Principles of Training New Major Gift Officers—Part 1

The non-profit fundraising sector is in the midst of a major talent shortage, most acutely felt on the frontline. Development officers are getting recruitment calls constantly, even within a few months of moving to a new institution. This model of trading talent back and forth in short intervals to temporarily meet institutions’ hiring demands in unsustainable. Therefore, all development programs should invest, not only in their current fundraisers, but also in building a pipeline of new fundraising talent. To do so, there must be meaningful, deliberate training for those professionals who are new to the field or to major giving. Any institution working with a team of new fundraisers should integrate the following key components into their program.

Exposure to and Understanding of the Donor Perspective

According to recent research from the Centre for Philanthropy at the University of Kent1, the best fundraisers are those who actually mirror the values and perspectives of donors themselves. They give a higher percentage of their own income to charity, donate blood at a higher rate, and believe passionately in the cause of their institutions. Those new to fundraising need to first understand and identify with donors in order to be successful. For those who have been hired from outside of the field (e.g., with a background of sales or marketing), this step is all the more critical. Major giving is very rarely a transactional relationship. In order to connect with prospects and donors and be successful in fundraising, many individuals will have to undergo a paradigm shift.

The upside of this component, however, is that integrating the donor perspective into your training and onboarding presents a fantastic opportunity for donor engagement, stewardship, and volunteerism. By asking donor volunteers to share their stories, serve on panels, and even participate in training new development officers, institutions have established another valuable connection with these philanthropists. In return, the donors are able to see themselves as partners in the health and future of the development program itself.

Definition and Cues of the Major Giving Cycle and Development Team

For someone entering the frontline, the flurry of activities and responsibilities can be overwhelming. As investors in these team members, the development office must have a focused discussion and orientation to the major giving cycle. This should include, not only supplying definitions of how prospects at a certain organization are categorized but also providing meaningful case studies, guidelines, and cues for how individual prospects move through stages. When we work on training faculty members and physicians on being partners in development, we often provide them sample cues and responses that indicate donor interest and readiness. The equivalent of that tool is rarely offered to fundraisers.

In next week’s advisory, we’ll wrap up the essential principles of training new major gift officers.

BWF’s TalentED practice offers one-on-one coaching, intensive training workshops, and talent management counsel to help our clients recruit, retain, and grow a high performing fundraising team. For more information contact us at training@bwf.com.

Rethinking Fundraising Metrics

Data is increasingly driving the world of development. The ability to access and utilize data has changed how teams are shaped, how donors are engaged, and where resources are allocated. In addition, development organizations and major gift teams have rapidly expanded, and new data tools allow real-time fundraiser activity reports to evaluate fundraiser performance.

Simply tracking metrics to evaluate performance, however, will not always predict or measure real performance by these team members. Focusing on one key performance indicator (KPI) can lead to ignoring other meaningful activities and successes. Organizations that don’t reflect on the meaning and strategy related to metrics can inadvertently encourage inefficiencies and non-productive actions in development officers’ quests to meet their annual goals.

Additionally, organizations that don’t properly implement the use metrics to drive performance evaluation can create a disconnect between activity and strategic goals, causing managers to focus on tracking behavior over improving performance. According to BWF’s 2014 Survey of Frontline Fundraisers, approximately half of fundraisers believe that their metrics don’t reflect important activities. For those who have dual responsibilities (managing a volunteer program, leading a team, all while managing a portfolio, for example), there frequently are not concrete measurements for activities that make up sometimes over half of their workload. For others, uniform metrics do not adequately match the workload they face, depending on variance in the warmth of their portfolio, capacity of their prospects, or structural obstacles like leadership vacancies or lack of clarity on priorities that impede their performance.

Unintended side effects of poorly implementing three of the most common metrics in the industry are highlighted below.

Common Metric Rationale Unintentional Side Effect
Number of Visits Fundraiser performance is closely correlated with the amount of time he or she spends in the field and in front of donors. Development officers meet with the same donors repeatedly and do not focus time on discovery or solicitation.The quality of the visit declines, and few strategic objectives are met during meetings with prospects.
Number of Asks Fundraisers should be expected to ask for gifts consistently and proactively. Development officers ask too early in a relationship.Fundraisers ask for smaller than necessary gifts from high-capacity donors, seeking to get a gift on record over working for a long-term investment by the donor.

