Why do fundraisers ignore the people who love their cause the most?

Published by Malene Fregil on

And why you should aim to get fan mail. 

Volunteer_clip_art-300x152It’s striking: Fundraisers seem to completely ignore the people that love their organizations and causes the most:

Those who deliver your services, run your soup kitchens, dress up as polar bears in your campaigns, teach kids, visit the elderly, participate in your overseas projects, in short – volunteers.

You’re not sure they love you that much? Well, they might not love you, the fundraiser.

But they will have a lot of love: For the projects they give their time to, for the kids they teach, for their volunteer coordinator, for their fellow volunteers. For your cause.

But if you are fundraising for your cause, is it worth anything to you?

You bet, but fundraisers don’t realize it.

So your task number 1 is:

Go to a volunteer coordinator. Ask them to see their fan mail. The e-mails, Christmas cards, little handmade tokens of appreciation from volunteers who are simply grateful for the opportunity to give their time and skills to your cause. Grateful for their coordinator caring for them and enabling them to contribute in a deeply meaningful way.

That is a lot of love (and sadly, fundraisers tend not to get a share of that awesome fan mail).

And maybe you’ve been told by an old-school volunteer coordinator: “Don’t touch the volunteers. They already give their time. They shouldn’t be asked to give their money!” Not all volunteer managers are enlightened about fundraising, you see, even if they do get awesome fan mail.

Why any volunteer unit has decided that volunteers should not get the opportunity to give, beats me. Volunteers, when asked in the right way, understands your cause, your needs and your challenges in greater depth than anyone. Don’t allow coordinators to get in the way of volunteers giving money to your cause.

So your task number 2 is:

Please take your volunteer coordinator to lunch. Talk about your shared passion for the cause. Ask them to tell you about the volunteers. Who they are, what they do, what they mean for the organization. Talk a little about your job, and about how you strive to make donors feel wonderful about their donations. (And for God’s sake, pay for that lunch. That coordinator is most likely paid less than you!)

As you get to know your new-found organizational friend, remember this:

Fundraisers often say that other departments do not really understand what you do. But volunteer coordinators say exactly the same. And from experience, I can tell you that they are pretty intimidated by your statistics, your rigorous testing, your large numbers and your tribal language (ROI, median gifts, attrition…).

Because, in their job, they can’t measure their work in percentages. True, sometimes we try to calculate the value of our volunteering program in different ways. Whilst you are able to test, measure and improve your work, your volunteer coordinator can mostly only fail or succeed, or something in between. And then reflect on what she did and do better next time. And the difference between failure or success is not always what the coordinator does, the difference is almost always Alison.

Or Mukhtar. Or Martha. In short, the people – the volunteers – who make everything come together.

Volunteer coordinators do have systems, programs, plans, targets. But as a volunteer coordinator matures, through reflection on all those failures and successes and those projects that were in between, they learn that systems are just there because they are practical, and they learn to see who Martha is, or Alison or Mukhtar.

The truth is: You know a lot about your donors based on statistics and segmentation. Your volunteer coordinators know wonderfully complex people doing great things. Who still send fan mail to that coordinator colleague of yours.

So your new mutual understanding leads immediately to task number 3 (okay, it might take more than lunch, it might take a lot of work…):

Get your data sorted! Find out how many of your donors volunteer. Put them in a special file. Coordinate whatever you send out to them with the volunteer department. Communications to this group should always acknowledge that they volunteer as well as give. If your data system does not support this, you have a problem! If your data about volunteers is stored in the mind of your volunteer manager (and sometimes it is) – get it out!


Because volunteers retire. And die.

Eventually. And leave legacies.

My legacy will go to awesome organizations and projects that gave me special memories and life-long friends. And to one or two other organizations where my parents volunteered. I am presently on the donor file of none of them. I think I am not unique in this respect.

My hypothesis is: Loads of legacies come from your former volunteers. We know legacies are where the big money is.  You are presently ignoring the people who love you the most, even if they don’t give you much money right now.

What are the consequences for you, the fundraiser?

  • Volunteers should be celebrated and asked for donations in a special way, always acknowledging that they are or have been volunteers. They just won’t give generously if you don’t.
  • Volunteers should be loved eternally. There should be a special donor track or alumni program for them, so they continue to donate, soothing their conscience for quitting their volunteering. (Especially since the trend is more project volunteering and less long term, this is crucial!)

I’ve volunteered a lot, but I have only once experienced an organization where the fundraisers knew and appreciated that I volunteered as well as donated. What a great experience! I almost sent fan mail to that fundraiser!

I’ve yet to find an organization who still makes me feel awesome after I have quit volunteering with them. Could that organization be yours? 

Malene Fregil

Malene is a fundraising copy writer, educational consultant and volunteer trainer. She is passionate about great giving experiences. Malene is also co-author of two forthcoming Scandinavian books on volunteer management.


Paul Nazareth · November 4, 2013 at 05:43

What a great read, couldn’t agree more Malene. As a career legacy fundraiser I feel like a broken record telling organizations to “stop chasing names of rich people you read in the newspaper and look right under your nose at the donors who love you most”. I was once warned about spending “too much” time with older donors who “couldn’t be worth that much”.

A must-read for planned giving fundraisers, a good read for everyone in the profession!

    Malene Fregil · November 11, 2013 at 17:25

    Thanks Paul!

    Yes, it’s such a challenge for legacy fundraisers that it’s so hard to prove where the money comes from. How much do we get from “couldn’t be worth that much”-donors? And how much don’t we get from them because we don’t treat them right?
    We should be looking SO much more into this, really!

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