Leading Leaders – Effective Volunteer Management in a Campaign Setting

Effective management of volunteers is at the core of a successful fundraising campaign. Volunteers represent a critical element for a variety of reasons. No one can tell the organization’s story better than a volunteer. They are often someone who has benefited from the organization. They can speak first-hand about the need filled by the group. They are seen as less biased than a staff member or consultant; they are not there as part of their job but out of a love of the organization. Last but not least, they can demonstrate visible leadership through a generous pledge on their own part. The volunteer is the star in our constellation of campaign workers.

Often, the ultimate success of a campaign is defined by the extent to which a dedicated corps of volunteers can be mobilized. At the most basic level, it is a simple matter of additional workers. An organization has only so many staff members, and often cannot easily add more. Each volunteer brings a fresh set of legs, a new list of contacts, and another success story for the campaign.

Assembling a long list of volunteers is not enough, however. They must receive ample training and be put to work with a deliberate intensity. And they must receive continued support and direction. As the external capital campaign director, I always chafe a little when someone refers to me as a campaign “leader.” There is a distinction between those volunteers who are leading a campaign through their own example and those staff members who are directing the effort. The volunteer leadership must take ownership over the campaign and assume responsibility for the success of the effort, but we must give them confidence that they will succeed.

As the development professionals on a campaign, we look to the volunteers to attract other leaders, but we do not expect them to possess our knowledge and expertise. In essence, we must “lead the leaders” toward what we know to be the soundest fundraising principles and strategies. This is a delicate balance to strike. What techniques are available to us to maximize success?

Give volunteers clear expectations. Your volunteer leaders are just that: leaders. They are successful business people, board members, mature and intelligent people. They will thrive in an environment that demands much from them. Do not shy away from giving them hard tasks and tight deadlines.

Build a tight, interconnected network. Explain to each volunteer that they are not acting in a vacuum. They are part of a network of workers who are each relying upon the others to do their part. Every task ripples out across the entire campaign and affects the overall pace and success of the effort. Make sure they understand that the timely completion of their assignments will bolster the efforts of others and keep the campaign on track to success. This will help keep them motivated and let them know that they do not stand alone.

Don’t overwhelm them. At any given time your volunteers should have clear, concise, short task lists. Get them to focus on the next critical piece in the puzzle. Do not give them a list of ten prospects they need to solicit over the next three months; focus them on the one potential major donor you are trying to approach next.

Train and equip them well. Remember, while they may be a great volunteer and a generous donor, the skills we use every day and take for granted may be foreign to them. Even if they have volunteered on other campaigns, do not assume they are familiar with your methodology. A thorough campaign plan that lays out a strategic overview is essential. Review these principles carefully with each volunteer. Teach them what to expect and how to handle different responses. Role-play solicitations so they understand how it all fits together. Provide them with professional, highly polished brochures and printed materials. All of these steps will boost their confidence and convince them that they are part of a serious effort, a campaign worthy of extraordinary exertion.

Keep their eyes on the prize. Try to remind them as often as possible of the overarching goals of the campaign. Elevate their sights toward what could be if they put in the extra effort. “If we can close this $500,000 gift we can consider a goal of $2 million instead of $1.5 million.” It is easy to get lost in the work and forget that the ultimate goal is to build a new school building, or church, or cardiac unit. To the extent you can keep that noble goal in the forefront of their minds, you will get their best effort.

Keep them above the details. Volunteer leaders should spend their time focusing on securing major financial pledges and commitments of time from other leaders. They should not spend their time debating the potential menu for the upcoming campaign event. They should not have to write a solicitation letter, they should be given a well-written letter to sign. If you can keep the minute tasks off their mind they will be able to focus on the critical solicitations that only they can lead.

Make them look good. In many ways, this is the bottom line for volunteer management. Even the most humble volunteer wants to know that they have been associated with a major success. Never pass up an opportunity to sing your volunteers’ praises to other volunteers, staff members, and the public. As staff members, we do not get the spotlight. Choose your words and actions in such a way that moves the focus onto your volunteers. When asked how he assigned praise and blame to his players, football coach Bear Bryant said, “If something goes great, they did it. If something goes so-so, we did it. If something goes wrong, I did it.”

Volunteers are the leaders who will drive your fundraising efforts to success. When they are properly trained, highly motivated, and focused on the task at hand, your organization can achieve great things. Let them know they are needed and appreciated, and watch where their natural leadership skills can take you.

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