Cultivation activities are recorded as “asks” when a meaningful solicitation has yet to be made.

Total Gift Income
Raised
At the end of the year you look at what’s counted. Fundraisers’ primary responsibility is raising money. High performers can be penalized for larger asks that are closed after the fiscal year.Low performers can be rewarded by large gifts that come in on their own but are assigned to their portfolio.

There is a desire to “own” as many prospects as possible.

Credit sharing is misused to “tag into” large gifts, creating the impression of performance.

The answer is not to abandon metrics altogether. Many of the challenges described above can be mitigated through proactive management by supervisors and accurate and thorough reporting on metrics. Measuring performance and especially facilitating feedback sessions with team members on the interpretation of those results is a critical component of talent management. Metrics need to therefore:

  • Act as only one component of a larger system of understanding, creating accountability for, and evaluating performance.
  • Take into account a development officer’s tenure and portfolio composition.
  • Be created via collaboration between development officers and supervisors.
  • Be implemented consistently and reported on frequently.

Discussions about areas for skill and knowledge growth and training needs should go hand in hand with this process. This way, professional development can be targeted towards and influence the right activities by development officers.

BWF’s TalentED practice provides customized training and workshop programs to help grow the capacity of development teams. For more information contact us at training@bwf.com.

Originally published May 14, 2015

Copyright © 2015 Bentz Whaley Flessner & Associates, Inc.

Something Worth Reading: Eleven Characteristics of Successful Fundraisers

IMG_4821On this blog we’ve touched on some international trends and what we’re seeing on the frontline, but today I stumbled upon a great find from our friends in the UK. This article, which is a recap of a presentation at the Institute of Fundraising convention, shows us some new emerging research on fundraising talent (consistent with what we’ve found before). Beth Breeze has been conducting a three-year research project at the University of Kent on fundraisers and success factors.

The full list of attributes is at the end of this blog post. However, what’s most interesting to me is the following statement by Breeze:

A lot of fundraisers said something similar; words like passionate, saying ‘it’s the best job in the world’ have come up a lot. It seems the only difference between major donors and major donor fundraisers is how much they have in their bank accounts.

We spend a lot of time looking at behavior and metrics that differentiate top performers from their peers, but sometimes we neglect this fundamental characteristic to even be an effective fundraiser in the first place: passion for the cause. The smoothest solicitation script will always pale in comparison to a less polished but 100% heartfelt appeal. Donors can sense who is being genuine with them and who is not. As salaries continue to rise dramatically and we pull in talent from the for-profit world it will do us well to remember to look first for that connection to the cause and then for strategic skills.

The 11 defining characteristics of Breeze’s study are also indicative of a love of people, community, and charity:

  • A high emotional intelligence, including being self-aware and aware of how others are feeling.
  • Formative experiences which mean they are comfortable asking – Breeze said fundraisers tended to come from backgrounds where it was completely natural to ask for help or to borrow a cup of sugar.
  • A tendency to engage with people and communities outside the day job – the study has found that 11 per cent of fundraisers sing in choirs and a fifth attend evening classes
  • A love of reading – the study found fundraisers were particularly likely to enjoy popular psychology books
  • An ability to read people and situations, and to understand body language
  • An enjoyment of giving – 87 per cent of fundraisers said they love to give gifts, and 32 per cent donate blood, compared to 5 per cent in the general population
  • A great memory for faces, names and personal details
  • An ability to be “Janus-faced” – fundraisers are charming, laid back and fun in front of donors, but ruthlessly well organised behind the scenes
  • A focus on organisational rather than personal success – fundraisers saw themselves as enablers and scene setters rather than visible leaders seeking recognition
  • A lack of egotism – Breeze said fundraisers understood that “the plaques are for donors, not askers”
  • A tendency not to describe themselves as fundraisers – Breeze said fundraisers rarely described themselves as fundraisers. She used the term “appreciation experts” to better describe what they do.

The article is worth a read and, for those of you in the UK, Beth is definitely a person to keep watching for new insight, trends, and strategies.

