A delicate balance

If fundraising is concentric circles, as consultants often say (you ask your friends and then their friends and then their friends’ friends), then it seems to make the most sense to start asking right in the bosom of the family: from your staff and volunteers.  Indeed, this is what most nonprofit executives think of when they hear the phrase “Charity begins at home”!

But staff and volunteers are in quite different positions with respect to your organization, and so they can’t be treated alike in terms of asking for money.

Often agencies are afraid to ask their volunteers for money on the grounds that they’re already getting the volunteers’ time, and it would be greedy to ask for more.  But in fact no one is in a better position to appreciate the value of the work you do, or the scarcity of resources under which you labor, than a volunteer.  Further, though not all volunteers are privileged, they are at least people who have leisure time to donate, which suggests they’re not grindingly poor.  If your volunteers show up at the office with a cup of Starbuck’s in hand, consider what that represents: 1 Venti/day@$2.50 x 5 days/week x 52 weeks/year = $650.  So they’re probably spending more on coffee than you’d think of mentioning in an initial ask.

Will any volunteers take umbrage at being asked to give money as well as time?  Sure; a certain percentage of the population finds discussion of money distasteful and crude, and such people may well be represented in your volunteer corps.  But you’re not any poorer for asking them, and there’s very little reason to think they’d stop volunteering at an activity they enjoy because you asked them a question to which the answer was “no.”

Don’t extend this blithe attitude, though, to asking your volunteers to ask for money.  Direct-service volunteers are apt to be offended if they’re asked to do other kinds of volunteer work, such as fundraising, because the request suggests that they’re not already working hard enough.  You understand the difference between time and money, and your need for both; your volunteers are equally sophisticated.  So ask them for money, not for more time.

Staff members are a different issue.  People who work in nonprofit agencies are already donating enormous sums to the agency, in the form of foregone income–-the money they could be making working in the for-profit sector.  In this sense they are almost certainly the top donors to the agencies at which they work.

The Nonprofiteer took a nonprofit executive job for half the salary she had been earning as a practicing lawyer—a not inconsiderable sacrifice, though one she was glad to make.  But when members of the Board suggested that she also write a check to the agency, her attitude was, “The very second the Board gives $25,000 a year to the agency–-collectively, let alone individually!—it will have the right to come back and ask for something more than the $25,000 worth of lost wages I’m already giving.”

To be fair, hers is a minority view.  Many agencies regard staff donations as some sort of measure of staff commitment to the agency.   But staff members indicate commitment every day through the work they do, the salaries they accept, the health insurance they lack.  At some agencies they even demonstrate their commitment by working overtime for which they don’t get paid—and by not ratting out their employers to the U.S. Department of Labor or the state agency charged with regulating wages, hours and working conditions.  The fact that our agencies do socially valuable work doesn’t entitle us to exploit our laborers, though of course for many years nonprofits have survived their lack of financial capital by consuming human capital instead.

So don’t ask your staff for money, and do ask your volunteers.  Maybe they’ll donate enough to make it possible for you to offer the staff health insurance, or paid sick leave, or even a raise.

Well, one can dream, anyway.


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7 Responses to “A delicate balance”

  1. There is hope for autistic children | Autism symptoms Blog Says:

    […] A delicate balance « The Nonprofiteer […]

  2. Susan Perri MPA - Grant Writer and Fundraising Specialist Says:

    This is such an interesting an ongoing issue for non-profits in terms of mobilizing their boards and staff to support the organization beyond what they do in the normal course of their position descriptions (board members especially). It seems to be the remarkably prevalent truth that the majority of board members do not fully understand their roles and the expectation to contribute – time, money, and connections to other supporters and contributors. More food for thought for anyone considering getting involved as a board member. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Jordan Says:

    I work for a company that works hand-in-hand with quite a few nonprofits by providing technology solutions for the organizations. We often lend a hand at events that have our auction technology, iBid, and I must say, that most volunteers ask for bidder numbers as well. I think that as long as volunteers have the option available, most of them are willing to go the extra mile and make a donation or bid on an item. Although this may be because everything is done virtually and at the complete discretion of the volunteer.

    • Nonprofiteer Says:

      I’m glad to know your experience has been the same as mine, namely, that volunteers are eager to contribute. I’m all for asking for donations from volunteers; it’s asking volunteers to ask OTHER people for money that I think likely to backfire.

  4. Tom Sawyer was wrong « The Nonprofiteer Says:

    […] When the Nonprofiteer pointed out that volunteers give more readily to the agencies they serve than …, she wasn’t advocating admission fees.   Volunteers may have paid to paint Tom Sawyer’s fence, but Twain’s point was that they were stupid.  Your volunteers aren’t. […]

  5. Neil Hughes Says:

    I can find nothing ethical or good about this trend of the past 10-15 years, i.e., asking the staff OR the volunteers of any organization for donations. My first encounter with this amoral practice was when my employer, a large state university, started asking its staff–many whom were and still are working for wages so low that they have to take 2nd and 3rd jobs just to pay the rent and keep a used, high-mileage car on the road–for donations. Most offensive of all was that we were told we HAD to do this in order to show the folks with “the real money” that there was “organizational buy-in”–a cute and completely artificial concept if ever there was one. These real-money folks must have a grossly exaggerated sense of their own virtue, if they think that a library assistant making $17,000 a year “has to” make a donation to her or his miserly employer first, before they will ante up a million toward construction of a new building or acquisition of a collection important to the core curriculum or for faculty research. What is there about the pure evil of such an assumption that people don’t grasp? (And to my relief, you do address this directly above, at least for employees.)

    But why is it any different for volunteers at non-profits, really? I am actually thinking of quitting as a volunteer for Learning Ally (formerly Recording For the Blind & Dyslexic) because their corporate nabobs are still stuck on this notion of one big, happy, giving-of-everything family. I’ve even writen to them, stating that they already have my time; why do they think it’s OK to ask me for my money, too? My blood pressure shoots up 40 points every time I get one of their offensive pleas. But my correspondence goes unacknowledged.

    • Nonprofiteer Says:

      As a fellow volunteer at Learning Ally, my perspective is a bit different: I don’t feel that it’s expected that I’ll donate, but I’m more apt to donate money precisely because I donate my time–I already know what a valuable service the organization provides, so why wouldn’t I want to support it in any way possible? For what it’s worth, apparently my attitude is more common than yours: volunteers routinely donate more than non-volunteers to any given organization.

      But you’re certainly right that nothing should be ‘expected.’ Just as no man is heir to the living (one can only be an heir-apparent, subject to being replaced at any moment), no charity is “heir” to its contributors–charities must re-earn our loyalty every single minute. If the tone of the Learning Ally letters is anything other than, “Because you’ve already been so generous, we’re emboldened to ask for still more generosity”–if it’s anything like, “All volunteers should contribute to persuade non-volunteers to do so”–it’s presumptuous as well as counterproductive.

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