh

I also like to ensure that volunteers don’t feel overwhelmed by making it standard practice to add new members to campaign boards every few years. With campaigns stretching longer than ever—the median capital campaign now spans about eight years—it can be challenging to ask someone to commit to that long a period of time. Instead, I adopted the practice of asking them to commit for a set period, say five years (that can be renewed), which then gave both me and the volunteer the option to shift gears at the end of the period. It also makes it easier to attract some high-level people who might be unwilling to embark on a decadelong commitment.

The approach also ensured that there’s a pipeline of new members joining the board throughout the campaign. Those new board members can bring fresh thinking, which is important to any group that is together for an extended period of time. Institutions can also bring in new board members to diversify their boards in a variety of ways—be it race, gender, or even personal experience.

Those who opt to stay on the board throughout the campaign often see the new board members as reinforcements who the institutions can lean on to help the institution in ways that the current board members may no longer be able to.

Listen to your volunteers

Too often, nonprofit institutions treat board meetings as show-and-tell sessions in which we map out what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. There’s a role for that, but those reports should be at an executive summary level with an opportunity to ask questions. Along with those updates, I encourage my clients to engage their volunteers—all of whom offer valuable, unique perspectives—with one pressing question or big idea that they need help responding to.

That may be what I like to call “crossroads” questions, which are the type of questions that require deep thinking and analysis. For example, a president of the university might say, “We want to start a venture philanthropy fund to let donors support business startups or research that can turn into companies. Help us think like a business.” Rather than telling them, the president is actually engaging them and encouraging them to help him or her think through a strategic issue. That type of engagement builds connections in ways that show and tell never can.

Or it may take the form of a type of focus group or sounding board in which a dean presents his or her idea for a project such as an innovation center that would represent a partnership with a local corporation and then listens to feedback on whether they found the project compelling. Some institutions may even find success (and fun) by treating it almost like “Shark Tank” by asking whether the project is something that the board members could envision funding (and if so, by how much). In doing so, the process can also serve a valuable fundraising role.


Every institution is unique and so the specific tactics that work with one group may not work with another. But by experimenting and finding ways to ensure that board members feel valued and engaged, institutions can tighter connections with volunteers.

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