Side note: I will be with my colleague Josh Birkholz this week in Chicago, delivering the keynote session at the CASE Strategic Talent Management conference. If you will be there let me know! (cmegli@bwf.com or @ChelseyMegli on twitter)

Practice and Repetition Are Not Enough: Why Training and Coaching Are Essential Elements for Developing Effective Fundraisers

Shooting Free Throws (Narrow)In previous posts our TalentED team has emphasized the importance of practice and repetition in ensuring that fundraisers develop the skills and professional judgment necessary to achieve success as a major gift officer. I’m confident it’s now accepted wisdom that repetitive simulations and actual hands-on, in-the-moment interactions with donors are essential experiences in helping new gift officers master the art of fundraising—a process that includes discovery, cultivation, solicitation, negotiation and stewardship.

As vitally important to performance as regular practice is, a recent article from Inc. Magazine reminded me that repetition alone cannot guarantee long-term fundraising success.

In “4 Short Lessons on How to Learn a New Skill,” author Sims Wythe posits that individuals who pursue mastery of a skill must also possess or receive four other factors if their repetition to yield meaningful improvement: (1) motivation, (2) knowledge, (3) application of knowledge, and (4) unequivocal feedback:

  1. Motivation

To get better at a skill, we must first want to improve. As Wythe states, “the first thing you have to do is simply begin…. And now that you know you want to begin, you have to be willing to fail, to be frustrated, to be bored, and to be angry that what looks so easy for some is so hard for you.” Without these internal or external incentives for improvement, we are unlikely to apply the necessary discipline, exert enough effort, or tolerate the impediments.

What motivates fundraisers to improve? At the very least, our supervisors expect and require us to become more polished and increasingly productive. Hopefully, we also bring to the task our own personal pride and desire for success.  Nonetheless, even the very best fundraisers encounter obstacles, including objections and rejection by donors. It’s not an easy job—and these challenges certainly contribute to the rapid turnover among first-time major gift officers.

  1. Knowledge??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

For practice and repetition to make a difference, you have to be practicing the right things. As Wythe observes, if you practice your golf swing at the driving range every day of the summer but you have a lousy swing, it’s unlikely your swing will be any better on Labor Day. Wythe thus cites Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who advises that “…acquisition of skills requires a regular environment, an adequate opportunity to practice, and rapid and unequivocal feedback about the correctness of thoughts and actions.”

What does that mean for major gift officers? Your own ability to enhance your performance is limited. To get better, you need to observe effective fundraising in action, have access to resources that will inform you, and obtain feedback from other, more experienced fundraisers.

  1. Application of Knowledge

Practicing alone has limited value. You must also practice in front of others and in situations similar to those in which your actual performance will occur. For example, Wythe cites the process of becoming Practicing Piano 3a better public speaker: “the only proven way to become a better speaker is to rehearse under performance-like pressure…. It is hard to replicate real-life circumstances, but practicing your speech aloud to people who are familiar with your topic is—again—the only scientifically proven way of improving your speaking skills.”

For fundraisers, that means practicing the types of conversations that you must have with donors: getting the appointment, eliciting information, exploring interests, soliciting gifts, overcoming objections and making the close. As uncomfortable as it may be, live practice—and yes, even role playing—of donor conversations in front of other, more seasoned gift officers is critical to recognizing opportunities for improvement and identifying areas for further practice.

  1. Unequivocal Feedback

Once you begin performing the skills you’ve been developing and policing, it’s vital to evaluate your performance and to identify areas that require further practice and improvement.  Indeed, Wythe suggests that we all need a coach; however we cannot be our own coaches: “You can read all the how-to books you want, but then you have to implement those suggestions—which takes a huge amount of discipline that most of us don’tPracticing Violin 1 have—and then you have to be able to see around your own blind spots which, believe me, will take a lifetime.”

Of course, few fundraisers have the resources to engage a personal coach. Instead, that role should be filled by your supervisor and your peers, and ideally, your organization will offer on-site training programs or opportunities to attend off-site workshops.  But if your supervisor and peers don’t see themselves as coaches, or if you don’t have access to training programs, it is up to you to proactively seek out feedback and coaching: Ask your colleagues to provide the ‘rapid and unequivocal feedback’ Wythe says you need, or seek others to help fill that role. Just be sure that you enlist knowledgeable people who you trust to critique you without holding back.

