opportunitynextexit 2015-Apr21
A few months ago I attended a volunteer appreciation morning for a very prestigious local nonprofit. I was excited to attend because I wanted to see from a volunteer perspective how this particular organization showed their appreciation and how they integrated this with major gifts and planned giving… and it included free breakfast and lunch. How could I pass that up?
The venue was amazing. I got my “packet” at the front desk and proceeded to sit at the tables with other volunteers. Unfortunately, I couldn’t tell who was a volunteer and who was on the staff of the nonprofit. No one from the organization could be identified.
We settled into a very nice breakfast, and I chatted with other volunteers. For me, this was the best part of the event. I loved hearing the stories of these volunteers and why they were so passionate about this organization. The stories were incredibly emotional. Many of the volunteers who attended did their own grassroots fundraising for the organization by holding runs, walks, raffles, you name it… to raise money. Some raised only $1,000, and others raised over $250,000.
But aside from the money they raised, the passion these volunteers had was absolutely incredible. Then I noticed something. There was not one staff person from the organization sitting with us. There were roughly 25 tables of 10 volunteers each, and not one single staff was sitting among us.
Okay, so I made a mental note of that.
Then the welcome and slide show came. Not only was the AV equipment not working, the slide show itself was all about the nonprofit, NOT about the volunteers and what they had accomplished that year! I was dumbfounded. Here was this incredible opportunity to really thank the volunteers, and the presentation was all about the expansion of the nonprofit.
I looked around the room and all I saw were volunteers looking at their smartphones. I was now squirming in my seat.
The rest of the time they held break-out sessions to help volunteers be better volunteers. Some the information was useful, but definitely not inspiring. Needless to say, I left early as others were starting to leave as well.
I left feeling really disappointed. I really wanted this prestigious nonprofit to hit it out of the ballpark, but it was definitely a strike out.
Here is what could have happened had they done this right – and what you can do right at your next volunteer event:

  1. All volunteer appreciation events need to be volunteer-centered. You have a unique opportunity not only to thank volunteers, but to show them how their efforts made a difference.
  2. View all volunteers as potential mid, major and/or planned giving donors. All fundraising staff should be present at any volunteer event with specific assignments to reach out to volunteers. Had a major gift or planned giving officer been at my table to hear the stories of the volunteers, they would have been blown away and would gained have a ton of information about how passionate these volunteers were about the organization. This is invaluable, and this nonprofit blew the opportunity.
  3. Cultivate the volunteers who put on events, not the attendees of the events. So much focus of development staff is trying to get event participants to become donors. In my opinion that is wasted time – you should be cultivating the actual volunteer who organized the event for major and planned gifts. These are people with passion for your organization. They will also give money to you and leave your nonprofit in their will. If you cultivate and nurture that relationship, you will not only win their hearts, you will get significant gifts.
  4. If you have a volunteer appreciation event, make sure volunteers leave that event feeling great about what they have accomplished. This is not about your organization. It’s about what your organization has accomplished because of the work of the volunteer. I still cannot believe nonprofits don’t get this. We can’t help but to focus on how great we are. With all your might, please don’t allow this to happen to your organization.
  5. Remember, some of your best donors either first volunteered with your organization or started to volunteer after they became donors. Never forget this. Someone who gives you a major gift is amazing, but someone that also takes their time and gives it to you along with a major gift is extraordinary. Treat them as such, and provide opportunities to your major donors to easily engage with you as a volunteer. And if they first came to you as a volunteer, always give them an opportunity to give personally. Too many non-profits are shy about asking volunteers to give. Why? They can be your best donors!

I don’t care how small or large your organization or institution is. Your volunteers are special people who are incredibly passionate about your mission. Whether you hold large events like the nonprofit I just told you about, or you have a small appreciation breakfast or luncheon, this is an incredible opportunity for you to say thank you and to make that person feel wonderful.
Don’t miss this opportunity. Make your volunteers feel great, and over time you will see incredible financial and planned gifts you never thought possible.