Navigating the Road Ahead with Committed Volunteer Leaders

Our nation’s history of philanthropic accomplishment relies heavily on one-to-one human linkages and accountability.  This is especially true in the area of major gift fundraising.  Of all the elements of successful fundraising, the most important is the need for actively involved, qualified and committed volunteer leaders.

Committed & Qualified Volunteer Leaders

Philanthropy is a huge part of what makes America America.  Our nonprofit sector now employs 11 percent of the U.S. workforce.  Each year, seven out of ten Americans donate to at least one charitable cause.  And, Americans freely associate with one another to volunteer their time offering labor worth hundreds of billions of dollars per year.

Despite headlines and stories of large anonymous gifts, and unsolicited gifts from the ex-wife of a certain tech billionaire, these gifts are of course anomalies in the nonprofit world.  Such gifts can be transformational for all involved, but a gift that falls from the sky is hardly the plan for an organization that urgently needs funds now.  In such cases, most organizations will move to implement a major gifts fundraising campaign, often in the form of a capital campaign.  The focus of this series of blog posts is to explore the essential elements of success when it’s time for your nonprofit organization to take a major step forward and raise significant new funding.

In the field of major-gift fundraising, it’s often been said that “the money’s out there.” The mere presence of wealth, however, is of negligible value without a corps of volunteers who are qualified, willing, and able to personally approach top donor prospects on behalf of your nonprofit organization and its campaign.  People STILL give to people. 

Undoubtedly, our society and our industry are changing–certainly as a result of the pandemic–and many nonprofit leaders believe that attracting volunteer leaders is even more difficult today.  Let’s start by defining what we mean by qualified and committed volunteer leaders.

Element #5: Qualified, committed volunteer leaders

By “qualified,” we mean first of all that to be effective, a volunteer must make an exemplary financial commitment of his or her own commensurate with their interest and capacity. Secondly, as a rule, the volunteer should also be a social and financial peer of the prospect. While a successful campaign may require expert professional guidance, it is these qualifications which continue to make a well-prepared volunteer, in most cases, far more effective solicitor than the vast majority of development professionals.

* A volunteer, unlike a paid employee of the organization, has no financial interest in the philanthropic transaction.

* The volunteer’s personal financial commitment both establishes credibility and sets an example for the prospect.

* Finally, a social and financial peer of the prospect is asking him or her to do no more than the volunteer has already done.

Like any successful enterprise, an effective volunteer organization depends on outstanding leadership—people who are exceptionally responsible, qualified, and capable, and who are known and respected by their peers. Such leaders give the campaign credibility and keep it moving forward through their affiliation with the campaign, their charisma, and their exemplary efforts. They are needed at all levels of the campaign to make pacesetting financial commitments of their own, then to orchestrate and lead the solicitation of their peers.

While many universities, hospitals and national organizations employ major gift fundraisers to continuously seek large gifts, the majority of the 1.54 million charitable nonprofits in the United State depend on the identification and enlistment of volunteer leaders to initiate major gifts campaigns.

The availability and role of volunteer leaders is changing and the likelihood of recruiting volunteer leaders from outside an organization’s board is more difficult than it was in the past.  This leaves many organizations to begin the process of leadership recruitment from within their organizational “family” of board and committee members, or past board members.  There are a number of reasons for the scarcity of volunteer leaders – and to be sure there are many forces at work – one reason may be staring at us in the mirror.  Are we as fundraising professionals and nonprofit executives asking?  Are we helping our board members and our volunteers to define, embrace and accept the indispensable role of volunteer leaders? Or, does the enlistment of such an invaluable cohort seem like “too much work?”

Board members must financially support the organizations they serve.  Unfortunately, too many organizations fail to have a clear conversation about the expectation for personal support before they join the board.  Nothing is more critical or necessary to the legitimacy and success of your major gifts fundraising effort than unanimous financial support from your board.  If your board of volunteer leaders — presumably the most involved, committed and capable group of individuals — do not show their generous personal support how can they expect anyone else to do so?

Keep in mind that fundraising campaigns more often languish because of a lack of volunteer leaders than a lack of donor prospects.  Resist the temptation to encourage token financial support from board members to achieve participation goals and instead strive to challenge your leaders to accept active involvement and responsibility for the accomplishment of your organization’s mission. If your board member can look potential donors in the eye and honestly state that “they dug deep” when making their gift to your organization – however they define that in their personal financial terms – they will truly lead by example.

Links to previous Road Ahead Blog posts: