Category Archives: Getting Volunteer Help

Is It All Bad News Regarding Individual Giving?

2012-Proof-Penny-obv_200What a rush of apparent bad news we’ve seen lately in the realm of recorded or anticipated donations to nonprofits:

Gack. What is going on? Is charitable fatigue actually an infectious virus?

The YMCA puts it down to a sense that the country hasn’t pulled out of the Recession as quickly as anticipated, and thus people are throwing up their hands and figuring it’s up to governments and larger groups to take the lead.

Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, told Pender that, “The rich were more affected by the stock market crash than other income groups, and that might be why they were slow to step up giving as a percent of income.” 

But I wonder also whether the barrage of donation requests that we get via email and social media is introducing a new type of fatigue. Admittedly, I’m basing this on a sample of one: me. But every morning, I receive such a long list of email solicitations that I have to delete them without opening if I’m going to get to work before everyone leaves for lunch. All those Bay Area folks on their smartphones are pretty quick to hit the delete button, too.

It takes something exciting and different to make someone navigating the online world — an increasingly important forum for charitable solicitation — pay attention. Something like, perhaps, that ALS ice bucket challenge, which raised about $115 million before finally winding down.

Shoutout to All the Nonprofits Providing Thanksgiving Services

CAKEThe degree to which nonprofits have become a backbone of American society is never clearer than on holidays such as Thanksgiving — for those who realize what a nonprofit is, at least.

Many people forget how many organizations are run based purely on love, donations, and volunteer labor. Such organizations may not get to fold up their tents while others enjoy a vacation. In fact, their services may be more important than ever, as they provide:

  • medical treatment to people in need
  • Thanksgiving meals to the hungry and the incarcerated
  • shelter for those needing a break from the ever-colder weather or from domestic violence
  • care for animals awaiting adoption
  • hotlines and support groups for people in difficult straits, and
  • much more.

They’re during it during a tough year economically, too, with donations down, and headlines announcing things like, “Nonprofits face turkey-free Thanksgiving.

I’m taking a moment to be truly thankful for the open hearts and determined spirits of the people who join together on such projects. (And I’ll be putting in a couple of hours at my local animal shelter, too.) Happy Thanksgiving!

It’s PTA Collection Time as the School Year Begins!

Can you feel the excitement in the air? Kids are finding out who their teachers are, buying their back-to-school wardrobes, and signing up for activities.

Parents, however, may be a little less excited. Whether the kids are attending public or private schools, this is the time when many are asked to write a big check — knowing that without parental support, the school will literally go without an arts or music program, a librarian, after-school tutors, and so on. The “suggested donation” levels can run into the thousands of dollars.

This raises the annual conundrum: Should the PTA or other volunteers organizing these fundraising efforts ask for the full, needed lump-sum up front, or plan to spread out their requests for funding over the school year, sometimes packaged up as special events or fundraising sales?

Two mothers I recently spoke with debated this very point. One said, “I helped with school fundraising last year, and noticed that some people just won’t write a check unless they get something in return — they hold out for the silent auctions and other sales.” The other said, “But I get so sick of having to attend events like that, and I’m sure things like wrapping paper sales don’t net the school more than a few bucks — I’d rather just add that to my check at the beginning of the year. Yes, it hurts to write that big a check, but at least I get it over with.”

FLIBThere’s probably no final answer, though if you’re a PTA fundraiser, it’s worth keeping an eye on whether parents are developing a “mass sentiment” toward fundraising. Here’s an excerpt from my book, The Volunteers’ Guide to Fundraising, that will help illustrate:

[D]onor sentiment has cycled at South Mountain Elementary School in South Orange, New Jersey. PTA copresident Laura Reichgut describes, “We sent out a survey last year to get a sense of how the school community was feeling about fundraising, programming, and so forth. A lot of the feedback suggested that parents had had their fill of the various smaller fundraisers, such as giftwrap sales or walkathons. So the PTA decided to eliminate some of those this year—or at least take a break from them—and replace them with what we call the ‘No Frills Campaign.’ We sent out a simple letter asking
for donations and including a reply envelope. Our pitch was that this is an opportunity to support all the great work of the school with 100% tax-deductible donations. . . . [A] mere week into the campaign, the South Mountain PTA had already reached its minimum monetary goal for the No Frills Campaign, and the donations continued to come in during the following weeks.”

What “Fundraising” Means Depends on the Type of Organization

CAKEThe dictionary defines fundraising as simply, “the act or process of raising funds.” But what that literally means depends on what sort of organization you’re working with. In particular, fundraising techniques, cycles, and cardinal rules look very different depending on whether you’re with:

  • a small or volunteer-led effort such as a start-up nonprofit or a school, church or temple, or community group, or
  • a nonprofit that’s big or established enough to have at least one development staffperson (or perhaps an executive director committed to fundraising efforts).

