Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during Sep/Oct 2002, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.

The trajectory of most nonprofits is as follows: three or four people decide to start a group. They want to stop a box store from coming to their community, send their children to a music camp, keep someone on death row from being executed, protest U.S. military involvement in any number of countries, or whatever. Unless their project is something that will begin and end within a limited time period, they will work hard as volunteers, raising money from their community, then write some proposals and try to get funding for staff. With one staff person, their work will expand until they see they need to hire a second one, and so on.

Much has been written about how groups that have staff can do fundraising, but all-volunteer groups or, understood more accurately, groups with only unpaid staff, have their own fundraising needs. This article looks at the steps for an all-volunteer group in forming, setting goals and priorities, and raising money and offers some principles to keep in mind.

To help articulate these steps and principles, I use an ideal group created from an amalgam of real organizations to illustrate best practices in all-volunteer organizations. Future articles will explore situations that don’t work quite so smoothly and how to meet other challenges.

“If money were no object, what would we do?” This question is one of the first any group should ask itself.


A small city of 50,000 people has an old, two-room school house built in the 1930s that sits on two acres of land at the edge of town. It is owned by the city and is the responsibility of the city council. It has not been used as a school house since the 1960s. During the 1970s and ’80s, the land was maintained as a park and the building was used for meetings, parties, and weddings. When the city built a nicer community center, the school house became a storage shed for the lawnmower and other equipment needed to maintain the acreage. By 1995, the park was rundown and had become a place for noisy parties, racing mountain bikes, and driving off road vehicles.

Ellen Schmerling grew up in this town. When she moved back in 1998, she was shocked to see how neglected the old school house had become. Her mother had gone to that school as a child and Ellen had attended many parties there as a teenager. She and three friends decided they would like to help “save the school house,” though none of them really knew what that would actually look like.

STEP ONE: Do your research and learn your options.

Many volunteer groups come together, like Ellen’s, with an idea of their mission, but no clear sense of how to go about accomplishing it or even what the best outcome might be. This is fine. In the beginning, you are not required to know exactly how you want things to come out beyond your general goal, but you need to gather information that can help you clarify your purpose.

After some research, Ellen and her friends discovered they weren’t the only ones interested in the schoolhouse property:

  • The Historical Society (also an all-volunteer group) was interested in getting landmark status for the building and making it into a museum. They wanted to restore the two-acre property to a park and picnic area with an outdoor display of old farm implements and other large items that had been donated to them over the years. Cost of this option to the Historical Society: upwards of $750,000 to restore the building and the park, plus ongoing maintenance of the museum and the land.
  • A developer had offered to buy the property, tear down the school house, and build five luxury homes on the site. Cost of this option to the Historical Society: zero cash, immeasurable loss of a potential historic landmark and open space.
  • The city council also had a proposal: They would sell the acreage to the developer, have the school house building moved to a vacant lot downtown, pay most of the building’s restoration expenses, and give the property and building to the Historical Society. They wanted the cash from selling the schoolhouse land as well as the hefty property tax revenues from the houses that would be developed. Cost of this option to the Historical Society: about $100,000 plus ongoing maintenance.

It becomes clear that they will need community input if they are going to have local support for the project.

STEP TWO: Decide how you want to make your decision.

Many groups start out thinking they can figure out how to proceed by themselves. After a while, however, it becomes clear that they will need community input if they are going to have local support for the project. This is what happened to Ellen’s group.

With the information from their research in hand, Ellen and her friends must decide what to do next: Do they join the Historical Society to help them save the school house, or do they work independently? If they join the Historical Society, how do they help the society decide how to proceed?

Ellen and her friends decide to throw in their lot with the Historical Society. This gives them a structure and a reputable, if tiny, organization to work with. The Historical Society operates on a budget of $20,000 a year, which they raise from members, from the sale of postcards, and through an annual tour of the most historic houses in the town. It is clear that two out of the three choices facing the Historical Society— renovating the school house and its property on site or taking it over once the city moves it— would require significant funding. To take either path would require the Historical Society to become a lot bigger. At the time that Ellen and her friends approach the society, the small group couldn’t imagine growing enough to take on either option; they had decided not to oppose the developer’s plans.

When Ellen’s group joins the Historical Society they become known as the “School house Project.” The enthusiasm they bring to the issue makes the Historical Society realize that they should at least try to save the school house.

They review what Ellen’s group has learned. Letting the city move the school house is by far the cheaper option for them in terms of restoration and ongoing maintenance. Furthermore, the downtown location may bring more people to the museum. Perhaps the developer would even help defray some of the ongoing costs as a goodwill gesture. Moreover, the city seems to favor that option.

