Thank Them Their Way

July 14, 2010

I was talking to a local pastor today and the conversation turned to keeping in touch with people.

I told him that with volunteers, it’s important to thank them often in a way that is meaningful to them, even if it’s not your normal way.

Suppose you have a volunteer who is always sending note cards to other people. She’s a note card person. She will expect you to thank her periodically for her service with a card. Maybe you put another gift with or in it for a special event, but a random written thank you will do wonders for keeping her involved.

The worker at the next desk is a people person. He likes to talk one on one. Most likely, he’ll want to hear an affirmation direct from the mouth of someone important. A card won’t do it. It needs to be spoken, and it needs to be in person – even if in private. (If he’s humble about the job he’s doing, a public announcement may cause more embarrassment than popping by his desk for 15 seconds.)

The point is, different people respond differently, and if you sent a card to the guy, it does little to motivate him. And a public affirmation to the lady is meaningless unless it includes a written momento.

Thank them the way they want to be thanked.


The rewards of volunteers

October 11, 2009

Volunteers are important to every non-profit. For most, those organizations are created by caring individuals with a goal to solve a cultural, spiritual or societal problem. What cash they raise pays often meager salaries and only the basic expenses.

Fund-raising is therefore often a continual need.  Which can tend to burn out the volunteers, who joined to end the suffering the organization is sworn to combat, but end up helping with continual fund-raisers.  They are carnival barkers and door-to-door salesmen when they really wanted to save the world.

A better approach is to give them something to do that they really want to do, something that addresses the organization’s core mission. 

According to pollster George Barna, who says that volunteers that are actively involved tend to give to that organization at a higher percentage than those who are minimally involved.

This makes sense.  The volunteers are already personlly vested in the cause, and that organization’s solution.  They want the organization to succeed.  And they see the financial needs up close.  They are the ones most likely to respond to a request for funds.

When you support and encourage the volunteers, you encourage their deeper involvement.  And they respond with additional cash.

In short, the more invested a person is, and the more the organization recognizes that investment, the greater the time and money commitment of the individual to ensure the success of the organization.

The Challenge

October 10, 2009

One of the major challenges faced by every volunteer organization is how to recruit and maintain membership, donors and supporters.  Cynics may claim that politics is a matter of raising and spending more money than your opponent, but in reality it comes down to a recruitment effort.  Recruiting donors, yes, but campaigns, especially at the lower levels of government, where races are won or lost by handfuls of votes, it is the personal commitment of the individual volunteer supporters that makes the difference. 

One variety of high-involvement volunteer organization is a church. The average church, with less than 300 members, has a handful of paid staff, an equal number of unpaid key volunteer leaders. There is an expectation that every individual who joins the congregation will do SOMETHING for the betterment of the organization, but many of them come and go without significant activity.

But here is the problem.  Whether the organization is called “Citizens for Smith for Mayor”, Second Community Church, Lincoln Elementary School Parents’ Association or “disease of the month” Support Group, there is always more to do than people to do it, always fewer resources than dreams, and usually little more than an informal process to recruit and maintain new members.

The answer is supposed to be to raise more money, so the organization can hire staff or outsource the tasks. Unfortunately, the quest for funds to do these tasks can get in the way of getting the real message out. (This is how churches get a reputation of being “all about the money.”)

The key is the choices made by the organization’s leaders. The style and composition of the leaders makes the difference about how volunteers are recruited and retained. The primary tool is how they set and enforce the conditions and rules for participation.  The rewards (or lack of them) are often what keeps an organization healthy or struggling.

Put a SUV to work

April 20, 2009

Carolyn Kincaid is the head of the Peninsula Volunteer Center in Hampton Virginia.  As such, she recruits people from a variety of backgrounds to give their time to a variety of causes.  She likes to know who’s working an event weeks before it starts, but invariably someone will show up at the last minute and want to work.  She calls them Spontaneous Unaffiliated Volunteers (SUVs).  The challenge is knowing how and where to use them, if the event even allows last-minute add-on personnel.

Kincaid knows the problem well.  Especially in a large disaster situation, those who are spared the worst of the damage often wnat to help out those harder hit.  She has developed training for managing and using SUVs (here) and finds that with a good preplaced staff and flexibility by the gaining organization, SUVs can become a great asset.

It starts with a plan.  She takes her “211” binders to events and sets up according to lessons learned from the past lessons learned documented in the plan.  After the initial cadre of volunteers are trained and placed, they are ready for the hordes that frequently come after a disaster.

The first station is registration.  There, a volunteer gives pertinent vitals – name, contact info, and a skills inventory.  The volunteer signs a waiver acknowledging they are giving their labor at no cost and gives up a certain number of rights in order to participate, particularly if they are seeking to enter an active disaster recovery area.

An orientation to the event is then given.  The volunteer learns which jobs are available.  A detailed job description is useful here, to help clarify the expectations and skills needed. As needs arise or volunteers are ready to leave, Kincaid suggests giving the volunteer an ID bracelet (similar to what you get at the swimming pool) to identify them as having checked in.  Depending on the size of the event, these could be color-coded based on jobs to be done.

