How surveys can help institutions better leverage their volunteers

Whether an institution has a reliable base of volunteers that it can effectively and efficiently mobilize is one of the primary areas we look to when assessing its ability to embark on a large, ambitious fundraising initiative.

There’s good reason for that approach; having donors who are articulate advocates for the institution’s philanthropic objectives is one of the crucial ingredients to understanding an institution’s capacity to raise money and readiness to launch a large, ambitious campaign—as are other critical success factors such as a strong case of support, staff, donor base and resourcing.

We’ve found that one of the most efficient—and effective—ways to assess institutions’ connections with volunteers is via the use of surveys, which enable an institution to quickly gather data across a number of areas, including volunteers’ perceptions of their role, their understanding of the institution’s fundraising goals and objectives, as well as how the institution is leveraging their volunteer resources.

The role of surveys

Surveys provide institutions with a means to assess their opportunities and challenges, including whether their board members and volunteers understand the importance of fundraising, and their expected roles.

We know that the most effective advancement teams leverage volunteers as part of the donor continuum. For example, an advancement shop might ask volunteers to leverage their connections to introduce an institution to new prospects or to assist with donor stewardship.

A survey can identify when an institution is missing those opportunities. For example, one Canadian higher education institution that we recently worked with found that less than one-third of volunteer respondents had helped the institution make introductions to new prospects and only one-quarter had assisted with donor stewardship.

Moreover, when we looked at how the institution was using volunteers’ time, the vast majority—nearly 90% of the average hours spent during a typical year—was spent attending board and/or council meetings. Those results provided us with clear data that change was needed. After all, while meetings certainly serve a purpose, they’re not an end unto themselves. The survey enabled us to explain that meetings should be used to report on other activities in which volunteers assist development staff with its fundraising strategy.

It wasn’t a difficult case to make—for the institution or for volunteers. After all, volunteers want to contribute to the institutions they’re working for in a meaningful way and by reallocating how an institution is using them the institution can create a more rewarding experience. Stewardship, for example, is the “fun part” of the donor continuum.

The shift also enabled the institution to better serve its board members. People who want to serve on boards are often the busiest people. By presenting them with one or two non-meeting activities that they can take part in to contribute, it makes it easier for them to have a clear sense of how and why they are being used.

Making changes

Surveys are one signal that we use to help us understand potential opportunities.

For example, when we look at aggregate survey data across several organizations, we see 63% of volunteers believe assisting with fundraising should be among their responsibilities. Those results stand in stark contrast to the higher education institution we previously mentioned. At that institution, a little more than a quarter responded “yes.” (It is worth noting that it is a Canadian institution, and we understand that at Canadian institutions volunteerism isn’t always associated with fundraising. Even so, it indicated an opportunity to initiate a cultural change.)

Before an institution can initiate a process to adjust its volunteer culture it first needs to map out a clearly articulated fundraising strategy that defines how and where volunteers can be of use. The strategy should determine the best levers that volunteers can pull. For example, volunteers may participate in solicitations or help develop strategies to engage prospects. It should also make its objective clear so that volunteers aren’t weighing in with ideas for the institution to host low-yield events such as a gala or golf tournament.

The strategy should carry through during the recruitment process for boards as the institutional leaders make their expectations clear to volunteers. That can be as simple as stating that the institution is recruiting volunteers who will lead with their own philanthropy and who are passionate and articulate about its mission. That helps ensure that the volunteer doesn’t feel as if the institution has pulled a bait and switch when it isn’t clear that they’re expected to raise money during the recruitment process, which can lead to frustration.

Initiating change within an existing board is more difficult, but boards value data and surveys provide valuable data that can drive change. And when that data comes from their aggregated survey responses, it’s even more influential.

Surveys can serve as an important tool within institutions’ toolkits to enable them to assess whether their current approach is working. By offering a simple way to quickly take the temperature of a broad range of people, surveys enable institutions to make data-based decisions that drive strong results.


If you want to know what your volunteers think, SurveyLab can help. Understanding your volunteers’ perspectives will allow your institution to make informed choices. Contact Pete Lasher at PLasher@grenzglier.com to learn how nonprofit organizations can leverage survey data in their work.

Grenzebach Glier & Associates Inc http://gga.ugmade.co/wp-content/themes/gga/assets/img/grenzebach-glier-and-associates-print-only.png
About the author

Pete Lasher

Senior Vice President

Pete Lasher, Senior Vice President and Higher Education Practice Area Leader, brings more than 30 years of successful fundraising experience, including leadership of five separate billion-dollar capital campaigns at private and public institutions in the US. As GG+A’s higher education practice senior leader, he currently advises universities in North America…