| 4 min read

The difference between your Volunteer Program and Your Major Gifts Program

Thoughts from my conversation with Breauna Dorelus at Connecting the Cause

When you think about the skills that make your major gifts program successful they include building relationships, earning trust, having a deep understanding of the donors needs, and ensuring that the encounter isn’t transactional. Urgency never plays a part in a successful major gifts program – boards, ED’s and the development team all understand that this program requires an investment of time and patience and successful outcomes are determined over a long range plan. 

But this urgency is built into and part of our organizations in other areas without the same understanding of the harm that the urgency causes. 

Oftentimes nonprofit leaders and board members – with no ill intent – sit around a room and discuss metrics in the community that they would like to “move the needle on”. They see areas in a community that they think need to be helped. There’s a food desert here, or a lack of literacy there. They feel a sense of urgency around going in and “solving” issues quickly – but this process is inadvertently causing harm to so many of the Black and brown communities that they are intended to support. 

When this practice is done – when we go into a community with a sense of urgency we go in with the intention of doing good and giving back, but what we take is the dignity, and respect of those we should be partnering with to make long standing changes. 

What if instead of this urgency, we use the same skills that are used in our major gifts programs and take time to hear what the communities are really looking for when it comes to volunteer engagement? What if we created volunteer programs that bake in time for building relationships, earning trust, having a deep understanding of the community needs, and ensuring that the encounter isn’t transactional? And how do we ensure that the community is always leading the way?

Breana Dorelus is my go to educator and leader when it comes to how to revolutionize your volunteer programs. We had an amazing conversation on my podcast, What the Fundraising, in Season 1 about how to move volunteer programs from transactional to transformational.

Here are some of my biggest takeaways from my episode with Breauna: 

  • Stop Serving Communities, Partner with Them: Nonprofits need to ask communities what issues they want addressed in their community and how. And not just with some quick survey. Allow them time to provide feedback on your programs and create time for relationships to be built. Co-create volunteer programs from a place of community and partnership and include a constant feedback loop. And compensate community leaders and participants for their time, energy, and expertise. 
  • Look at the root cause of the problem: Acknowledge what has been taken away to create the need for your nonprofit in the first place. Make sure that volunteers that are coming from outside of the community are being educated on the root causes and told the truth about why your nonprofit is needed. Share with your volunteers that the work being done isn’t to “serve” the community – but rather is a need the community members have self identified and how your organization is partnering with the community to meet the need. 
  • Stop Making the Experience About the Volunteers: When you recruit volunteers how do you speak about the benefits of volunteering? Do you share how it’s a great way to make friends? Or that it’s good for their health. That volunteering is a great way to give back to the communities that need help? So much of this language is baked in white saviorism and rooted in racial bias. And when we make the experience about the volunteers we take the community out of community work.  
  • Unless Your Fundraising is Designed as Truly Community-Centric Fundraising, Separate Fundraising from Volunteer Practices: If our funders are not the same people as our community, then we need to ensure that the development department is not overseeing our volunteer opportunities. Using volunteer opportunities as a pipeline for fundraising, shifts are focused from the community to the volunteers and centers the volunteers in the entire process. This is a natural occurrence because money = power. If you want to ensure community-centered volunteerism, and your fundraising is not community-centered, then those activities need to be separated.
  • Pay Your Volunteer Coordinators and Make Sure the Organization is a Safe Space to Support the Volunteer Work and their Leadership: Hiring someone from the ‘local community’,paying them less,  and then not giving them the support they need to effectively run their program is something we see way too often in the nonprofit sector. The volunteer coordinator often becomes a tokenized member of the staff team as well and isn’t supported in a safe and nurturing way. If you’re planning to integrate more community-centered volunteer practices, make sure you are setting up the infrastructure for success in your community, organization, and with your volunteers and staff.

All of these elements will help make community-based nonprofits and their volunteer programs a resource center for community dreams.

This is a major shift in the way many nonprofit programs are organized, but it is critical to have difficult conversations with our boards and funders about why these practices need to be shifted. 

When your volunteers leave at the end of the day your measure of success should be if they can go home to their tables and share – with empathy – about how the people they partnered with to solve a community need are hard working, dignified and worthy of respect. Are they willing to speak up the next time someone speaks disparagingly about that group? Are they willing to think about how their own biases and beliefs about the community have changed? And will they become advocates for the systematic and structural changes needed to right the generations of harm done to these Black and brown communities.

What is the point of a nonprofit’s existence after all?

This blog was inspired by the conversation with Breauna Dorelus, Founder and Chief Cause Consultant at Connecting the Cause from Season 1, Episode 12 of What the Fundraising. For more information on Connecting the Cause and Breauna’s work please www.connectingthecause.com/ and consider joining The Renewed Community – an effort to dismantle harmful service practices in ourselves and the spaces we serve.

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