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The Calculus of Staff vs. Volunteer Driven Fundraising

development team

There are many ways to “skin a cat” the saying goes. Some advancement shops are heavily invested in building multiple volunteer committees, separate fundraising boards and using volunteers directly in fundraising activities. Other shops have no volunteer committees and use individual board members or other donors strategically with specific prospect approaches…and often sparingly.

Organizations like the City of Hope or the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation have volunteer chapters all over the world, and their volunteers have a strong influence on governance and fundraising. Other organizations like Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and many universities are heavily staffed professional fundraisers, and use volunteers quite sparingly. Both models raise hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

As fundraising was coming into its own as a profession in the 1980s and 1990s, the volunteer based fundraising model was most common. As the profession has evolved it is my observation that staff driven fundraising, by increasingly professional and well trained advancement officers, is emerging as the dominant construct.

We might consider the following explanations for this trend:

1. High level volunteers, the sort you would want to be your partner in fundraising, are both fewer in number and more distracted with their lives.

2. Most volunteers, like most people, really do not like fundraising, so advancement staff become increasingly frustrated spending their time cajoling volunteers to do what they say they will do but don’t really want to do.

3. The stakes are higher. Institutions are relying more and more on philanthropic income to ensure financial viability and growth. As a result, institutions are willing to invest more in good planning, talent and staff to be able to ensure more predicable outcomes. In short, they are controlling more and more of the variables.

4. Senior nonprofit executives are expected to and are increasingly involved in high end fundraising and relationship building, with less dependency on the relationships of board members and other volunteers to maximize transformational giving.

5. Donors with great capacity are as much interested in the strength of executive leadership and governance as with who else is “investing” in the organization.

Most organizations I am familiar with use a mixture of staff driven fundraising while maintaining and using a cadre of committed volunteers who help to expand the prospect pool, and provide intelligence and access when asked. There is no question the right mix of volunteers brings great value to nonprofit organizations in many ways. Recruiting the right volunteers, keeping them engaged and working within their comfort zone is where the art…and the mutual payoff for everyone reside.

Your takes:

1. If you are rethinking the core structures of your advancement operation, give due consideration to the volunteer involvement model you want to employ.

2. In a staff driven model, be sure your top executives are available, provide leadership with building a culture of philanthropy, and are effective with donors.

3. In a volunteer driven model, be sure you are discriminating about who you recruit, and that expectations are well defined and regularly reviewed.

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