Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during Sep/Oct 2009, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.
A FEW YEAR AGO I WROTE in a Grassroots Fundraising Journal article called “Lessons from the Other Side of the Table” about my experience of being solicited for a major donation by an educational program from which I had graduated. As a professional fundraiser who is usually the one doing the asking, I found the overall experience somewhat puzzling. The dean of the program, who had taken me out to lunch, neither solicited a gift nor asked me to volunteer, nor did he even ask for much information about me. There was no thank you note or follow-up conversation until several months after that meeting, when I received a letter from him inviting me to join the Capital Campaign Committee for the program.
In analyzing the interchanges from the lunch, however, I discovered truths about myself and other donors that have proven useful to my continued growth as a fundraiser—now going on 20 years. The continued experience of “sitting on the other side of the table” prompted this new batch of lessons learned.
The opening paragraph of the letter inviting me to join the Capital Campaign Committee explained the purpose, goal, and timeline of the upcoming capital campaign. The second paragraph named the co-chairs and listed the responsibilities of members, beginning with “attendance at meetings” where we would “address fundraising strategies and ideas.” This all seemed fairly standard, if a little roundabout for a letter I assumed would include a request for a major gift Finally came a sentence I found ludicrous in a letter whose goal was fundraising: “Frankly, we are less interested in your ability to contribute funds to the campaign than in your ability to influence others who can and will contribute.”
Although during my lunch with the dean I had made clear that I was not a seven-figure prospect and that I was not connected with many others in my small class, I was fairly sure by the less-than-personal tone of the letter that everyone on the committee—wealthy and influential alike—had received a letter with the exact same wording. This vague sentence, then, seemed disingenuous at best. Given that fundraising (there’s the F word) would be the primary mission of a Capital Campaign Committee, and a contribution an expectation of committee members, why not make that clear from the start?
I understand that, as a development professional, I am more comfortable talking about money than most people, but I’ve rarely found coyness to be effective with anyone. In fact, recruiting someone to a committee without spelling out the “real” responsibilities could be perceived as deceptive; at the least, it was not modeling good fundraising practice, especially in light of the committee’s purpose. How could one expect a Campaign Committee to be effective in influencing others to contribute if they weren’t contributing financially themselves?
An important principle when asking people to volunteer their time is to treat them with respect, which, among other things, means paying attention to their circumstances and their preferences. A few key encounters with this committee left me feeling that this was not the case here.
For example, the letter inviting me to join the committee also mentioned that teleconferencing for the meetings was an if travel to the campus was not possible. Being clear across the country in California, I knew I would prefer to phone in to meetings. The first meeting was scheduled for a Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to noon EST. I would need to be up and on the phone at 6:00 a.m. for three hours. Aside from the frightening prospect of a three-hour weekend meeting, I felt that I and others calling in from whatever other time zones had been overlooked during the planning. When I inquired, the development staff assured me that it was okay if I couldn’t participate, which only exacerbated the feeling that my attendance was not that important. In the end, I opted not to call in.
A second indication that no one was paying attention was the letter I received a month later thanking me for my attendance at the meeting.
A third sign of disrespect was the persistence of correspondence referring to me as Susan, despite my requests to be addressed as Sue. Although the dean and the development staff called me Sue, the salutation on my recruitment letter and all correspondence throughout was “Dear Susan.” A small annoyance, but still annoying.
When I received my volunteer packet, I was amazed and intimidated by the number and length of the contents. The packet contained a loose-leaf binder with tabs labeled Introduction, Duties and Responsibilities, Constituencies & Philosophies, Operating Policies, Timetables, Pro-Forma Financials, Organization and Contact Info, all followed by explicit materials related to each. Duties and Responsibilities included a job description for Campaign Committee members that listed as its last requirement “Makes a personal major gif commitment to the campaign that is in keeping with their means and is at a level consistent with the expectations of the committee.” There was a standard case statement and another “case statement” in the form of a letter from the President. The 16-page Campaign Communications Plan detailed every written and electronic communication planned and its purpose. There was also a two-page Procedures for Documenting New Gif Commitments with forms labeled ‘For Internal Use Only,’ and the Endowment Spending Policy was explained in detail, including copies of the resolutions establishing the policy. I wondered if I was expected to read, let alone, remember, all the information. It felt as though the campaign staff were so busy “showing their work” they didn’t consider what a volunteer really needed to do the job. I suppose there might be someone who would be reassured by all the thought behind the effort, but it made we want to hide the package in a desk drawer and ignore it, which is ultimately what I did. In this era of electronic communication, a compromise would have been to send a list of all the documents that had been prepared, direct volunteers to a special page on the website, if they wanted to read them, and offer to send hard copies if desired.
A volunteer leader in a fundraising position has to be recruited very carefully and screened for fundraising savvy and overall reasonableness and maturity. That step did not seem to have been taken for this committee.