It should thus be good news for both new and seasoned fundraisers that the imperative for pursuing a comprehensive approach to building advancement teams is beginning to be acknowledged and to be addressed. By applying tenets of “strategic talent management” to the advancement profession, fundraising organizations are increasingly looking holistically at the entire process of finding, training, developing, rewarding and keeping the best possible gift officers. And training, coaching and mentoring are core elements of this fresh, holistic approach to growing talent. In addition, consulting and support organizations (such as Bentz Whaley Flessner and TalentED) are also ramping up their offerings to help clients develop talent management strategies, provide training and coaching, and better understand the dynamics of creating and maintaining effective fundraising teams.

It’s good news, for sure. But don’t stop practicing!

Create a Superstar Fundraiser in 2015

Originally published December 10, 2014

If there’s one theme to emerge from the conferences, research topics, and discussions of 2014 across the world of development it’s this: it’s very hard to find and keep talent. Demand exceeds supply, and competition for a shallow talent pool is only going to increase if trends continue. Development programs must start to look inward to create and build their own talent pipeline.

This process should involve looking at your staff, enhancing culture, growing team strengths, and setting priorities.

Ultimately, however, outcomes along the front line will be made by a handful of exceptional fundraisers. Elevating even one more individual to that tier of performance can dramatically impact your overall results.

Below is a brief overview of a process that development leaders can follow over the next 12 months to transform a high-potential individual into a high-performing fundraising star.

Find the Right Footing and Foundation
There is a core set of knowledge and expertise fundraisers must have to be successful. Make sure your team members have a firm foundation in the science and art of fundraising. Evaluate and create a plan to deepen their knowledge and grasp of critical areas, including:

  • Major donor types and motivations.
  • Giving vehicles and types of giving.
  • Institutional culture and priorities.
  • Portfolio management and optimization.
  • Strategic solicitation, and matching big ideas with high-capacity prospects.
  • Trends and new tools in development.

Get Moving
Part of what sets star fundraisers apart from their peers is the ability to manage time effectively and maximize their time out of the office meeting with donors and prospects. Focusing on growing an individual’s performance should include immediate, intermediary, and long-term action items. That way he or she can have clear avenues to put theory into practice in all steps of the process. Integrating all learning, mentorship, and self-development into existing responsibilities and activities will solidify knowledge and deepen understanding more readily.

Look for the Heart of a Star
When talking about growing your own superstars, focus on finding individuals who have the right qualities and potential to become your future highest performers. Look for individuals who:

  • Seek out challenges and new opportunities beyond assigned top prospects and goals.
  • Can speak and connect with people of all backgrounds and personality types.
  • Are inspired by your organization but have room for growth.

Perfect Technique and Strengthen the Right Muscles
The best athletes, musicians, physicians, and executives all have one thing in common: they practice a lot. More often than not that practice includes focused coaching and mentorship. Fundraisers, likewise, become more effective the more targeted practice they are able to have. Build a performance plan that not only increases classroom learning and expectations but allows for practice, shadowing, mentorship, and coaching by existing stars on your team and experts in the field so that your professionals can try new techniques and receive guidance on how to refine and hone their own personal approach with donors.

Guaranteeing a feedback loop during this process requires that managers and directors must be actively engaged and protective of time for the skill and strategy growth of the individual.

Foster Leadership and Collaboration
The biggest gifts require collaboration and multiple contact points, and often our top performers are expected to be team leaders as well. However, content areas for skill building often leave out collaborative strategies and good leadership and management. Similarly, we often wait too long to give individuals leadership opportunities. Leadership should be developed well before a promotion.

Part of what makes a fundraising star is his or her ability to lead internally as well as produce externally. In order to transform individuals you must make sure that they are given opportunities and tools for leadership. Find or let your team members identify new projects or initiatives in need of an owner. Include leadership skills and management in your expectations and performance evaluations of your team. For individuals to become leaders, they must understand their own management style and approach with peers, direct reports, and contacts across an institution and be able to translate that into success in actual programs and projects.