What’s different about the fundraising experiences of these two types of groups? Here are some of the biggest variations:

  • Volunteer-led efforts may lack continuity. Particularly in schools, where the population of parents changes every year, it can be difficult to plan beyond the next 12 months. While a few people may stay on, other key participants may drop out, and vital information about previous activities or donors may be lost. The constituency may change, as well, making it difficult to develop and maintain relationships with donors. Larger more established groups, by contrast, can and should develop an annual fundraising plan and foster long-term relationships with donors.
  • Volunteer-led efforts rely on what volunteers are willing to do. That sounds obvious, but if you look at how it plays out, the significance is huge: Most volunteers hate asking people for money directly. They may eventually learn that it’s not so bad, but on the whole, this tendency leads to a huge proportion of volunteer-led fundraising activities that are special events (bake sales, pancake breakfasts, auctions, fairs, carnivals, benefits, and so on). Special events are the least efficient way to fundraise, as the larger more established groups have mostly learned (sometimes the hard way). But for certain types of groups, special events not going to go away anytime soon.
  • Volunteer-led or smaller groups may have a constituency with a direct, personal interest in the cause. It can certainly be easier to get people involved when they are the literal beneficiaries of the group — the parents of kids in school or on a sports team, the patrons of a local library, the members of a house of worship, and so on. Not everyone will feel a sense of responsibility or be able to follow through, but many will “get it” that if they don’t take part in fundraising activities, the service will go away. This can be good for fundraising via methods that involve large numbers of people, such as a walk-a-thon or auction.
  • Smaller or less established nonprofits may face greater challenges obtaining grant funding. Foundations and corporations like to see that a group has a track record of using funding wisely, and that’s hard to show if you, uh, don’t. Then again, a nonprofit that’s new may at least be able to show prospective funders that it’s doing something exciting and different, instead of just trying to continue last year’s program.
  • Smaller or less-established groups may lack infrastructure, resources, and storage space. They’re often going without a donor database, a dedicated office space, a place to put the goodies for their next auction, and so on. Individuals often end up borrowing their own homes or even office space for the cause.
  • Larger groups must raise larger amounts just to cover the basics. With various commitments such as rent, salaries, and other operating costs, a larger organization may find that a big part of its fundraising efforts serve just to keep the lights on. They have a harder time being nimble in responding to change.

No doubt this list could go on. In the meantime, you can learn more about each of these two different fundraising universes by reading one of the two books offered by Nolo: The Volunteers’ Guide to Fundraising; Raise Money for Your School, Team, Library or Community Group; or, for the larger, more established groups, Effective Fundraising for Nonprofits; Real-World Strategies That Work.

After the Event Is Over: Where’s the Follow-Through?

3a47103rDo you know when the real work of a big event begins? Not the day of the gala, but afterwards.

Nonprofit organizations often put  much energy into an elegant gala, an annual dinner, a silent auction, or some other special event. The event itself may be a roaring success (or maybe not). But then, as Bay Area fundraising consultant Lela DaVia describes it, “the captive audience attending the event is often forgotten in the aftermath of  staff and volunteers recovering from the hard work. If there’s no follow-through, you may have lost a golden opportunity to cultivate current donors and engage new ones who attended.”

A profitable event can, with the correct follow-through, maximize its fundraising potential by fostering new and ongoing donor involvement.  This was a key theme in DaVia’s January, 2013 workshop at the Foundation Center in San Francisco, entitled “A NONPROFIT’S NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION: IMPROVE DONOR RELATIONS.”

What exactly does effective follow-through involve? In the case of one organization with which DaVia worked, it meant that “after the event, every person in the room was entered into the organization’s database; the guests were segmented into categories; and then they were personally contacted by someone from the organization (ideally a Board member or key volunteer), asking how they learned about the group and inviting participation, for example in the next year’s event-planning efforts.” Sending a follow-up letter or e-mail is another option for communication.

Of course, the organization that holds the event may not have a complete guest list on hand — after all, if a corporation buys a table and invites various employees and their family members to attend, even the ticket-buyer may not know until the last minute who will actually show up. But your group can capture such names by unobtrusive means, such as putting out a guest book, offering a door prize, or holding a contest (in which attendees are quizzed on facts about your organization). You can do all of these to cover all bases.