On the other hand, the choice to restore the school house on its present site has the most historical integrity. Keeping the acreage in open space is appealing as the city grows and begins paving over and building on formerly open land. Thinking several generations out, restoring the school house and the land is the most attractive choice. Thinking more immediately, it is scary and possibly unrealistic to raise that much money in a town of this size. The group mulls over its choices at a number of meetings. At one, the discussion about how much money they can raise goes on so long that the group realizes they are not talking about the project at all, just the money. They ask themselves, “If money were no object, what would we do?” They have come to an important point: This question is one of the first any group should ask itself.

They affirm that their first choice would be to restore the school house in its current location. But they know that because the goal will be challenging to reach, they need to involve many more people in this ambitious campaign.

STEP THREE: Test the feasibility of your ideas with a small number of people who are not in your group. If you can, talk to people who will actually have some influence so that you can anticipate challenges and know who your allies are.

First, the Schoolhouse Project talks to the mayor and members of the city council. Would they put in some city money if the school house stays where it is? To their surprise, the council is divided. The mayor likes the idea of leaving the school house at its historic site, as do three council people. Three others are in favor of moving it.

Next, the project talks to the developer. Would he give the project money if they move the school house? Answer: Probably not. He doesn’t appreciate the significance of this “falling down old building.”

They talk to some of the wealthier and more generous people in the town. Would they donate to a school house project? Which location is more appealing to them? Most people lean toward wanting to keep the school house where it is. No one except the developer favors simply tearing it down.

In many volunteer groups, there is no need to do such extensive community research. The options are clear or the group has made a decision about what it wants to do. Sometimes, there is little time for debate. However, it is always best to take as much time as is needed to make a good decision and to get as many people involved as possible. This will increase all-important “buy-in” from the community.

Having money to do something you don’t want to do is actually worse than not having money to do what you do want to do.

After this “feasibility study,” the Schoolhouse Project decides to invite the community to a town meeting to talk about the options and see where the bulk of community support lies. Though it will entail a lot of work to clean out the school house and clear the grounds for the meeting, the project feels that being on site is the best way for people to see what is at stake. Ellen pays high school students to mow the grounds and a cleaning service to clean out the building. One of her friends gets her church youth group to do a quick paint job so the place won’t look quite so dreary. She donates the cost of the paint and brushes.

Principle One: Once you start spending money, keep track of all financial expenses, even if you never intend to be reimbursed.

Volunteers often disguise the cost of doing business by picking up the tab for things. At first, this may simply be coffee and donuts for a handful of people at a meeting, then a few stamps, some money in the meter during meetings, childcare, and so on. Perhaps none of these costs are significant to the person paying. However, other volunteers may be embarrassed to admit that they can’t afford such incidental costs. By keeping a careful and public record of who spent how much on what, you will know exactly how much your project is costing and people will be more accountable with what they buy. Many groups set a floor for reimbursement: once a person has exceeded $50 or $100 in costs the group agrees are legitimate, they will be reimbursed.

Often volunteers try to save money by doing all the work themselves. In this case, although Ellen is capable of cleaning the school house, she has other responsibilities with regard to the upcoming meeting and decides it is a better use of her time to hire the cleaning service.

Principle Two: Make sure you have plenty of public support for a big community fundraising project.

A committee of the Historical Society plans the meeting very carefully. It will last two hours, with Ellen introducing the evening, another member of the society giving a brief history of the school house and the location, and the mayor explaining the options. The audience will then be divided into smaller groups for discussion. In the second hour, participants will report back from their small groups and be able to ask questions, with answers and comments written on large sheets of easel paper.

The meeting is a great success. More than two hundred people attend; most sign in with their name and address as they enter the school house. The consensus of the meeting is that the school house should stay where it is and the Historical Society should raise the money to renovate it and fix up the grounds. At the end of the meeting, audience members are asked to sign up for the fundraising committee, with the understanding that everyone involved in the project will be expected to make some level of donation. Twenty people sign up to help with fundraising. Many others say that they will be “happy to help” but not with fundraising.

The Schoolhouse Project now has the beginning of a mailing list. It includes the names and addresses of people who were interviewed before the community meeting and people who signed in at the meeting. The project also has a clear community mandate for how to proceed; so far they have encountered little resistance.

Other organizations, working on more controversial projects, may find their community divided about what to do or may find the community is not that interested in what they are proposing. However if, like the Schoolhouse Project, the group takes time to discuss the issues, explore options, figure out costs, and so on, resistance or apathy will become apparent long before any large meeting.

Principle Three: Before beginning fundraising, be clear about program goals and in agreement about how much money is to be raised. Don’t separate fundraising from program.

