Insuring That Your Friends Are Your Friends

In a column written several months ago I wrote about “American Friends” organizations and discussed some of the problems and pitfalls of working with groups of supporters whose major purpose is to raise funds for overseas organizations. Recently a reader asked me to address the issue of how an organization can prevent itself from falling into the trap of problems and tensions between the overseas organization providing services and the American supporters who are raising funds to support those services. Prevention is more important than having to deal with challenges after the fact and this column will address how a “Friends” organization can be set up to avoid the difficulties and struggles that often occur.

The first question to ask is what motivates people to become involved in an organization whose main purpose is to provide financial support for an overseas non-profit organization? Often it has more to do with the supporters’ passions for the issue(s) addressed by the non-profit and the desires to address the identified needs in ways beyond just providing financial support. In terms of specific people and their involvement with non-profits in other countries, there may be a strong connection between the contributor and her family, and/or ethnic and/or cultural links to the country. We can see this in the support that Jewish communities around the world provide for Israel as well as other groups providing support in other countries such as Ireland, among many others.

The concern for the citizens of the overseas country and the passion that is felt for a particular need then act as the chief motivator in encouraging both financial support of the organization addressing the need and the desire to become more involved by joining a “Friends” group, becoming an active member, and possibly occupying a leadership position of that group. Whatever the level of involvement, what is clear is the altruistic concern for the provision of services and for improving the lives of the people in the respective country.

The second question we ask ourselves is, how this interest manifests itself in an appropriate and productive way for the “Friends” organization and for the agency providing the services in the overseas community. It is here that there needs to be a good deal of clarity in the minds of the leadership of the organization. Prior to moving to set up a “Friends” group the volunteer leadership, as well as the key professional staff, have to make a clear statement of their expectations of the “Friends” group and how it will function in tandem with the overseas organization providing the services. Although “Friends” groups do not generally become involved in policy or management decisions, they do need to feel that they are participating, in a real way, in the development and implementation of the needed services.

The point is not to assign “make work” to the people involved. There is a way to engage these supporters in a process that is focused on strengthening, expanding, and developing the agency’s role in the community as well as increasing its financial resources and insuring sustainability. This means developing roles for the “Friends” group that are meaningful and strengthen the group’s identification with the organization. This means moving beyond simply collecting checks and forwarding them to the agency; it requires very creative thinking and planning.

In addition to reinforcing the “Friends” commitment to the organization through visiting speakers and informational meetings, it is also important to provide options for a variety of roles that can be filled by volunteers; it is important to match the volunteers’ knowledge, skills, and abilities with the specific tasks that are appropriate for them and needed by the group. For example, members of a “Friends” group could form a relationship with the local media and encourage the use of press releases, interviewing agency professionals who may be visiting from the overseas country, looking for other potential organizations providing similar services that might be interested in developing cooperative agreements to share knowledge, expertise, and experience in providing services to the client populations in both countries.

The volunteers working in these areas would not only have to undergo some training but would also have to be provided with updated information on a continuing basis. This involvement would strengthen the commitment the volunteer has to the ”Friends” group and would reinforce the importance for them of not only providing financial support but also their playing an active role in encouraging other people to contribute to the organization. Since the nature of their commitment is beyond writing a check, or encouraging others simply to write checks, they will feel more committed to the entire enterprise.

By investing in the “Friends” group and by developing content-based roles for the members, the organization is ensuring that their supporters will not feel they are just “writing and collecting checks”. By developing a strategic plan to use the human resources in a way that strengthens the members’ commitment, the agency will benefit in both the short and long terms. At the very least the “Friends” will feel like they are a part of the “family” and less alienated from the overall purpose and services of the organization.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy 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.