If this sounds like common sense or something you’ve heard before, remember that it’s still not the way things typically happen. In fact, lack of follow-through was a prime concern expressed by members of DaVia’s workshop audience. In many cases,  despite coming from established nonprofits, and their interest in attending the workshop indicating their organizations’ commitment to professional development, many cited lack of follow-through as a major impediment to their group’s fundraising success. Sometimes the ball got dropped even before the event was over, as in: “We have house parties, but no one is willing to make a clear ask for money.”

Follow-through issues can be compounded when a group brings in a consultant to serve as events planner. The very person who was devoting the most energy to assuring the event’s success must pick up and leave when it’s over, along with a good deal of institutional memory. No matter how great a job the event planner did at creating notebooks or files describing what happened before and during the event and what needs to happen after, the key is  actually reviewing those notebooks to take the next steps. A good new year’s resolution to cultivate those donors from minor to major!

Book Review: “Boards on Fire,” by Susan Howlett

I stopped by my local Foundation Center library the other day, and asked which recent books they were most excited about. (By the way, if there’s a Foundation Center near you, it’s a great resource — free access to nonprofit-related books, advice, software to help you research funding sources, and more.)

The first book the librarian mentioned to me was  Boards on Fire! Inspiring Leaders to Raise Money Joyfully, by Susan Howlett. Dutifully, in order to bring you the latest news, I sat down and read it cover to cover.

Okay, I confess, this took me about half an hour. This book is SHORT! No, let’s call it compact. Lots of substance, no fluff. That’s enough to make me joyful right there, in a world where most authors seem to think they have to get their books to one inch thick to be credible.

The book contains some excellent points about how to overcome your board’s resistance to fundraising. Even if you’ve heard some of them before, it’s a fine refresher, or something to give to a friend who has become an E.D. or development director and feeling frustrated with the board.

Some of the points that stood out were:

  • The usual reason that board members are unhappy fundraising is that they weren’t told ahead of time that this would be part of their responsibilities. But even the ones who feel this way can be brought into fundraising step by step, through development of genuine relationships with donors.
  • Howlett discourages standard board member contributions upon entry, as well as “give or get” plans, on grounds that you don’t want the board members with greatest capacity to stop fundraising or giving at their “goal.”
  • You can’t expect board members to ask others for money until they’ve learned about the organization in depth — its mission (beyond the tag line), its stories, where it fits into the community (including differences from the “competition”), what it actually achieves, and so forth.
  • Board meetings can always be made more interesting! Put fundraising early on the agenda, have one board member per meeting share a “mission moment,” and serve food.
  • The organization can model donor relations in its own relations with the board, by joyfully asking them for support, and thanking them well.

That’s not all; as I said, the book is already boiled down to the essentials, so I can’t do any further boiling. In any case, I’ve got to start working on shortening a book of my own.

Volunteer Fundraising a Common Path to Professional Fundraising

A recent article in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, “A newsmaker you should know: From fundraising parent to charity’s executive director,” offers a reminder of the way many professional nonprofit fundraisers get their start: by pitching in on a cause that they care about. In Debra Panei’s case, she had been helping raise money for her children’s school when she discovered she “really liked” fundraising.

Thank goodness this happens to some people, because I’ve never heard a child say, “I want to be a fundraiser when I grow up,” much less a parent saying, “Tommy wants to be a lawyer, but I’m really hoping he’ll go into fundraising.” Hopefully that will change someday, as the field of fundraising becomes more professionalized, and an increasing number of colleges offer courses in fundraising and other aspects of nonprofit administration.

In the meantime, people like Debra often have to learn by doing — no small task, as she is the first to admit. When she started her first fundraising position, as a development assistant at St. Barnabas Charities, she says “I found out there is a lot more to fundraising.” Now there’s an understatement!

Fortunately, there are numerous resources to help anyone learning to fundraise. And I’ve been thrilled to discover that my book, “Effective Fundraising for Nonprofits,” is being used as a textbook in numerous fundraising courses, in places like San Francisco State University,  the University of Michigan School of Social Work, the University of Kansas, the Palmer School of Library and Information Science, and the University of the Pacific.

Planning a Big Event? Train Your Volunteers Ahead of Time

“I have to go to a pre-event training? Just to volunteer? Really?” At least, that’s what I first said (under my breath) when asked to come to an evening training in order to participate in setup at the upcoming “Bay to Barkers” dog walk and festival. Bay to Barkers is an annual fundraiser for the Berkeley East Bay Humane Society (BEBHS), being held this year in Albany, California on Sunday July 29.

Of course, I dutifully arrived at the training. And now I get it: For a big event like this one, there really is a lot of information that the organizers need to convey – and questions that volunteers like me might have.