Focus on the Future
Developing the skills and improving the outcomes of performers is only as effective as your ability to retain them. Any program, formal or informal, that you develop must account for and incorporate the personal and professional goals of the team members involved. A curriculum for 2015 should, therefore, be focused on improving and multiplying fundraising results for the next 12–24 months AND act as a stepping stone for your fundraisers’ own ambitions for the next 5–10 years. Taking the steps described above helps communicate to your performers that you value them and their growth. Don’t shortchange your results by neglecting to communicate that you have a plan and place for them as they grow.

There will be valuable members of your team who may not be ready for the next step. That’s okay. As you work to grow your fundraising stars, keep these folks in mind—team building and performance across the bell curve should be a parallel priority for talent development this year.

It’s not an easy task, but, as the saying goes, something worthwhile is rarely easy.

BWF’s TalentED practice partners with non-profit clients to create superstars through competency-based, one-on-one coaching by seasoned experts. Contact us at training@bwf.com to learn more about coaching, workshops, or our talent management services.

Copyright © 2014 Bentz Whaley Flessner & Associates, Inc.

MGOs: Why a New Job Should NOT Be on Your 2015 To-Do List

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????The rate of turnover among fundraisers remains high, and among no cohort of advancement professionals is this movement more pronounced than major gift officers (MGOs). Recent studies and surveys by CASE, AFP and others suggest the average tenure of a frontline fundraiser is now somewhere in the range of 2.4 to 3.5 years.

Whatever the actual tenure numbers may be, it’s obvious that a lot of major gift officers are on the move. And if you’re not already among them, it’s highly likely there will be attempts to convince you that you should be: A 2014 survey by our firm, Bentz Whaley Flessner (BWF), found that two-thirds of all frontline fundraisers with at least two years of major gift experience had received at least three recruiting contacts during the prior year, with a significant subset of that cohort receiving even more (see adjacent chart).

In other words, if you’re a major gift officer with even a smidgen of experience someone will try enticing you to move in 2015. My advice: Don’t do it.

Bar Chart 001My rationale for dissuading you from changing jobs boils down to the proverb, “good things come to those who wait.” Frontline fundraisers who truly want to achieve success and produce transformational outcomes must be prepared to make an up-front investment of time—in their institutions, in their donors, and in themselves. Frequent moves do not serve you well, for several reasons:

