Enabling Volunteers to Do the Right Stuff

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.