As Ashley Hurd, President of Eventful (with which BEBHS contracted in order to put on the event), “I’ve learned from years of events-coordination that when they’ve got lots of moving parts, we can save a lot of time and trouble by getting volunteers briefed ahead of time. Once volunteers get to the event, they then know where to go and what they’re doing.”

You don’t need to hold an advance training for every type of nonprofit fundraising event, of course. If the event is small-scale or simple, perhaps with only a few volunteers (or only a few who haven’t done this event before), there’s no need to add another item to everyone’s schedule.

But now that I think back, I can remember instances where I wish the group holding the event had, in fact, held a preparatory training. There was the one where the (overworked) organizer told me, upon arrival the day of, that I’d be the primary First-Aid person. Surprise! Luckily, I’ve had First-Aid training, and don’t mind the sight of blood if it’s not coming out of me, but the organizer didn’t know that. Then, somewhere in mid-afternoon, after a participant complained that the toilet paper had run out in all the Portapotties, the organizer told me with a “didn’t you know?” tone that refilling them was part of my job, too. I bet a lot of participants wish I’d gone to an advance training for that event.

With all that in mind (or not), here are Ashley’s top tips for holding a successful volunteer training:

  • Give people plenty of advance notice of the training date. “People don’t like to commit to an extra meeting too far in advance, but if you wait too long, they’re already booked. Continue following up with people about both the training and the event itself.”
  • Offer food. “Pizza and sodas, for instance, are always a good way to get people to a meeting.”
  • Convey information. “I like to give the big picture of what will be happening and when. I also cover things that participants might ask about, like where the bathrooms and other key things are. You can get into the details of specific volunteer positions, too. In some cases, as people have a few days to think about their job, they ask important questions in between.”
  • Pass out a map of the event. “I’m a visual person, so I like to give others the chance to picture where they’ll be, and something to refer to once they’re there.”
  • Leave time for questions. “You’ll get plenty of them; everything from, ‘Oh, it’s on Sunday, not Saturday?!’ to ‘Can I bring my own dog along?’”
  • Make sure people are comfortable with their job assignments. “If you don’t know all the volunteers well ahead of time, this is a chance to not only make sure people are comfortable with their positions, but that they’re well matched to the work requirements. Not everyone is really suited to be a greeter, for example, or should be out in the parking lot for hours, alone.”
  • Thank people. “It’s always important to let volunteers know they’re doing important work, and are appreciated. Saying thanks at a training is one more opportunity to get this message across – and doubly important if it gets inadvertently overlooked at the event itself.”

Me, I’m looking forward to putting all my advance knowledge to use on Sunday. (Yes, Sunday.) But no bandaging, this time.

Would Your Nonprofit Recognize a High-Value Donated Antique?

Whether your nonprofit organization holds garage sales, auctions, or runs a thrift shop, this latest news piece — “Pot donated to charity is worth £360,000 — should make you rethink how you look over the donated goods.

The charity in question was a hospice thrift shop in England. It had received a dusty Chinese bamboo brush pot that, instead of selling in their store, it was smart enough to turn over to an auction house. A “fierce” bidding war ensued. (I’m not going to do the math, but £360,000 is even more in dollars.)

Of course, that’s the sort of good luck that most groups can only wish for — resigned, meanwhile, to sorting through piles of donated ratty  T-shirts and cheap glass vases. But the real question is whether members of your group would recognize such good luck if it came your way. The article makes two things very clear:

  • the shop’s workers receive regular training in how to spot items of value, and
  • the charity has established an ongoing relationship with the auction house, making it easy to arrange such trainings, as well as appraisals and sales.

It’s not hard to implement something similar where you are, if you go to local experts for advise and help. And even lesser payouts can be significant — for example, if you’re able to sell a first-edition book for $50 rather than $5.

By the way, you’ll notice that the comments to the article express concern that the charity should have offered the item back to the donor. Probably true, if they knew who the donor was — but they may not have, as the article did mention that he or she was “anonymous.”

Your Volunteers Write Newsletter Content: Who Owns It?

If your nonprofit publishes a newsletter, magazine, or even a blog, getting volunteer writers can be a great way to both reduce your workload and foster community involvement. But once the piece is written and published, who owns it? For example, if a for-profit magazine wanted to reprint the article, to whom would it pay the licensing fee — your group, or the original writer?

If you don’t know the answer to this, you can bet your volunteers don’t, either — which is why it’s worth figuring out this issue in advance and drafting a short agreement for your volunteers. Luckily, Nolo’s own Rich Stim, an expert on intellectual property matters, gives you the details in his blog post called “Who Owns What I Write for Nonprofit?”