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Time + Talent = Treasure: A New Volunteer Equation

volunteerDo you think of your volunteers as adding to your organization’s bottom line?

Do they contribute at every level of the operations? Do they deliver on crucial projects and activities? Are they true partners in your organization’s mission?

After reading the Cause Planet Page to Practice summary of the book, The Abundant Not-for-Profit, I found the cynic and the optimist at war in my brain around these very questions.

The book, by Colleen Kelly and Lynda Gerty, coins the name the “knowledge philanthropist” to signify a shift from the volunteer as almost a necessary burden to a highly valued resource representing an impressive return on investment.

In a nutshell, the authors argue that the non-profit sector is missing out on the power of volunteers to contribute hard skills. More and more people are looking for meaningful involvement with nonprofits and they have skills – and an interest in accountability – that goes way beyond stuffing envelopes.

I have a few examples that I’ve seen over the years. At Greenpeace, we had a volunteer who did accounts payable processing for nearly 20 years as a volunteer. His work as a volunteer contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the bottom line. And, when he died, he left a bequest to Greenpeace in his will.

A human services organization I know has had a volunteer grantwriter working for years,  raising money for the organization while donating her time. She had steady hours, goals, and a portfolio of some of the organization’s most important funders.

And then there is Social Venture Partners (SVP) like our one here in Boulder County that literally embodies this concept. One organization that is a client of ours and an SVP partner organization had strategic plans, general brochure copy, and architectural plans all created by SVP volunteers with great results.

Are there hiccups? Definitely. But as the authors point out, with the right leadership, good communication, and specific expectations and objectives for the work, much can be accomplished – at a lower cost and higher return.

The “knowledge philanthropist” is also a crucial piece of the fundraising landscape. Capital campaigns have long been a place where volunteers are activated to make face-to-face solicitations to extend the reach of the staff, raising millions of dollars in a far more effective and less expensive way.

There are so many other ways that “knowledge philanthropists” can help with fundraising as well. Here’s how:

Play to their strengths and skills: While there are definitely times when you need envelopes stuffed and newsletters folded, you want to consider skills and interests of volunteers that could really add to your fundraising bottom line. Social media work, appeal writing, and data analysis come to mind as skills that are crucial in most fundraising operations, but which are often jobs that are heaped on an already-full staff plate. These are discreet projects where volunteers with skills could really add value.

Let their networks lead the way: While it is traditional for the fundraising staff to identify the key audiences and channels for fundraising, some of the most successful fundraising initiatives have been led by donors and volunteers through their own networks on their own terms. One needs look no farther than the Ice Bucket Challenge to see that. And E2, an influential giving club that includes some of the best-known entrepreneurs in the world, also sprang up from a group of volunteers at Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Create SMART objectives: One of the most critical parts of this type of volunteer activation is to create SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound) objectives for volunteers so that they know from the beginning what is expected of them and when. Volunteer projects so often crash on the shores of “Whenever you can get to it” or “Get it to us when you can” rather than with hard stop accountability. Capital campaign committees use “moves management” to do this, but you could also use something like our objective setting template to track progress.

Meet regularly: Keeping communication going is key. Just as it’s best management practice to have regular check-ins on objectives with staff, so is it necessary to provide guidance, support, and accountability through regular meetings to review expectations and progress with your volunteers.

Report back on results: Most fundraising volunteers only know a small sliver of the fundraising activity and results. But if you incorporate them in the planning and the results, you will be surprised at the insight and renewed dedication you will receive. Consider inviting volunteers to planning sessions, showing them overall fundraising results, and making sure that they know how their time made a difference!

As a bit of a perfectionist myself, I truly understand the fear of losing control that this concept of a knowledge philanthropist embodies. But, I’m also a numbers person who respects results. The Abundant Not-for-Profit is full of great examples and your fundraising operation is full of opportunity. Why not give it a try?

Click here for a helpful post from Cause Planet’s Denise McMahon about the book.

1 Comment

  1. Denise says:

    Great post, Leslie! I love that you highlighted Greenpeace and our local SVP. Thanks for writing about this important movement. I’m on the hunt for more examples in the sector. If any of your readers have seen knowledge philanthropists in action, please encourage them to share!

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