During the first conference call I attended, it became clear that one of the co-chairs had both a dominating style and one that did nothing to encourage participation or contribution from the other committee members. He mentioned his own “significant” contribution several times, with what seemed to be increasing resentment. Even though the staff introduced me as a fundraising expert in higher education and campaign fundraising (I had called the development staff before the meeting to offer my support), the co-chair systematically ignored my comments and suggestions—as well as everyone else’s.
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Although the co-chair readily admitted he was not a fundraising expert, he then proceeded to act like one. He decided that the next step needed was to send a letter to all graduates to “launch” the campaign, explaining its purpose in detail and soliciting funds. Despite the latter aim, the letter was curiously indirect and did not actually use the F word. I felt that the letter’s water downed state would at best confuse and bore people and at worst pre-empt any major gift from alumni who were seriously thinking about making them—I could imagine a $10,000 prospect sending in a check for $1,000 in response to this appeal. Rather than spending his precious time making phone calls or visits, the co-chair spent hours nitpicking with the other committee members and staff about the language of his letter.
In desperation, the development staff asked the vice president for development to weigh in. After first asserting that a letter should not even be sent (this advice was soundly rejected), the vice president provided a heavily edited letter that only succeeded in making the co-chair more defensive. His stubbornness and petulance were qualities that should have been discerned during the recruiting process and perhaps disqualified him for the co-chair position.
Leadership There will always be volunteers with dominant personalities, but as long as they aren’t completely unreasonable, I’ve found them willing to accept the development staff as the fundraising expert and to look to the staff for guidance. Establishing your credibility—respectfully—is necessary to keep a committee comfortably moving forward. Phrases like, “I’ve (or we’ve) always found that,” or “Generally speaking, [insert fundraising truism here],” go a long way in steering volunteers toward the most effective decision.
When I am staffing a group, I often stage-manage the conference calls, asking one of the more respected members who “gets it” beforehand to weigh in on an issue I think might become contentious. This is not to silence any questions or dissent, but to ensure a productive, upbeat meeting and a successful campaign.
Every campaign event should be analyzed and supported for greatest success. In this instance, the calendar of regional events planned for the campaign included my region, the San Francisco Bay Area, despite its relatively small number of graduates. As the sole campaign committee member in the region, I was asked to “host” the event, lend my name to the invitation, and help advise on the event venue.
It’s difficult to draw a crowd to a campaign-focused event, but a strong local personality, with follow up from the development staff can pull together enough people to make a respectable occasion. Unfortunately, as the staff knew from the beginning, I was not a strong local personality, and we really didn’t have the numbers of alumni to compensate. Nonetheless, I did my best. I was able to dissuade the dean from holding the event at the newest (and most expensive) venue. The response to the invitations was lukewarm. As a development staff member, when I’ve seen a low number of positive RSVPs to an event, the first thing I do is get on the phone. I never want a volunteer to feel responsible for a low turnout. Despite my increasingly desperate phone calls with the staff there was only last-minute outreach, resulting in only 14 yes responses, which was deemed not enough to go through with the event. I couldn’t help feeling that I had failed— not an inspiring emotion for a volunteer.
Nothing will kill enthusiasm faster than the negative rumor mill. Any rumors must be caught in early stages and discussed and clarified—especially with volunteers whose fundraising efforts are affected.
Right after our second committee conference call, rumors began circulating about the possible dissolution of the educational program for which we were raising money. In the age of listservs and blogs, not addressing such rumors meant they only grew louder and more paranoid. After that second conference call, staff were expected to follow up with each committee member to make prospect assignments. That never happened; in fact, everything just stopped. The official silence regarding the campaign’s progression, or suspension, was baffling and frustrating.
Given that their own jobs were on the line, I understood that staff would not think first of communicating with volunteers —especially when nothing was certain. But if ever there was an opportunity for a rallying cry, this was it. Because the reasons for the dissolution were financial, if the committee were charged with making—and soliciting—stretch commitments based on the restriction that the program continue, it would communicate to the administration that there was support behind the program. However, such a strategy did not occur to those of us on the committee at the time; if staff thought of it, it never reached the volunteers.
After several months of confusion, the committee co-chair unilaterally called for a temporary postponement of fundraising activities until the question about the program’s existence was decided. For once, I was in agreement with him.
Just after the campaign was publicly launched, the dissolution of the program was confirmed via a letter from the new president of the school but containing no real explanation. By that time, because of the electronic rumor mill, the alumni all knew it was going to happen. Because the program itself was my primary motivation for supporting the institution, I was unlikely to want to donate again, and I wondered if those who had already given or pledged to the campaign would want their contribution returned.
So ended my foray into fundraising for one of my alma maters. Although I felt I had met the program half-way in trying to help it raise money, I also realized how easy it was to slip into a passive role as a volunteer, looking to the staff for guidance.
This experience hasn’t turned me off from donating or volunteering entirely, but it has made me conscious of the importance of staff keeping the focus on fundraising, expressing clarity of purpose from the beginning to all volunteers, and above all, being mindful about what is happening on both sides of the table.