Engaging Volunteer Fundraisers: Focus First on Internal Training

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Teddy

A senior development officer recently shared with me her acute frustration with her organization’s fundraising volunteers. She explained that her team had supplied the volunteers with an array of new information, materials and training exercises, yet the volunteers did not seem to absorb the content nor follow the guidance; worse, they continued to fall back into the same bad habits my friend’s team was trying to modify. My colleague was on the verge of acquiescing or even closing down the program.

As advancement professionals, we know there are correct ways to do things and incorrect ways to do them.  And if we want our volunteers to follow those best practices, be effective, and achieve our objectives, then we need to start by providing leadership in both word and deed.

Unfortunately, we don’t always adhere to our own prescribed processes, but instead give in, make exceptions, or act in ways that contradict our own advice. When we do that, we also give our volunteers an excuse or even encouragement to diverge from the desired practices.

There are several other errors that our trainers and staff liaisons tend to make when working with fundraising volunteers:

  • We don’t stand firm: We often let volunteers persuade us to cut short certain elements of our training program. (Almost no one wants to participate in role-playing exercises, right?) As a result, important information is not conveyed and critical skills are not developed, leaving volunteers inadequately prepared to fulfill their roles.
  • We’re inconsistent: We may say one thing in a training setting, but then act contrary to it in practice, causing confusion among those trained and prompting them to follow their own instincts instead of best practices.
  • We don’t understand our volunteers: We don’t listen to our volunteers and thus discover their needs, questions and anxieties—nor do we acknowledge that volunteers may harbor hesitations and questions that they are reluctant to vocalize in a training session with others.
  • We don’t follow through on promises: We don’t provide the support, answers, timely responses and other things we committed to during the training session.
  • We conduct “one and done” training: Single-session training can be helpful, but to truly modify behaviors, improve performance, and generate desired outcomes, a series of in-person and/or online follow-up sessions is highly recommended. Good training involves repetition, learning by doing, and reviewing the outcomes of actual performance.
  • We don’t provide timely rewards and feedback:  When working with volunteers, if you don’t provide timely feedback on their work, these unpaid supporters may feel unappreciated, as well as be uncertain whether or not they were effective. And if they were not effective, or were engaged in unproductive or inappropriate behaviors, you also must be prepared to gently direct their efforts into other endeavors.

Wondering why I chose a puppy photo to accompany this post? It struck me over the holidays that the training of fundraising volunteers shares several similarities with canine obedience schools—a conclusion I reached while visiting with my twin eight-year-old nieces and their new dog, Teddy (pictured above). And the most important lesson to be drawn from that comparison is that training success is determined more by the quality and effectiveness of the trainer than by actions of the training subject. Trainers who send mixed messages to their trainees can unintentionally encourage, reward and reinforce behaviors that are opposite the ones desired.

Accordingly, a decision to initiate or expand a volunteer-driven fundraising program in hopes of advancing a campaign or other major gift initiative is not one to be made lightly. Success requires an ongoing investment in training, communication and volunteer support. It also requires clearly defined, mutual expectations. And perhaps above all else, it demands knowledgeable, persistent trainers.

In short, before enlisting others to join our fundraising efforts, we must first be sure that we understand our own roles, know best practices, and be able and willing to follow through on all that we promise to our volunteer partners. And a critical first step is to be sure your trainers are well prepared and effective.

Do you agree that the efforts of fundraisers directly affect the performance and effectiveness of our volunteer fundraisers? Do you have success stories to share or suggestions for more effectively engaging and deploying volunteers to assist in securing major gifts?

My TalentED colleagues and I would also be happy to share examples of how we have helped organizations with their volunteer efforts. Just call!

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