How To Engage Your Volunteers

Among the joys of what development folks do is the opportunity to work with some extraordinarily good and generous people. We get to help them make a difference with their gifts and see their joy in having an impact on lives. I am persuaded that many of them would give more than just their money if offered a meaningful chance.

We talk about how we want to engage them in our organizations in authentic ways as part of our cultivation and stewardship efforts, but I don’t think we do that very well on a regular basis.  For the most part, we seem to give lip service to first two ‘t’s’ and first two ‘w’s’ of our mantras: ‘time, talent, treasure’ and ‘work, wisdom, wealth’. Now those phrases are typically used to describe the responsibilities of board members, but I would suggest that they are appropriate for all volunteers we engage to help in our development efforts.

(A footnote here: I believe it’s time to get rid of the ‘give, get, or get off’ phrase some folks still use to remind board members of their duties.  Too often it is presented as ‘give or get’ which suggests that all board members do not have a responsibility to give, which they do, and that development is their primary responsibility, which it is not. While development is a high priority, governance and fiduciary responsibilities are higher).

I have been trying to figure out why we aren’t more diligent about engaging volunteers in our development programs, and these seem to me to be some of the reasons:

  1. It’s hard work, and we already have a full plate of responsibilities driven by metrics.
  2. It’s not worth the effort. The ROI (return on investment) is not there.
  3. We don’t really want their advice. We know more about development than they do and don’t want them telling us what to do.

And there are many more, I am sure. There are kernels of truth in each of the above points but there are counterpoints.

  1. It is indeed hard work. Establishing a program to engage volunteers to strengthen and expand a development program is akin to a software conversion….you have to run parallel for a while, which means twice as much work. But, in the end, if you engage volunteers appropriately, they can multiply your effectiveness. Thus, it can well be worth the extra effort.
  2. There are all too many examples of attempts to enlist volunteer support that produced mediocre results because they were not well thought out. Conversely, there are good examples of what an engaged group of volunteers can do when partnered effectively with development professionals.
  3. You might be surprised by what you learn from volunteers. Many have experiences that can enrich your work. And it is an excellent opportunity to educate those who are ready to work hard on your behalf but don’t understand some of the basics. So you have to be willing to engage in genuine dialogue with them to get their buy in.

So, IMHO, it is worth the effort but probably won’t happen until we begin including it among the metrics we have in place for development officers.