How and Why You Should Involve Volunteers in Fundraising

October 21, 2015 Marc A. Pitman


One of the best things you can do for your school’s fundraising? Involve volunteers.

It’s messy

Like herding cats or nailing Jello to the wall, working with volunteers is messy. In the Hebrew Scriptures, there’s a saying:

Where no oxen are, the manger is clean,
But much revenue comes by the strength of the ox. (Proverbs 14:4)

One way to look at it is if you want revenue, you’ll need expect to muck some stalls. 

The Dunlop Challenge

Early in my educational fundraising career, I had the privilege of learning from philanthropy legend, David Dunlop. One day sitting at the airport, he made me make a promise. “Marc, whatever you do in fundraising, promise me that you’ll include volunteers. That you’ll always make this accessible to them.”

Even 20 years ago, he was concerned about the professionalization of fundraising. You see, throughout most of human history fundraising was done by volunteers. Passionate people who cared about a cause. The strength of this system is that those passionate people tend to stay with the school.

Often, the leadership structure of our school is so lean, the only way to get a promotion is to move to another school. When we do that, we leave behind months and years of relationship building.

But while students become alumni and parents of students become “former” parents, they’re still connected with the school.

So the time you invest in volunteers has the potential for a much more long-term impact than if you were to simply do the fundraising yourself.

Not all aspects of fundraising

Twenty years later, the challenge still shapes my work. But I’ve learned that it’s not helpful to have volunteers participate unless there’s education. For instance, you wouldn’t argue with your cardiologist over the choice of the stent she’s going to use in your heart surgery. But volunteers regularly argue over the techniques of well-researched fundraising, like fundraising letters.

The cardiologist/fundraiser analogy may seem overblown, but maybe not. After all, aren’t philanthropic donations the lifeblood of many of our schools?

Without guidance, well-meaning board members and volunteers will unstrategically try to push your fundraising into a bake sale or a crowdfunding push. And then wonder why they fail.

All of our schools should have some fundraising 101 training for board members. It’s comforting for them to learn that fundraising is a profession with norms, credentialing, and ongoing research into what’s working. And that fundraising isn’t about “chugging” – charity mugging – but about developing lifelong relationships with people passionate about our school.

When I work with boards, I like to

  • Thank them sincerely for their giving time, talent, and treasure to the school. (We should never take this for granted.)
  • Share why fundraising is such an incredible privilege.
  • Give current and historic statistics on giving using the results of GivingUSA’s ongoing research (most board members are shocked to learn that 80% of the more than $300 billion dollars given each year come from individuals, not corporations or foundations.
  • Share the 4-stages of fundraising: researching, engaging, asking, and loving.
  • And share how we’ve discovered people respond best to fundraising letters, events, and face-to-face solicitations.

I’d love it if all volunteers had a level of this training!

Create small wins

Even after a good orientation, it’s not right to simply tell them you expect them to call five of their friends and ask for money or auction items or ads in the yearbook! To create a culture of volunteer engagement, and to minimize the mess, it’s best to give them some small wins they can do.

In my guide 21 Ways for Board Members to Engage in Their Nonprofit’s Fundraising, I say the first way is to make their own gift first! This is huge.

But there are so many other ways:

  • Writing letters to the editor in support of the school
  • Writing thank you notes to people who’ve given
  • Making thank you calls to donors
  • Having a small gathering at their house to introduce people to the head of school (with or without asking at the event)

These are just five of the 21, but you get the idea. If we can help volunteers have a good experience, we’ll reduce the fear of fundraising. And we’ll be helping keep the managers a bit less messy than they would otherwise be!

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About the Author

Marc A.  Pitman

Marc A. Pitman is the author of Ask Without Fear! and director of The Nonprofit Academy. A coach to leaders around the world, Marc's expertise and enthusiasm engages audiences and has caught the attention of media organizations as diverse as Al Jazeera and Fox News. Marc’s experience also includes pastoring a Vineyard church, managing a gubernatorial campaign, and teaching internet marketing and fundraising at colleges and universities. He is the husband to his best friend and the father of three amazing kids. And if you drive by him on the road, he’ll be singing 80’s tunes loud enough to embarrass his family! You can connect with him on Google+, on Twitter @marcapitman, and like "Ask Without Fear!" on Facebook. To get his free ebook on 21 ways to get board members engaged with fundraising, go to

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