At the end of the shift and again at the end of the event, volunteers are “debriefed” about what they learned and if they will be participating again.  Permission is gained again to put them on a list of ongoing volunteers, so that for the next event, the person can be called IN ADVANCE of the spontaneous need response.

As you plan your next event, be prepared for spontaneous volunteers, SUVs.  Have things they could do, such as take tickets, haul trash, be greeters and line monitors, or work in the office – even as receptionist for other SUVs.  The key is to be ready.

A study recently released by the Association for Healthcare Philanthropy (AHP) challenges traditional views of big-money fundraising, and validates our contention about why you should make effort to involve volunteers in meaningful ways.

The AHP looked at 31 organizations from 17 states and 2 Canadaian Provinces, and examined their fundraising efforts against results over time. AHP advocates using business practices such as benchmarking to make decisions and plan strategy.

Based on initial results of its Performance Benchmarking Service, a systematic method to compare and contrast hospital fundraising efforts, they found was that today’s most effective fundraisers use a variety of well-rounded programs and activities to raise money, shattering the myth that big ticket galas, golf tourneys and telethons are the only way to attract donors.

The most successful fundraising programs have a sustained emphasis on building relationships and cultivating and maintaining major gift donors.

The Gracious Response Wins

December 21, 2008

Seth Godin is one of the key thought leaders alive today.  He has a blog post on “no” that helps us understand his genius of seing the obvious we all ignore.  Summarized, it says:

Suppose you’ve applied to an organization, and they didn’t pick you.  What next?

  • You could send a note that tells them they made a mistake, that the candidate / company selected is inferior, and question their judgment in making the decision.


  • You could send a thank you note for the time invested, you could sing the praises of the vendor the organization.  And then you remind them that if additional work came available, you hope you’ll have a chance to offer your services again.

Then he asks the “between the eyes” question:

“Which one will make you more likely to be invited back, or to be the backup if the first choice fails?”

Many non-profits are set up for charitable purposes.  Even foundations, which dispense funds for research or scholarship, provide charity to deserving individuals.  It’s the process of collecting usually small donations and pooling them to accomplish something larger than any one individual could do alone.

The danger, however, is that we begin to think of the organization as the charity.  In reality, the charity is the output product of the organization.  There are organizational functions that are outputs for the good of maintaining the organization, and only tangentially impact the charity being done.

For example, remembering to thank volunteers for the service they give answering the phone, or staffing the mailing, are important to raising funds, but are not actually parts of the charity activity.  Even more removed are tasks like bringing lunch to the office staff or typing the agenda for the board of directors’ meeting.  These functions help the functioning of the organzation.

The action of the charity the the reason to exist.  It’s tragic when the Organization to Protect the Purple Spotted Finch spends more on the director’s salary than protecting the birds themselves.  But without an effective administrator, and a competent office staff, donations will often begin to drop, until the organization ceases to function and the charity no longer takes place.

For example, one charity I worked with spent more time telling me why their web hosting software was superior to anything else out there than actually fixing the broken links or telling stories about the output of the funds.  There were pictures of the executive director and the founder working at the charity site, but very few first-person results stories by ordinary volunteers.  It looked very much like a private charity, where my contributions would be used to pay for the founder’s vacations.

They focused on the goal without caring for the process.  It soon resembled dipping well water with a leaky bucket.  Rather than fixing the bucket, they just dipped more often.  About the time I gave up on them (I won’t stay if the organization refuses all my suggestions), a new board member discovered they were almost bankrupt, with less than 2 weeks’ reserves on hand, even after laying off some staff.

If you want the charity to continue, you have to take time to nurture the organization of the charity.

I’ve been working in and for charity organizations most of my adult life.Most seems never to have enough volunteers.But on occasion, you run into a situation where there are not only enough, but at times too many – even a waiting list? So how do you find good people – and keep them working at no pay for months and years?
Here’s the rough cut of what I’ve learned so far.

1. Ask for them – how will they know you need help if you don’t communicate the need? Research shows that most senior citizen say they would volunteer more if asked, and other studies show that teen volunteerism has risen consistently over the past several decades. Look at the outpouring of support following 9/11 and Katrina! Most people want to help worthy causes, but don’t because no one asks. Go ask them to help!

2. Define what you want – tell them what they’re needed for. It might be as simple as being a crowd behind the politician for the cameras. Or it might need a special skill. Friends of mine who are doctors and dentists volunteer their time regularly. I have asked for volunteers to do unusual jobs like unload carpet from a truck, write press releases, and grill an evening meal at a shelter. In each case, I was able to find people who really wanted to do that thing, and were energized by it.

3. Make it meaningful –It helps to give someone a job that matters to them. Bill Hybels, of Willow Creek church, says that if leaders are not given leadership-style jobs to do, they often will sit on their hands and do nothing. Christian Schwartz discovered the same thing, saying that people are energized when they are given jobs that match their giftedness and skill. This may take some creativity. Ed is a lawyer, but when he went with a dental mission team, he was the one giving encouragement and instruction on how to brush – he was the star of the trip, and longs to go again.