  • Practice, Practice, Practice. The skills for effective cultivation, solicitation, negotiation and closing are only acquired through practice. Major gift fundraising is an art, and to become good at it requires training, repetition and lots of hands-on experience. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, suggests that proficiency in any complex task is only achieved after 10,000 hours of practice. If we accept Gladwell’s rule and apply it to fundraising, we can project that a first-time gift officer will require almost five years to become effective at their work: 10,000 hours ÷ (40 hours x 52 weeks) = 4.8 years.
  • Gladwell is Right. Additional research conducted by BWF on behalf of our clients confirms the validity of Gladwell’s proposition:  When measuring the year-to-year progression of major gift officers’ productivity, it MGO Productivity 001isn’t until their fourth year that fundraisers begin to generate significant output from their prospect portfolios. (See adjacent graph.) Once a gift officer turns that corner, their output continues to grow at substantial rates.
  • Relationship-Building Requires… Relationships. BWF’s finding that gift officers require ramp-up time before generating significant returns from their portfolio should not be surprising. Major gift fundraising is a relationship-based endeavor, and relationships cannot be built overnight. While the most important relationships are always between the donor and the organization, the connection between a donor and a fundraiser is crucial. Only through a series of conversations and contacts can a gift officer come to understand a donor’s interests, capacity, motivations and readiness. And moving through that process requires the donor to have a substantial level of comfort with and trust in the fundraiser who is their principal contact. Frequent changes in fundraisers interrupts and delays the process—or even terminate it if a new gift officer doesn’t quickly pick up the ball again.
  • Longevity Yields a Better Portfolio. Another reason it takes a few years for gift officers to begin tapping the capacity of their assigned prospects is that new fundraisers usually receive a “discovery” portfolio that will initially require numerous qualifying calls, many of which will result in prospects being dropped from consideration. Those dropped prospects will be replaced by others before this iterative process eventuallyBalancing Time And Dollar develops for each fundraiser a solid collection of genuine major gift donors. Our firm’s experience is that it takes gift officers 2-4 years to transition a discovery-oriented portfolio into one that is weighted toward bona fide donor prospects and will begin to produce significantly greater gift income. Those who leave a position prematurely don’t get to harvest the fruits of their labors.
  • Fundraisers are Measured by Funds Raised. Because the demand for good fundraisers outstrips the available supply, it is possible to move from job to job over a short period of time. It’s also possible for a newbie to get lucky with one or two big gifts early in their tenure, and parlay that into another job. But in the final analysis, effective fundraising is all about building relationships and closing big gifts. If you cannot one day point to a single multi-year tenure during which you showed progressive growth and demonstrated your ability to close multiple large gifts, you will have fallen short of your full potential:  You will have limited the philanthropic capacity of both the organizations you served and their donors, as well short-changed your own prospects for professional advancement and personal satisfaction.
  • Results Get Rewarded. We all want to be rewarded for our work, and we can sometimes convince ourselves that by leaving our current employer we’ll find better rewards elsewhere. Nonetheless, even in our present day culture of immediate gratification, rewards still have to be earned, and the process of earning them takes time. As I suggested earlier, unless gift officers allow themselves adequate time to fully explore their portfolios, develop relationships and produce results, those earned rewards won’t be forthcoming. Our firm’s experience is that truly productive fundraisers are highly prized, and institutions will act within reason to retain them. But a gift officer can’t expect such VIP treatment unless they’ve earned it, and they definitely cannot earn it during a short tenure.
  • Define Your Rewards and Go After Them. What are the rewards major gift officers want? Compensation, of course. But BWF’s 2014 survey of frontline fundraisers revealed that gift officers’ most desired rewards are actually not dollars but other less tangible items: A better prospect portfolio, professional development opportunities, information from and access to leadership, new challenges, and recognition. And you do have some control over these perquisites: Make a case to attend a workshop to Medalsdevelop a relevant new skill set. Suggest that you be involved in preparing a major solicitation. Ask to take on a new responsibility (that won’t interfere with your other duties).  And above all else, challenge yourself to become more strategic and engaged with your own best prospects–and thus produce more gift dollars.
  • Everyone Loves a Winner. If you allow yourself to learn, develop and grow as a major gift officer, then positive results should follow. It’s at that point–where you can show that you are knowledgeable and skilled; that you have developed a productive prospect portfolio; and that you have also demonstrated staying power at one or more organizations–that you can write your own ticket. Fundraisers with such a record are truly in short supply, and if you can show that you’re one of them, both your current and other organizations will covet your services.

It’s true that your success is not entirely your own responsibility nor completely under your control, so I also offer two caveats to my admonition to stay put:

  1. Your organization and supervisor also have obligations to position you to achieve and sustain success as a fundraiser: you need training, coaching, resources, support and opportunity. And not every organization is as supportive as it should be. But rather than fret about what’s missing, take charge of your own progress as much as you possibly can–which may include finding coaches and mentors outside your current organization.
  2. There are sometimes reasons to leave an organization before you are able to establish the long-term track record I have suggested, such as a truly unreasonable supervisor, a toxic work environment, lack of professional development or growth opportunities, or an otherwise an unstable organization. But take to heart the familiar maxim, “the devil you know may be better than the one you don’t.”

2015 dIf you are a major gift officer considering a job change in 2015, be sure that you first conduct an honest self-assessment of whether you have done all that you can to become the seasoned, knowledgeable, productive and stable fundraiser that will be prized by your current and/or prospective organizations. And if you choose to leap, be sure you’re not doing it impulsively and that you have full knowledge of where you’ll be landing.

Otherwise, stay put. Instead, challenge yourself this year: make the most of your prospect portfolio, enhance critical skills, and take other actions that will increase your value. Make 2015 a year in which you, your organization and your future career prospects will become better, stronger, more productive, and well positioned for future success.

And continue following our blog, too: In subsequent posts we’ll be sharing additional insights into specific things you can do this year to enhance your performance, work more effectively with colleagues and supervisors, and position yourself for long-term success.

Engaging Volunteer Fundraisers: Focus First on Internal Training

IMG_3070

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!