Is uncertainty undermining your volunteer fundraising effort?

16697171583_7c33584c4b_zOn a recent episode of NPR’s Marketplace, host Kai Ryssdal noted: “business hates uncertainty.”

Huh. You don’t say. You know who else hates uncertainty? Pretty much everyone.

Take, my kids for example. I think it’s a hoot when they ask “what’s for dinner?” and I say “well tonight, it’s SURPRISE dinner.”

As in surprise, there’s no dinner.

I think that’s hysterical. Those guys? Not so much.

Others hate uncertainty too: parents wondering when their teens will get home, teachers waiting for that late assignment, outdoor concert planners wondering what a 30% chance of precipitation might mean.

It means get an event tent, people.

You know who else hates uncertainty? Your fundraising team.

I once had an executive director tell his nonprofit board (on which I sat) they needed to move forward with their burgeoning major gift program, even through the throes of staff turnover. Our major gift program relied on peer-to-peer interaction, and on those who gave at a high level to recruit others to their ranks. It also relied on staff to tell us who might be most likely to increase their gifts from previous years, who had been asked already, who had other recent interactions with the organization, and other relevant information.

But a vacancy in the role that was to support this program put my security as a volunteer fundraiser in question. If I asked a friend to give to the organization, and they did so, there was a chance it might take a while to process the gift, send out an acknowledgement, and make sure my friend received the promised recognition.

True, I could follow up with the donor on my own, sending my own thanks and then, once the new staff was in place, making sure the gift had been properly acknowledged and recognized. Would other volunteers on the team follow suit? Or would they just hang back on the calls they’d pledged to make until the staffing issues had been resolved?

If you’ve worked with volunteer fundraisers, you know it can be hard convincing someone they have the chops to ask for money. Throw in a circumstance that may leave a volunteer feeling vulnerable for having stuck their neck out for an organization, and you have even more of a motivational challenge on your hands.

No matter how noble the cause, or how exciting the possibilities, a breakdown in the machinery of any development program will undermine your volunteers’ excitement about spreading the good word and soliciting support for the work of your organization, leaving them feeling uncertain, and therefore vulnerable.

Among those things that can undermine your volunteer fundraiser’s motivation:

  • Wondering if someone has already asked the person they plan on asking, and whether, if so, they’ll look like a pest to their colleague or friend.
  • Wondering if, in the midst of an “ask,” they’ll need information they don’t have, and won’t be able to get, and therefore look foolish when they can’t answer a question.
  • Worry that they’ll secure a gift or a pledge, but then no one will follow up promptly with the donor, that the donation won’t be recorded properly, or the donor won’t be acknowledged in the way they expect.
  • Worry that the project won’t proceed as they’ve promised, or garner the results they told the donor to expect.
  • Worry that the next time they’ll see this particular friend on the street, things will be awkward by virtue of any of the above scenarios.

If your organization relies to any degree on volunteer fundraisers, know that every time they connect with others in their respective circles of influence, they’re putting their friendships, and possibly business reputations on the line.

If someone is reluctant to make a call they’ve promised to make, consider:

  • Are they uncomfortable because they don’t know how the conversation might play out? If so, consider role-playing beforehand. Debrief afterward to check in on how you might help follow up, what went well, and what could be tweaked for the next visit.
  • Are they unfamiliar with some of the specifics of the program or project they’re pitching? If so, offer to join them on the call to provide backup.
  • Are they concerned that the follow through provided by staff might be more lackadaisical than would suit their potential donor? Make sure the volunteer is familiar with the administrative processes and the procedures followed when a donation, or a question, comes in. Offer to change things up if circumstances warrant. Offer to be the person on staff who will make it his or her responsibility to make sure the donor gets the best experience possible.
  • Are they unsure about the relevance of the fundraising program to the overall budget? Make sure they’ve had an opportunity to participate in the process developing the fundraising plan if appropriate, or at least have some familiarity with it.

Eventually, at the organization for which I volunteer, everything was sorted out. Staff was hired and trained and their donor acknowledgement process returned to a smooth, responsive operation.

My kids, however, would still like to know what’s for dinner.

Interested in learning how to coach your fundraising team to reach its goals? Call 208-484-4424 or email to learn more.

Photo by: Chris Potter

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