4. Give guidance about what results you expect, and how well the volunteer is doing toward meeting those expectations. Treat them similar to how you would treat every other employee. And in reality, they are your corporate workforce, doing tasks you would otherwise have to pay for. At times, you will need to give additional job training and redirect their efforts, even change their job to something more appropriate to their abilities.

5. Listen for input – about how to do it better, or how else they might want to serve. Too often, paid leaders start to believe that they are the experts and that no one else has any good ideas. Instead, you might have someone who really wants to do a certain thing, and if she can’t find a group to do it for, she’ll create a competing charity. Why not find a middle ground, a way for that person to do something similar to what they want to do within the boundaries of your organizational objectives? It might open a whole new facet of organizational service, and expose you to a new group of donors!

6. Provide off-ramps for volunteers to take time off. Just as you need vacation breaks away from your paid employment, volunteers will often need time away from long-term volunteering commitments. Others will need permission to step away and stop doing what they have been doing. I’ve been in situations where we couldn’t do any leadership development – or even new volunteer recruitment – until a key volunteer was given permission to leave a key duty they had been doing for years. They “retired” from that area of service to be able to do something else that needed their skills, so that we could grow the charity in different directions.

7. Acknowledge and reward their contribution. Far too many organizations treat their volunteers as a throw-away commodity, instead of a capital asset. Terry Axlll’s classic book Raising More Money says to involve the person in the volunteering, and cautions not to treat donors as “ATM machines” that you only run to when you need a quick infusion. Instead, it is important to

a. Thank them immediately after a big event. The phrase “thank before you bank” works with volunteer service as well. Do not wait to give them praise. Express verbal thanks during the event and send a note of appreciation to arrive within a week afterward. Each intervening day lessens the impact.

b. Thank them sincerely. A form letter (or worse, an email) will not work for this kind of recognition!) Give personalized thanks for how the job they did contributed to the event’s results. If you defined the jobs clearly, this should be easy.

c. Thank them appropriately. If the big donors received a lavish prize and the workers who made it all happen didn’t even get fed, your thanks will ring hollow. Provide sufficient snacks & drinks during the event, and make provisions for a gathering afterward that is tailored to them. If you have been listening, you will know what motivates them, and that they prefer a weekend volunteer lunch of soup and sandwich and conversation at the Director’s waterfront house to an expensive dinner on a school night.

I’m sure the list is not complete, but it’s a pretty good start. Give it a try and tell me how it worked.

People want to serve

December 15, 2008

I was walking the neighborhood one afternoon. The church restart was going to have its first service the next day, and I needed to be among the future congregation.

Traditionally, I’d be stuffing a flyer in every door. I’d be posting notices on every bulletin board I can find. But today, God said to walk the neighborhood and pass out flyers to people. Most people will take a flyer and look at it. A couple talked with me. One lady had moved here from N Carolina, and had been having trouble finding a church. The big church was too big and full of cliques. Lots of very small, dying churches. Not many mid-sized, active congregations. She said it would be exciting helping create the right kind of churches.

What I have found is that most people want at least to be listened to. The church I was in when I began this research was systematically excluding anyone who wasn’t in the inner circle. The deacons are the ruling body. They choose who gets to join their body. They choose all the committee members, including the committee that chooses teachers. And despite all the tricks and gimmicks they’ve tried, attendance is flat. In fact, it takes constant effort to STAY flat.

Research shows that most people would volunteer more if asked, and given meaningful jobs that matter. Our job as leaders is to listen, and to find places to use them.

Thank Often

December 3, 2008

In Fundraising for Social Change, Kim Klein recounts the value of a hand-written note:

…a woman who had read about the group’s victories in the newspaper sent $25.  She did not receive a thank you note.  She did, however, receive the group’s newsletter and she heard about the group from time to time.  A year after making her gift she receive a form letter requesting a renewal.  She threw it away.

Sometime later, this woman learned that a friend of hers was a volunteer in the collective. … The one-time donor replied …  “They show no regard for their supporters.  But since you are in the group, I’ll give them something.”  She sent $15.

… in response to this $15 gift, I sent this woman a scrawled three-line thank you note:  “Thanks for your gift of $15.  It’s a help financially and also a great morale boost.  We’ll keep in touch.”

Two weeks later, this woman sent $100.  Again I scrawled a thank-you note with an extra line about her generosity.  A few months later she sent $1,500.”*

As this Thanksgiving weekend draws to a close, it’s worth mentioning again to thank often.

Klein adds:

“Overall, experience shows that, all else being equal, when you thank donors you are more likely to keep them and when you don’t you are more likely to lose them.  Of course, there will be exceptions to this rule, but it is almost impossible to figure out who is really and exception and who is just pretending to be, so thank everyone and save yourself worrying about it.”**

Fundraising for Social Change by Kim Klein. Published by Wiley_Default, 2006. ISBN 0787984558, 9780787984557 (560 pages) on-line version here.

** Klein, ibid, p233