This can be more tricky than it sounds. A group will sometimes barrel ahead with fundraising under the philosophy that “We’ll need the money sometime.” But, if program plans are not yet clearly defined and the members of the group have not agreed on what the money is specifically being raised for, such fundraising can backfire.

By creating the category “Buck Stops Here,” they built accountability into their plan.

In one organization, for example, a couple of members decided to start raising money before the board had established clear goals and objectives. They sent out a fundraising letter to friends describing the general idea of the group. They got a few donations, but hadn’t thought through who was going to send thank you notes, track names, or even who was going to deposit the checks. One member had a friend whose family had a small foundation. The foundation offered $5,000 if they received a short proposal detailing how the money would be spent, so the member wrote a proposal for what he thought the group should do. The funding put them on a path that did not have the full support of the membership, and required several tension-filled meetings to work out.

It may be hard to believe, but having money to do something you don’t want to do is actually worse than not having money to do what you do want to do. The latter problem can be solved by raising money, but the former problem is more difficult to solve.

STEP FOUR: After your first public foray, regroup, reassess, and recommit.

Though excited, the volunteers for the Schoolhouse Project realize that the project is a going to involve a lot of time. Plus, they are about to commit themselves to raising $750,000—something none of them know how to do. The volunteers at the Historical Society also realize that the Schoolhouse Project could dwarf all their other work and that if they proceed they are making a commitment to become a very different group than they have been all these years.

Ellen suggests that they meet together for a full day to think through what they will do. They agree and decide to meet at the school house. Ellen is worried that this work is taking too much of her time; she knows others in the group are also feeling pressed. Once there is a clear sense of what volunteers can do, it will be time to call the people who offered to help.

Ellen asks a colleague who is a professional conference planner to facilitate the all-day retreat. She leads the group through creating a fundraising plan, with a task list, a timeline, and a budget with a cash-flow plan. She helps them get a sense of how many more volunteers they will need to meet their goal, and what structures will need to be put in place to allow them to manage this project while maintaining their work and family lives.

With the decisions coming out of their town meeting and their planning meeting having detailed the work ahead, the Schoolhouse Project decides they are ready to move forward.

It is at this point that many volunteer groups fold up their tents and go home. Thinking about what they could do is very different from actually settling down to do it. Getting clear on the vision of the group, its mission, and goals is a critical piece of work, but now 90 percent of the work remains to be done.

STEP FIVE: When you feel overwhelmed, back up and look at the big picture; then decide what the first thing is you need to do, followed by the second thing, and so on. Divide the work into time-limited tasks as much as possible and assign clusters of tasks to ad hoc committees. Avoid creating standing committees, except for an executive committee that keeps their eye on the whole picture and ensures continuity and communication between and among the volunteers.

Here again it is tempting to dive right in—just do some things, knowing that they have to get done eventually. People delude themselves that activity is progress, that meetings are a sign of forward movement, and that being on the phone or sending lots of e-mails is the same as accomplishing something.

Fortunately, the Schoolhouse Project did not fall into that trap. They created a master list with these categories:


By creating the category “Buck Stops Here,” they built accountability into their plan. This is slightly different than having someone chair a committee or having someone agree to take on a piece of work. The “Buck Stops Here” person is saying that they take responsibility for getting the task done and know they are accountable for it.

For example, one identified task is entering the mailing list into a database. This involves finding a database they can use (the Historical Society’s mailing list program is not adequate) and seeing if the computer at the Historical Society is powerful enough for the program they select. Next they have to decide what information will go in the database, in what form (what the fields will be), and who will have access to the database. Three people offer to work on that series of tasks. They discover that the Historical Society’s computer is too old to be updated with a workable database program. A volunteer offers to load the database and enter the data onto her home computer, but the group wants to avoid the database being at someone’s house. They will need to buy a new computer or get one donated.

These are important decisions, but they do not involve the whole group. The group needs to have confidence in the decision makers for each task or set of tasks and someone needs to be in charge of making sure decisions are getting made and reported back to the rest of the group.

Ultimately, the database problem became the first task in the fundraising plan: find or buy a new computer for the Historical Society.

STEP SIX: Once you have your fundraising plan, start with something simple and easy to accomplish. The first step can be tiny, but people need to feel successful.

Often, a group taking on a big fundraising project will need to raise a little money just to get started. The Schoolhouse Project decides to have a bake sale with the goal of raising $2,000; this will also raise awareness of what they are doing and keep them in the public eye. They receive permission to sell baked goods in front of the hotel housing the Historical Society’s office. People who purchase baked goods are also asked to sign a sheet with their name and address and any expertise they would like to offer the group.

