Nonprofit organizations thrive when their fundraising campaigns is made up of knowledgeable, skillful, personable and enthusiastic volunteer solicitors. Of course the real challenge is developing a cadre of such volunteers who know how to best represent the agency and can approach potential contributors for support during the course of the year. Organizations that have their financial resource development (FRD) process usually have professional fundraisers working with them. However, the presence of a professional does not take the place of committed volunteers who are involved in soliciting people in the community.
Several decades ago the preferred way of fundraising for the Jewish community and Israel was known as back of the bus solicitations and would generally take place during a fundraising mission to Israel. The chairperson of the mission or the annual campaign would invite one of the mission participants to the back of the bus and then there would be a rather strong arm twisting approach to soliciting a contribution. The typical speaking points used to elicit funds for the organized Jewish communities focused on the threats to Israel’s survival and on combating anti-Semitism. This approach delivered the dollars, however, it also alienated the contributor in the process and did not result in the person being more committed to the Jewish community. During those years, the successful solicitor was judged by the amount of money raised and not by the strength of the donor’s commitment to the Jewish community.
Yes, it is true that there are some people who are “natural fundraisers” and they have the ability to engage with potential contributors and contributors. They understand the meaning of “engaging” someone in a conversation that is focused on the other person’s interests. During the course of the exchange, the skillful solicitor makes a connection between what is important to the contributor and the mission, purpose and services of the nonprofit organization.
This leaves organizations with the challenge of recruiting and training new people who will become an effective cadre of volunteer solicitors. What complicates matters is the fact that many people are not comfortable asking others for money. That is why the first step in the process is to reach out to people who are already involved and committed to the organization. The appropriate place to begin is reaching out to members of the Board of Directors. In all probability, these will be the most involved and committed people in the community.
Starting off with a small group of 5 or 6 people who either have experience in approaching people for contributions or are open to learning about soliciting others is a very good beginning. This initial group will become the core of volunteer solicitors for the organization and once they agree to participate in the fundraising campaign, there should be a seminar consisting of a series of training sessions. The sessions should focus on teaching them how to use their knowledge of and commitment to the organization to interest others in the work of the agency.
Just as important as their knowledge of the organization’s services is their ability to use their ability to consciously and purposefully engage with others. It is important for them to remember the most important statement in fundraising, “People Give to People and Not to Organizations.” It is easy to become so enthusiastic about the agency’s services that we forget we are trying to create a connection between our involvement in the organization and the person to whom we are talking. The training program has to focus first and foremost on helping the solicitor understand that their ability to form a relationship with the donor is the key to success.
Although there is an urge to want to share one’s enthusiasm for the agency with the potential donor, the solicitor must learn it is more important to be a good listener. The training seminar has to begin with a focus on the kinds of questions that can be asked to elicit responses from the potential donor. Following a discussion and perhaps the use of simulation exercises, the volunteer solicitor should focus on the development of their listening skills. It is only through careful listening that the solicitor forms a bond with the donor.
In the seminar, the solicitor must develop an appreciation for the solicitation process. For example, it may take several meetings for there to be a meaningful encounter between the solicitor and the donor on Jewish identity and the importance of Jewish Peoplehood. The solicitor may want to wait until the donor expresses an understanding of the importance of financially supporting programs in the community or in Israel that strive to strengthen the connection between young people and the Jewish community.
An integral part of a seminar should be assisting those volunteers who are reluctant to make actual solicitations for a contribution from the potential donor. It is not unusual for a volunteer to feel they do not want to stick their hand into someone else’s pocket. Asking someone to support a nonprofit organization has to be viewed as providing someone with a special opportunity to strengthen the Jewish community. The act of asking for the donation is an invitation for the donor to be part of the community and to share in the responsibility of ensuring its continuity.
Last but not least, volunteer solicitors should learn that successful solicitations do not always end with a contribution. The volunteer has to have a sense of the importance of their engaging potential donors and know that skillful solicitors learn from every encounter, discussion and contact they have with people. Just as we hope the donors will learn about the programs and services the organization provides, we also understand that solicitors develop their skills with time. Thus, the real challenge of training a volunteer solicitor is helping them understand that they will be continually learning and perfecting their ability to engage with potential donors.
Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.