Enabling Volunteers to Do the Right Stuff

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Once a development officer told me, “I’ll be damned if I’ll follow up with board members. They’re adults and said they would do these things. So they should just do it.” Well, that person isn’t going to make it as a development officer. Such naïveté. Such arrogance.

Competent development staff effectively enables their board members to help do fund development work. Effective chief executive officers competently enable their boards and board members to do governance. And excellent leaders enable their staff to learn and develop and succeed.

I’ve written about enabling before, back in a 2009 column. I first wrote about enabling in the first edition of my book Strategic Fund Development: Building Profitable Relationships That Last. And I added more to enabling in the third edition of Strategic Fund Development.

I think this is extraordinarily important stuff, this enabling. Early in my nonprofit career, I was told I had to manage volunteers and help them do stuff. Most of the stuff these volunteers had to do was stuff they weren’t too keen on doing. And the stuff wasn’t always easy to understand or execute. Honestly, I wasn’t so good at enabling them then. Actually, I hadn’t articulated the concept of enabling yet. I was still floundering with, “Your job is to manage volunteers and get stuff done.”

I knew what I wanted the volunteers to do as board members doing governance or board members doing fund development. And I realized I was supposed to be the most knowledgeable about these topics so I made myself an expert as fast as possible. But still, I couldn’t just direct them. I couldn’t just tell them to do stuff and then leave them alone, abandoned, without support (and directing and telling them didn’t work so well, either).

So eventually, I articulated my concept of “enabling.” I know that some people don’t like that term, “enabling.” But it’s still the best word I could identify for the process of empowering others. Enabling means giving people the wherewithal, opportunity, and adequate power to act. Synonyms for “enable” include “invest,” “endow,” and “authorize.” Synonyms for “power” include “ability,” “influence,” “capability,” and “authority.” When you empower someone, you distribute and share your own power. Power shared is power multiplied.

Enabling depends on reciprocity, relating, and connecting. Enabling encourages participation, shares responsibility and authority, enhances the self-worth of others, and energizes everyone in the organization. Enabling is a value-driven philosophy that invests influence and responsibility in all parties. Enabling produces the optimum performance from individuals or groups. And there’s another result: Enabling allows your volunteers to succeed, using their own power. The advantage? They may well volunteer for you again.

I’ve defined 19 enabling functions. I’ll talk about a few functions in my next few columns. What I’m asking you to do is look at yourself in the mirror. Ask yourself: How effective an enabler is that person in the mirror? How often do her board members and fundraising volunteers compliment her as “the best nag around?”

Examine yourself. Compare your performance to my detailed descriptions in the third edition of Strategic Fund Development. Hire good enablers. Develop staff to be better enablers.

So here’s one enabling function: Encourage people to question organizational and personal assumptions and ask strategic and cage-rattling questions. This enabling function depends on good conversation as a core business practice. And meaningful conversation—another enabling function—is essential to effective organizations.

Enablers encourage people to ask questions and challenge the way things are always done. Enablers create an environment where this is accepted and expected practice. The confident enabler accepts questions as part of healthy dialogue. She does not consider questions to be criticisms or accusations. The consummate enabler welcomes this challenge on the part of volunteers and believes that the best solutions, plans, and outcomes result from this curiosity and interest.

But beyond accepting questions, the enabler encourages them. The enabler actually instigates questioning at every opportunity. The enabler knows that the functions of communications and questioning produce good decision-making and quality decisions. The enabler uses ongoing conversation to help people question.

For more information about enabling, see my book, Strategic Fund Development: Building Profitable Relationships That Last, 3rd edition.

  • Pam McGrath

    I agree with the basic premise, however, development operates closely with the CEO. If a CEO is threatened by “staff Board members challenging the status quo” it is not wise for development to get out in front. We are talking about nonprofit organizations — management technique is not a strong suit in many of these organizations.

  • Danielle Procter

    here here! I fully agree. Enabling can also have financial benefits – having ‘enabled’ teams of clinical staff we saved over £1m in 6 months through productivity gains and effective management (all driven and delivered by the staff themselves) all we had to do was share the ‘power’ and unblock the blockages!

  • Heidi Sandberg

    This concept “enabling” is wonderful and works exellent in a Swedish context (where I work). In my country 48% of the adult population works voluntarily 16 hours a month – within all spheres of society. This leel of engagement is based on concepts of empowerment, , membership, and freedom from the political arena of the organisations within civil society. As the need for volunteer engagement is constantly growing, and an incorporation of businesslanguage (effectiveness, management, running etc) into many organizations we do run the risk of aiming for efficiency to such an extent that we loose empowerment. So heart-felt thanks from me for bringing these issues to the discussion of the role of the volunteer manager.

  • Simone Joyaux

    How wonderful to see our colleagues elsewhere in the world reading the Nonprofit Quarterly – and sharing your experiences and expertise. Philanthropy is a global phenomenon. And fundraising outside the U.S. and North America has so much to offer. Thank you.

    Danielle, I like your statement of “sharing the power and unblocking the blockages.” Good enablers unblock blockages. Yes, indeed. Heidi, what an admirable volunteer rate you have in Sweden. I’m glad this article resonated with you.

    Pam reminds us that effective enabling (which is a key component of leadership) is hard work. Also, empowering others can be scary. But without empowerment, there is not as much commitment or investment or cooperation or or … All the good leadership books and articles talk about empowering employees. The same holds true of empowering volunteers. And, most definitely, empowering board members. The board is legally and morally accountable for the health and effectiveness of the corporation, whether for profit or nonprofit.

    Yes, development works closely with the CEO. And a good CEO hires effective enablers. And a good CEO is him/herself an effective enabler. And the effective fundraiser enables his/her CEO to understand all this.

    And, the best management theories all include questioning the status quo. That, too, is what a leader does. Take a look at my book Strategic Fund Development, 3rd edition. As I mentioned, that book includes a lengthy chapter on enabling. The book also includes a lengthy chapter on the fundraising professional and his/her scope of work. And there’s a chapter on leadership, too.