How Can We Train Volunteers To Be Superstars For Our Campaigns?

by Barbara Barron | Posted April 10th, 2019

I’m a big believer in training. And practice.

I’ve written before about the importance of practicing how to ask for support. How we need to strike the right balance between being sharp and focused in our approach, but also relaxed and confident. And how that balance is best achieved by doing it, a lot.

For those of us with dozens or hundreds of asks under our belts, this is obvious. We have the experience. Experience, it turns out, leads to chops.

But what about our volunteers? They come to us with a deep love of the school and a generous intention to help us raise money. That’s beautiful! But typically, they come from other professional arenas. And therefore are rarely practiced in the art of soliciting for charitable gifts.

After all – asking for money is its own special little niche. And it generally terrifies even the boldest volunteers.

So how can we help them help us? How can we give them enough information and practice so they are at the very least, capable of this important and high stakes task?

And at best, are skillful, successful, and maybe – just maybe – might even enjoy doing it?

Here are some tips from the field:

Tip #1 – Educate, educate, educate.

About the project. About our case for support. About the possible obstacles we may face. But above all, about the massive benefits of the project. What does this project mean to the school? How will it enhance the program? How will it solve something? Or make delivering on the mission more attainable?

I’m not talking about the “features”: 15,000 square feet, 4 classrooms, blah, blah, blah. Fluency on those things is a requirement but most people need no training to get those committed to memory. What I’m saying is educate your volunteers on the impact of your project. Give them the vernacular so they can prosthelytize candidly. And not just to potential donors, but any John or Jane on the street.

And, no – it’s not enough to give them a print-out or an email. Really educating a volunteer means doing a bit of roleplay. You’ll both feel silly for fifteen minutes. But isn’t the project worth it?

#2 Give them skin in the game.

I’m not generally a sports analogy kind of person, and this one is especially masculine, but there is something palpable about this image.

Here’s what I mean. Our devoted, trained volunteers need to make their own commitment first — before they ask anyone else. And they need to take this a step further — they need to make their commitment a “stretch gift.”

Why? Because the very act of saying “I’m in” in such a big way suddenly makes th project personal. The volunteer is now invested.  And since they’ve stretched in making a commitment that is significant, meaningful – maybe even sacrificial – they can stand in a place of pure integrity when they say to a peer: “Join me. My family is making this a top priority and I’m asking you to do so, too.”

You’ll be amazed at how quickly this changes the way your volunteers engage with potential donors. It’s truly night and day.

#3 Write a script and take them through it.

Like I said above, it isn’t enough to send along an e-mail with these pointers, or simply forward this article. (As thankful as I’d be.)

In order to really prepare your volunteers, you have to practice with a script.

You will get all kinds of resistance to this. People will balk. They won’t be able to find the time! They’ll want to rush through it! It is on you, my friend, to push past their excuses, sit them down, and work on your message.

The act of rehearsing is uncomfortable – particularly for adults. And yet, that discomfort is where the power lies. It’s somewhere in the fumbling and stumbling that we learn. And keep getting better.

Here’s a way to lessen the blow. Set the example by role-playing with the Head of School or another practiced person first and let the volunteers watch. It’s important that afterward you don’t back down. You must make them do it themselves. They are only scared of looking foolish. But a tiny bit of ego-death is a small price to pay for your project truly soaring.

Acknowledge the awkwardness. The self-conscientious-ness. The weirdness of it all. But for goodness sake, keep going. The more they practice, the better you’ll all get. And the greater confidence they will develop.

Tip #4 – Require pre-game and post-game debrief sessions.

Okay, wow — not sure what’s happening to me with these sports metaphors, so I’m just going to breeze past them for now.

Just like the training sessions with the script, our wonderful volunteers will resist this idea, too. They’ll say it’s unnecessary. Or, again, be “too busy.” Just as a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, so, too, can a shallow depth of experience. This is crucial. Get them to agree to speak to you before and after each solicitation meeting. This way you can refresh the script, hand over key information about the prospect, and confirm who is playing which role in the conversation so that nobody steps on anyone’s toes. We’re going for coordinated, professional effort here.

The post-game debrief is also essential, and twice as likely to be blown off. But here’s why you should insist. This meeting may be the only time that you, as the Advancement Professional trying to coordinate this circus, can get the details on a pledge or payment plan or the needed follow up. The absolutely crucial “Action Plan.”

In my experience, rarely does a volunteer-led solicitation result in a firm pledge and clear plan forward. There are invariably loose ends and undocumented minutiae. So, since you’ll be handling those important pieces anyway, why not create – and insist upon – a system of “downloading the meeting” so that your helpful volunteer gets that info to you straight away.

Tip #5 – Steward everyone.

Last but not least, emphasize with your (now) highly-trained volunteer-solicitors the importance of steady, practiced, and extremely personalized stewardship. We simply cannot thank a potential donor enough, even if they don’t ultimately end up giving. Or giving as much as we hoped.

Make it easy for them. Hand over a stack of stamped note cards and ask your volunteers to write a “highly personalized” thank you note immediately after the solicitation. That very day, please. Be sure to let those volunteers know when the pledge they helped secure is finalized or paid so they can thank the donor again.

This is on you. Report progress. Give them credit. Thank them repeatedly. Never forget that your volunteers are also your donors. Stay positive and cheerful and patient, even when they are late or unresponsive. They will annoy and frustrate you. (This is unavoidable.) Never let them see those feelings. If you need to vent, e-mail me.

And there we have it. Five starter items to work with when training your volunteers. Is that everything you can do? Of course not. But it’s a start.

In the end, you might be able to raise all the money you need by yourself. Amazing. Or maybe you can do it with your professional team — headed by your Head of School. Also amazing.

But I will argue that there is a power in mobilizing volunteers. A benefit that feeds directly into a strong Culture of Philanthropy – which is something we should all be aiming towards.

So I do recommend it, if you are able to put in the time to do it right.

Take the time. Get the commitment for support from your Head of School. Sometimes it makes sense to bring in an outside consultant like myself to deliver some of this new information and conduct the initial training because we can say things you may not be at liberty to say. And, as an added perk, it frees you up to focus on your relationship with the volunteers as you steer the ship towards a successful conclusion of the project.

Then – let’s not forget – celebrate with them. Enjoy the moment. Everyone will be looking to you to set the tone. Do it.

My name is Barbara Barron, and I’m writing this blog to share advice on a profession that I adore.

I’ve been working in the field of Independent School Advancement for over 20 years. In that time, I’ve had the pleasure of creating and implementing successful Strategic Fundraising Plans for so many incredible schools. I’ve had the privilege of seeing real growth at San Diego French American School, Presidio Knolls, Woodside PriorySage Ridge and others. (Maybe we’ve met!)

Nothing makes me happier than seeing a struggling school start to thrive. I believe that you’re here to make a positive change as well. I hope my advice can be a part of that change.

Shoot me an e-mail if you want to swap tips, or share your voice here.

Let’s do this, together.