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How-to Library • Featuring articles from past issues of Contributions

The Overlooked Audience
Communicating effectively with volunteers

by Joseph Barbato

Any day now I expect to meet someone wearing a shirt that says, “I VOLUNTEERED FOR MY FAVORITE CHARITY’S FUNDRAISING CAMPAIGN AND ALL I GOT WAS THIS LOUSY T-SHIRT.” We will be sitting in the den of his home, surrounded by detritus from a dozen campaign events--paperweights, plaques, gym bags, you name it.

 “It’s so strange,” he’ll say, with a sweeping gesture at the room. “They gave me all this stuff – and little or no information about the campaigns. How was I supposed to raise money?”

Too often, the information needs of campaign volunteers go unmet. It doesn’t matter who they are – company CEOs, senior software managers, or young professionals just out of college – everyone working to raise money must be fully informed about the campaign. They have to understand the organization, the case for giving, and the campaign needs. They must be familiar with the nuances of asking for gifts. They have to be kept up to date. T-shirts they don’t need.

of related interest ALSO BY THIS AUTHOR: In How to Write Knockout Proposals, recipient of a Starred Review in Publishers Weekly, Joseph Barbato shows you how to improve your proposal dramatically and distinguish it from the multitude submitted today.

Here are tips on ways to communicate effectively with volunteers so they have the tools they need for successful fundraising.

1) Hold a sales conference.

You won’t call it that, but your volunteers are your sales force, and they should confer.  Every time you get them together you are conducting a sales conference. Every enterprise does it. In book publishing, where the product line changes every publishing season, company officials spend a day or two on retreat going over the new list of books with sales reps. Sometimes authors talk about their books to get the sales force psyched about major new titles.

Your “sales conference” may consist of several events designed to excite and empower volunteers. There may be a special briefing session for campaign leaders, smaller sessions for other volunteers and a gala kickoff meeting when the campaign goes public. Held at key moments in the campaign, such gatherings can keep everyone in sync and engaged. They also create opportunities to discuss issues.

As for the traditional kickoff gift for volunteers, consider developing a small keepsake that reminds everyone of the importance of the work they are doing. One of my clients decided not to offer yet another campaign pin; instead they developed a miniature book emphasizing the human impact of its international campaign against AIDS. Each spread in the tiny book featured a single word like “hope” or “learning” on one page and a one-paragraph anecdote on the opposite page telling the story of a victory in the effort to help people with the disease. The publication was an attention-getter that brought the campaign to life.

2) Issue an action manual.

Create a volunteer handbook that emphasizes action. Campaign rules and regulation must certainly be in there, but pack the earliest pages of the manual with simple, practical tips that fundraisers can use now.  A loose leaf binder will allow you to add and update pages; by all means make a copy available online.

Provide small bits of easily digestible information: an elevator message for the campaign, key talking points, tips on how to ask for money, facts and figures on your organization, a Q&A on campaign issues, and so on. And please – include a contact page with information on what development or other staffer to call or email for what kind of information. The goal is simple: Make life easy for your volunteers so they can raise lots of money. 

3) Develop a campaign view book

While seated with a prospective donor, many gift officers like to be able to turn pages that communicate quickly the highlights of the campaign. A case statement may serve this purpose. But consider giving volunteers a special binder of materials that convey the essence of the fundraising effort in graphics and print.

Prospects don’t need to know all the details on how your newfangled vacuum cleaner works.  They want to know the benefits it offers: Will it clean a rug completely and easily?

You may need just a half dozen spreads. But let them pack a powerful punch on behalf of the campaign.  By the end, your prospect should understand exactly why he should care. Use top-notch photographs that allow the donor to see what he is being asked to invest in. If a good chunk of campaign money will support, say, sustainable development projects in Latin America, be sure to include a sample square of chocolate made from the cocoa grown by participating farmers.

4) Send updates.

There’s a funny thing about managing a campaign. Key elements of the effort sometimes change after a year or two, and everyone on staff is aware of the gradual shift. Maybe you are downplaying one campaign need and now emphasizing another. But have you bothered to explain all that to the volunteers?  Sometimes they are the last to know.

Regular email or print updates can keep everyone informed about the dollars raised and new messages that should be incorporated into pitches to prospective donors. Tightly written stories on “How I got the gift” will share successful techniques with everyone and recognize jobs well done.

5) Say thank you.

Campaign volunteers thrive on thank-yous and recognition. Sometimes a phone call or a handwritten note suffices. At other times nothing less than an invitation to a private dinner and a story in the campaign newsletter will do. Know thy volunteer! And remember that some of your most important people are corralled into working on the campaigns of many nonprofits. They will appreciate hearing “Thank you” said in a fresh way.

One nonprofit I worked with gave top volunteers an original handmade chapbook of personal essays – all contributed free of charge by noted writers – describing what the campaign’s success would mean for future generations. Like the volunteers’ own time, the essays were donated. One author even came to a campaign event and read her moving essay to volunteers and donors.

So keep an eye out for smart, unusual ways to make your donors feel good – and forget the paper weights and lapel pins.     

Joseph Barbato is the author of How to Write Knockout Proposals and Attracting the Attention Your Cause Deserves.


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