Like Oil and Water?

Pay attention to your volunteers. Really.

In the 2013 Compass Point/Haas report entitled “UnderDeveloped”, the authors come to the conclusion that “…nonprofit organizations are stuck in a vicious cycle that threatens their ability to raise the resources they need to succeed”. Have these organizations un-stuck themselves from that vicious cycle in the seven years since that report? Not so much.

I was on a program a few weeks ago where the interviewer, a business journalist, suggested to me that philanthropy, and its methods of fundraising, was itself stuck — in the 19th century. Maybe it’s more of mid-20th century, but, well, yes.

If you’ve read any of my past newsletters on this site, you’ll know that I’m working hard to change that, and my new book offers specific suggestions and tools to help move the needle in the right direction.

One suggestion is the following: Pay attention to your volunteers. For reasons that are unclear to me, many nonprofits, if not most, keep their volunteers separate from their donors — like oil and water. Why? Do these nonprofits believe that the “work in the trenches” folks are inherently different than the donors? If you believe that, do you also think that economic mobility is static? Maybe it was in the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, but it certainly isn’t static, and it hasn’t been for decades. The Digital Age has changed all that, and there’s economic mobility in both directions.

I witnessed this first-hand. When I was a young professional and mom wanting to “give back”, with limited financial resources, I offered my time more than my money. Time and time again, it was made clear to me at each organization that volunteer time was not valued as important as money, and my personal potential for upward mobility (read: becoming a substantial donor) was viewed by those organizations as non-existent. (Later, when I had the means to make large donations, guess which organizations I didn’t consider donating to?)

As a volunteer, I understood and understand that money is what pays the bills. As a business person and now philanthropist, I also understand that volunteer work can lower costs, enhance the impact of programs and services, and provide valuable connections for the organization. The icing on the cake is that volunteers are typically extremely loyal and do give when they can. Consider this:

  1. People over 75 provide twice the volunteer time of other groups, and 25% of Americans volunteer.

  2. 85% of volunteers give (financially) to the nonprofit that they volunteer for.

So there’s this group of older people who are committed to your cause, spend more time than other age groups volunteering, and who, in addition to their volunteer time, are donors to your organization.

Now think about this. With giving being unusual this year in just about every way, and many nonprofits’ other revenue sources being impacted by Covid, one of the shining lights that is keeping many “doors open” is the continuing receipt — and growth — of bequests.

Consider these facts:

  1. Very often, when I hear about bequests from the nonprofits I work with, the donors are people who the organization didn’t know so well — if at all. It’s not unusual for a nonprofit to receive a bequest and wonder how the person was even connected to their organization.

  2. Bequest giving ($43B in 2019) grew by over 5% over the last two years, and grew faster than giving by corporations, individuals and total giving over the last five years.

  3. The average “major gift” in 2018 was $5,000, but the average bequest in 2018 was $37,000.

Are you seeing it yet? You likely have real prospects right under your nose. Thinking of your volunteers as some other type of “class” than your donors is probably not in your best interest. Sure, continue your legacy campaigns targeting your “usual suspects” (existing major donors), but look to your volunteers, too.

As the saying goes, “there’s gold in them mountains”. There may be gold in your volunteer pool as well — in fact, I’d count on it.

PS: Do you have a story about a “surprise” bequest? If so, please email me or comment below.

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- Lisa