Using Volunteers in Major Gift Asks 

Jack Peterson
Managing for Mission

Using volunteers in Major Gift solicitation can often be a source of frustration for Faith-based schools.  Large non-profits like universities abandoned the practice long ago.  But for most faith-based schools, who don’t have the resources to hire a staff of Major Gift Officers, there is still an important role for volunteers in major gift solicitation.

In this post I’d like to focus on the challenges of using volunteers, what they need to be successful and how schools can ramp up their effectiveness.

For people new to development, using volunteers may seem like a no-brainer.  They don’t need a salary and that very fact can make them compelling ambassadors for the cause. But quality control is crucial to successful gift solicitation and it is difficult to maintain when asks are being made by volunteers.  All but a very few require a lot of TLC to be effective.

For a volunteer to be effective at major gift solicitation, they must have 5 characteristics: capacity to give at that level themselves, the time to do it well, passion for the cause, knowledge about it and confidence to ask for a monetary gift.  It’s difficult to find people who already possess these five characteristics.  If we do a little math, we can see why.

Let’s say your school has 10,000 people on its database.  Major gift askers should be those who themselves are capable of giving at that level.  So about 10%, or 1,000 people, will be eligible by that criterion.  Then they must have sufficient time flexibility to set appointments, make in-person asks, follow-up and attend report meetings. About 50% will be able to make that commitment.  We’re now down to 500 candidates.  They also must be passionate enough about the school to ask others for donations.  25% might already meet that criterion.  We’re down to 125 folks.  But they also must be knowledgeable about the school and the specific cause for which money is being raised.  If we’re lucky, 50% already have that knowledge, giving us 62 people.  But the biggest factor is that they have to be confident about asking for money, and probably only 5% have that confidence innately, so we’re down to 3 people.  3 people out of 10,000 possibles who are ready, willing and able to ask for major gifts!

But don’t give up, because this assumes we can’t do anything to dial up those percentages.  We can, but it takes a bit of work.

Capacity to give

Let’s start with the first characteristic, the capacity to give at the major gifts level.  It’s one thing to say that 10% of the school’s constituents should be capable of making a major gift.  It’s another to know who they are.  If the school has done a good job evaluating and segmenting its database, it will know who meets this criterion.  This will focus the search considerably, but to determine which of them meet the other criteria comes down to asking them.  If the school wants to use major gift volunteers, it should incorporate a volunteer ask into its gift asks.

One consultant I worked with designed the volunteer structure so that if every slot was filled and if only the solicitors themselves gave at the level they would be asking others for, the campaign goal would be reached.  Every slot wasn’t filled and not every volunteer gave at the level they were supposed to.  But there were enough other people who declined being a volunteer but were grateful to get away with just making a pledge, that the campaign did reach its goal.

Time flexibility

The second characteristic of an effective volunteer is having enough time flexibility to do the job right.  Of course, successful people never have extra time.  But you can convince a larger percentage of these folks that they do have time for your fundraising effort if it is disciplined, well organized and has clear timelines.

It’s especially attractive to compress the commitment period with clear completion dates and offer options for time-frames that the volunteers can choose from.  If they think the commitment is open-ended or that their time will not be used efficiently, potential volunteers will protect themselves by saying they don’t have time.  A well-organized campaign will allay this fear and broaden the pool of volunteers.

Passion

The third characteristic is passion for the school and the specific cause.  Some people are already true believers who bleed your school colors.  Others are passionate about some aspects or are in an early stage of coming fully on board.  It may sound obvious, but we should never assume that just because we hear from people what a great school we have, that we don’t need to keep the pilot light burning.  The development staff and school leadership should use every volunteer contact as an opportunity to inspire them about the school and give them reasons to be excited.

Knowledge

And that relates strongly to the fourth characteristic volunteers need to succeed: They need knowledge, and they need it on three levels.

First, they need knowledge about the school and the specific cause.  They may think they know all about the school because they have children there, attended themselves or are on the Board.  But when they’re in front of a quizitive donor, they will be grateful you took the time to arm them with answers about the school’s current achievements and needs.

Second, knowledge includes knowledge about the prospect they will be meeting with.  They may be acquainted with the person, but they also need to know that person’s interests in and history with the school.  And why your research should give them confidence about the size of gift they’ll be asking for.

Finally, knowledge also includes an understanding of what their responsibilities are and the gift solicitation best practices that will make them, and the campaign, successful.

Confidence

Each of the prior characteristics—capacity to give, available time, passion and knowledge—feeds into the final, and most important, characteristic:  Confidence asking for money.

I said earlier that about 5% of people are comfortable asking for money, but the reality is that for most, that comfort level depends on other factors.  Some of those, like events in their personal lives, are beyond our ability to influence.  But others are not.

Providing robust and engaging training, modeling the asking process, role-playing, accompanying them on their first call and providing regular and encouraging follow-up can make a huge difference.  I’m struck by how often schools undershoot or just don’t give enough thought to the support that volunteers need.  I also find that building supportive accountability and recognition for whatever the solicitor is able to achieve will help draw forth the volunteer’s energy and commitment.

I want to stress the importance of confidence in the development process.  A volunteer basically wants two things: to help the school and to be successful.  They don’t want to fail.  And if the school hasn’t done what it needs to convince them they won’t fail, the risk of embarrassing themselves and letting the school down will be too great.  They will either decline to participate or fail to make calls and show up at meetings.  They need to be confident that the school is the best investment donors can make to accomplish their philanthropic goals, that the current project is really needed and well-conceived, that the campaign will succeed, that they are equipped to do their part, and that someone will be there to give them all the support they need.

If they have this confidence, they will communicate it to the donors and the campaign will be energized.  I think it’s unfair when a school expects volunteers to generate the confidence themselves and doesn’t take enough responsibility to inspire and encourage them.

Having read all the foregoing, you may be thinking that using volunteer solicitors isn’t worth the effort needed to recruit, train and support them.  In your school’s case, that may be correct.  You must make that judgment.

But if you are willing to design and sustain a robust volunteer solicitor program, you will find that you have a coterie of committed, passionate, knowledgeable and trained ambassadors reaching out to the community.  And if you’ve created a role that they enjoy and take pride in, you will be able to call on them time and time again.

If you want to learn more about development or other management and governance best practices, please click through to our website at www.managingformission.com, or email me at JackPeterson@ManagingForMission.com.

Thanks for the confidence you have in faith-based education, and your willingness to inspire that confidence in others so that your school can reach its full development potential.  God bless.

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