Why you’re a relationship-builder first and a volunteer manager second

Don’t drop your specialization. Just shift your focus.

I’m thinking of offering a new workshop.

This one would be directed towards nonprofits leaders rather than volunteer managers. It would be called “Deconstructing Engagement.”

In this workshop, we would take away all of the conventional titles for nonprofit connectors – development, outreach, communications, volunteer management – and reorganize around one idea:

How can we fully engage individuals in our cause, so that they want to support us in every possible way?

My guess is that this workshop would lead to two inevitable conclusions, namely:

1.  Individuals who care about your cause and love your organization will want to support you in multiple ways: by volunteering, giving financially, and donating in-kind

2.  Individuals will rotate through these various forms of giving at various times. That means they may volunteer for a while, then shift to giving. Or they may choose to only give for a few years. Or they might do the reverse, and only volunteer – perhaps shifting from one kind of volunteer role to another.

In other words, it’s not about labels like volunteer, donor, or board member. It’s about bringing community members into your organization and allowing them to support you in the ways most meaningful to them.

This is a philosophy that I have come to embrace ever since I featured Jim McAra and the Calgary Food Bank in a post.  CFB treats all forms of engagement as equally valuable: volunteering, financial giving, and in-kind giving. The staff who head up each area are treated equally. They are collaborators and relationship-builders, each with a specialization that is needed to fully leverage community involvement.

In this model, volunteering is not a less-then, it’s the most powerful of all three points of entry.

After all, volunteers have the most direct and ongoing connection to an organization. They see your good work first-hand. They build relationships with staff and (oftentimes) clients. They develop a deep sense of belonging. They feel like part of the organization.

If the volunteer program is strong, volunteers will naturally want to support your organization in other ways. Studies have cited volunteers as the most generous donors – perhaps ten times as generous.

And there are other ways that volunteering strengthens organizations:

  1. Volunteers have networks. With the right systems in place, volunteers will able to connect your organization with project partners and corporate contacts.
  2. Volunteers extend your nonprofit’s visibility. Last year I blogged about Donna Finney, who was tracking the reach of her volunteers on social media. The potential of volunteers to amplify your community profile should not be overlooked.
  3. Volunteers take on multiple roles. In addition to their initial role, they may become your board members, your advocates to legislators, or part of your marketing team.

If you are a volunteer manager, I hope you’re feeling excited by these possibilities. For one thing, this model elevates your role. You become an essential part of the leadership team, equal in status to development. Last month’s post about CVA Heather Lother demonstrates what it’s like to lead this kind of stand-alone department.

I realize, though, that this shift in perspective may make you uncomfortable. When I’ve blogged in the past about volunteers as donors, readers have shared their fears that this shift leaves the volunteer contribution unappreciated, as if volunteers are only valued for their other gifts.

That is not how I see it. Volunteering is an incredible contribution in and of itself. A volunteer should never, ever be pressured or coerced in any way to offer another form of support.

My point is: if we treat volunteers as individuals first, and if our priority is in helping individuals connect to our organization in the ways most meaningful to them, then the volunteer role will sort itself out.

We need to champion our volunteers and hold them lightly.

That’s the path that bring you the influence, authority, and inclusion you seek.

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4 Comments

  • Great post, as usual, Elisa! While folks may be hesitant to see volunteers as donors, the fact is that many already are (see the stats in today’s blog post — https://volpro.net/volunteers-as-donors/). The more nonprofits can acknowledge this reality — and adjust their strategy accordingly — the more they can build relationships with people in the ways they really want to engage (and not duplicate effort or send out conflicting appeals to boot!).

    • Thanks, Tobi! In the end, it’s not about the labels of volunteers or donors – it’s about engaging like-minded community members in your cause. Readers will enjoy checking out your post and summary of the research.

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