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HELP! My Volunteers Aren’t Doing Anything

Lisa Tarshis
January 26, 2021

Every so often I get a call that surprises me.

There was an organization in town that had been running a multi-million dollar campaign and I had heard it was going extremely well. I even had other clients asking me about their work and how to emulate it.

Soon, I got a call from that organization’s Executive Director telling me that while they had raised 95% of their campaign goal, they were totally stuck. The campaign had been running for 2 years and they still had almost $1M to raise before they could go public. The volunteers were on the struggle bus – burnt out, unmotivated and frustrated. The staff had dug deep… it felt like they had tried EVERYTHING and they couldn’t get past the lull.

Unmotivated volunteers aren’t a new problem. In fact, if you’ve worked in fundraising for any period of time, I bet you’ve experienced it. So, you know it can be OH. SO. FRUSTRATING!

I learned long ago that sometimes the real problem isn’t what it appears to be on the surface – and it definitely isn’t the problem an organization thinks it has. I used this knowledge to go on a fact finding mission to help them.

After asking some questions, a few things became clear to me:

  • The staff were doing a good job of showing appreciation to their volunteers. (I usually find this is the number one reason for volunteers feeling burnt out so it’s always one of the first questions I ask.)
  • Volunteers were being regularly updated on the campaign progress, but, with smaller gifts in this phase of the campaign, the numbers were moving slowly and the target seemed overwhelming.
  • The obvious donors had already been solicited. Most solicitors only had a couple of prospects left on their list and they had reached out so many times they didn’t feel like they could possibly reach out again.
  • The staff had so much on their plate and weren’t prioritizing regular check-ins with the volunteers.

In reality, people feel burnt out for a million reasons, and lack of appreciation and lack of information tend to be near the top of the list. What you may or may not know is that if it’s not lack of appreciation or information, it’s almost always campaign mechanics that are leading to burnout.

The good news is you have the tools to solve this on your own.

The core principles I used to reactivate this group, and ultimately complete the campaign, are tools that can be applied to any fundraising effort that hits a lull:

  1. Say thank you... and then say it again: In nearly every scenario where a campaign hits a wall (no matter if it is raising a few hundred or a few million dollars), I find that volunteers who aren’t reminded of the importance of their work through acts of gratitude start to shut down. We talk all the time about the importance of thanking our donors, but what about the people who donate their time? This group of volunteers helps us raise the money we need to function, and they give us their time and energy in order to do so. Thank them at every turn so that they feel appreciated, motivated and remember why they signed up for this role in the first place. You may think they are just “doing their job” but thank them anyway – it truly works wonders.
  2. Provide regular updates: People need to feel the momentum. Share what you have accomplished by providing updated metrics and qualitative data. Is there a quote or story you can share from a donor conversation? Did a colleague at a peer organization call you to ask for your expertise because of this campaign? We all want to be part of something that is successful, so motivate your volunteer leaders by showing them that the ball is rolling and they can help!
  3. Set mini goals: In the example above, the organization had just about $1M to raise before entering the public phase of the campaign. Most of the big gifts had been secured and the smaller gifts weren’t moving the needle very quickly. This made the $1M feel incredibly daunting. By breaking down the $1M goal into smaller goals, we were able to activate the team around milestones where they could feel movement and celebrate achieving their goals. You may be thinking, “but Lisa, that’s just a mind trick.” And yes, you’re right. But let me tell you, it’s a mind trick that works wonders!  
  4. Be clear about priorities: When people volunteer their time, they often have many other commitments going on in their lives. As nonprofit professionals, it’s easy to forget that volunteers aren’t thinking about our organization as much as we are. I find people are more motivated and engaged when they feel like they know exactly what is being asked of them and what the priorities are for each week. It’s your job to give your volunteers the tools they need to be successful and it can be as easy asbreaking down their responsibilities into bite-sized pieces. Things like narrowing down a call list to 5 at a time or asking someone to proofread two specific documents this week go a long way in helping people reach their deadlines. Regular check-ins with volunteers to see how things are going, understand where they are toward their priorities, and ask what you can do to help provide support, accountability and help keep volunteer commitments front of mind. Your volunteers will feel good about getting the work done and you will be glad to have their help... it’s a true partnership win!
  5. Update prospect lists: Let’s be honest, there’s only so many times we’re willing to call someone and have them dodge our calls before we stop calling. In every campaign you get to a point where John simply can’t call Sarah again. We would hope that John would tell us this and would ask to have Sarah reassigned but more often than not, John just stops calling and Sarah sits idly on a list with no one working to secure her gift. If you’re in a lull, I highly encourage you to meet one-on-one with each solicitor and talk through their prospect list. Give solicitors permission to give prospects back and think about how to re-circulate those names. Make sure that each solicitor has a working list and an outreach strategy for each name on the list.
  6. Use a time sensitive opportunity to create momentum: Sometimes solicitors need a reason to reach out and sometimes donors need a reason to give at a certain moment in time. Time sensitive opportunities work great here. Secure a match and create a short window to achieve the match. This will motivate solicitors to reach out and will give them new messaging to share with prospects.

What else have you done to re-energize a group of volunteer leaders? Email me to let me know what challenges you’ve faced and what has worked for you in the past. Plus, I’m sharing 4 ways to get volunteers excited about fundraising in this week’s freebie. I can’t wait to see what you try!