The bake sale is helpful in many ways. While raising $2,000, it also gives volunteers something easy to do (bake sales take a lot of work, but they are not conceptually difficult) and it gives a way for volunteers with a variety of skills to get involved. Plus it increases the mailing list and the list of potential volunteers.

Start with the person most likely to make the biggest gift.

STEP SEVEN: Get financial commitments from the people closest to the organization.

Meanwhile, the larger fundraising campaign is about to start. Those who will be asking for major gifts need to be able to tell prospects that they have financial commitments from everyone involved. In this case, because the project had made clear at the town meeting that all volunteers would be asked for money as well as time, they do not encounter resistance when they solicit donations from their volunteers. In fact, they are pleased when the total volunteer commitments come to more than $25,000.

STEP EIGHT: Provide adequate training and support to the fundraising team – especially for those who are new to fundraising.

Because the goal of $750,000 will not be raised primarily from bake sales, but from many gifts of all sizes, including some very large gifts (up to $100,000), the fundraising committee will need to get some training in asking for money. A member of the Historical Society knows the development director of a local arts group and asks him if he would conduct a training for the Schoolhouse Project volunteers. The training helps members discuss their anxieties about asking and takes them through the steps to a successful solicitation. Although a few of the original people who signed up to do fundraising aren’t able to attend the training, those who do feel much better about the work ahead.

Principle Four: Once you start fundraising, there will be disappointments as well as successes, and often volunteers will do less than they promise.

Ellen and three other people take on the task of going to see some of the prospective big donors they had talked to during their shirttail feasibility study. To get ready to see them, they make sure their budget figures are as accurate as possible and create a gift range chart. At the beginning of this phase of the campaign, the committee is full of enthusiasm. They make a list of ten major donor prospects and put them in an order based on the idea “top down, inside out.” In other words, they will start with the person most likely to make the biggest gift. This may not be the person mostly likely to make a gift, and it may not be the person who is able to give the biggest gift. It is the person who is most likely to say yes to the biggest gift because they are closest to the project or the cause.

They start with Ellen’s aging aunt and her daughter (Ellen’s cousin). Both these women have fond memories of the school and are pleased that the Historical Society has decided to take on the project and to leave the school on its original grounds. They make a significant pledge to the project.

Buoyed with that news, Ellen calls several times to try to make an appointment with a person she thinks can give a very large lead gift. He finally responds with a message that he doesn’t feel confident in the project.

Another member of the committee asking for donations receives a commitment of a major gift from one donor but is unsuccessful in getting appointments with anyone else; a third is unable to make the time to follow up with his contacts; feeling guilty, he stops coming to meetings.

Ellen calls to make an appointment with another prospect for a large donation, but the prospect says she feels this project is not a priority for the community.

At a fundraising committee meeting six weeks into the campaign, only about half of those who had attended the training have made their major donor calls. Ellen’s spirits begin to flag. She worries that they aren’t raising money quickly enough and that some of the people who volunteered to participate are flaking out.

Principle Five: To keep everyone involved, you have to encourage people to take breaks.

Though discouraged by a series of rejections, Ellen realizes she is taking them personally when they have nothing to do with her.

Ellen also needs to see if the project can run for a while without her daily involvement. She needs to let other people take leadership. She plans a two-week vacation, which the committee encourages. Though feeling somewhat insecure, they know that they have a plan and just need to work their plan.

Though this group would have maintained that it didn’t have the “expertise” to put together a proposal, they found that paying attention to who they knew was more important.

Principle Six: Fundraising is about building relationships. While Ellen is gone, her cousin (who had made a large pledge) contacts an old friend who has moved away but still has family living in the town. He is very excited to hear about the project and agrees to meet with members of the school house committee to discuss making a major gift. In addition, a member of the Historical Society contacts a close friend who works for the park service; this person also knows someone from the state arts council who attended the meeting at the school house. These three people meet and develop a joint proposal, which is rewarded with a joint matching grant from the park service and the arts council. Though this group would have maintained that it didn’t have the “expertise” to put together a proposal of this type, they found that paying attention to who they knew was more important. Part of this money is to be used to hire a coordinator for the project, who will also be the first staff person for the Historical Society.

At this point, our ideal group has made good progress, but needs to maintain momentum and focus. They have avoided the serious mistakes of many volunteer groups, but still have the challenge of keeping people engaged and active. If they stick with the steps and principles they have followed so far, they should be all right.

In fact, their best bet with the good news of the matching grant would be to return to Step One: Do Your Research and Learn Your Options. They will apply this step to learning what they need to do about hiring a staff person: What is the job? It is full- or part-time? What skills is the group looking for? Who is available in this town? How widely should the group search?

Answering these questions will lead them naturally to Step Two: Decide how you want to make your decision. And so on.