I love volunteering! It has been a part of my tradition for nearly 1500 years. In fact, I first started volunteering in the Ismaili community as a Shaheen Scout in Pakistan when I was just six years old. We helped people cross the streets, control of traffic, and bring people cold water during the hot weather, amongst other things. These were small acts of service but they laid a foundation for something that has informed everything I do. Most importantly, it has taught me that giving our time and knowledge to the communities in which we live is the best gift we can give society.
Over the past few years, I’ve been fortunate to have volunteered with some amazing non-profit organizations such as Aga Khan Foundation Canada. This was a wonderful experience. Once I left my volunteer position there to work with other non-profits, however, I was surprised to see how many of them weren’t able to do the great work they wanted to. This was reflected either in donor or volunteer retention, or both.
Having formally studied fundraising and philanthropy as well as communications in the non-profit sector, I began to wonder what else organizations had trouble with. It turns out, there are many things and all of them stem from some foundational problems. Here are a few tips I think will help non-profit organizations do well in establishing themselves.
Case for Support
A case for support is a basic articulation of the organization’s mission statement. The mission – probably the coronary artery of an organization – should address (a) the purpose, (b) business of the organization, and (c) principles or beliefs (values).
It is deceptively easy to believe that once written, a case for support is complete. Some organizations articulate only one or two of the three aspects of a mission mentioned above. Many won’t even look at their case for support once it’s written, let alone tweak it from time to time.
A case for support is the fundamental document that will remind you why your organization exists, why you’re there, why people should donate, and how to get them to donate.
A case for support will also identify and validate needs, programs and strategies, establish the organization’s competence, identify beneficiaries, resources required, methods of giving, and respond to the prospect’s desire for self-fulfillment.
Pro Tip: You will know your case for support is well articulated if you can use it as a standalone resource to create your proposals when pitching to donors. Of course, you still should be able to refer to external documents and statistics, but these should all be documented in your appendix. Your case for support will also be able to help you mirror your prospects’ business back to them through key messages in your document.
Geographical Proximity and Selection of Volunteers
To be fair, I don’t know if the following has ever happened with anyone before. I’m including it here since this was a major hinderance in a start-up non-profit. In my understanding, I think it is critical for team members to be able to meet when starting up. It is much easier for people to collaborate and divvy up tasks and brainstorm in person. Founding members need to be able to meet and discuss goals, objectives, strategies, and tactics.
Now I know you’d say that beggars can’t be choosers. But if you do your job right, people will want to volunteer for you. It’s a simple (or complex) matter of stewardship. Equally important is that portfolio conveners/directors get to pick their own volunteers. They know who they work well with, who would be interested, and who would do a great job! In this organization – which I will not name – volunteers for my team were being pressed upon me. It’s one thing to recommend someone for a volunteer position, but quite another when they’re placed in your team. Imagine not knowing a volunteer’s background or whether or not they will work well with you. Worse, imagine this volunteer being from a different city or state!
Selecting the Right Mix of Board of Directors
Having influential members on your board will be – bar none – your greatest asset. The reason you want influential members in the business and social communities is because 90% of your funds raised will come from these board members’ networks. These members are able to bring in high net worth donors that are capable of planned giving and are able to finance capital campaigns. This small group of people can become your greatest source of revenue and publicity.
Really spend time on getting the right mix here. Depending on the scope of your organization, it is a smart idea to have board members come from across the country in which you operate. Diversity is key here, it really is!
Developing a Holistic Communications Strategy
So there’s a saying that goes, “if you build it, they will come.” Maybe this was true once upon a time, but today, there are so many organizations competing for your attention that it is difficult – not impossible – to get the word out and reel prospects in.
A holistic communications strategy will include the channels you use to get your message out (website, social media accounts, direct mail, media relations, advertising and other marketing), the stories you will tell (stories of success are easier to sell because they motivate internal stakeholders as well as external stakeholders, because everyone wants to be part of success), the donors you will target (communitarians, devouts, investors, socialites, repayers, altruists, and dynasts), and the events you will conduct (annual or one-off).
Other things may go into your communications strategy depending on your organization type, its mission, and philosophy, but these are definitely the basics.
This is probably the longest sentence I’ve ever written; Whatever your communication strategy is, however, you want to ensure that you communicate with all stakeholders, internal and external, in a timely and regular manner. It is absolutely discouraging for donors, for example, to not find out where the money they donated last year went and how it was used. You must do this before soliciting for donations this year (think success stories).
Pro Tip: If you raise funds, one of the things you want to do is be able to tell the story that 100% of your volunteers, staff, and board members donated to the cause, putting their money literally where their mouth is. This donation can even be a token sum of $1, so long as they give, although, it would be ideal if members donated more, with board members donating the most from within the internal stakeholders.
Researching Government Regulations and Support
This goes without saying, but I thought I would include it here to emphasize its jugular importance. Depending on the type of organization you are, different government regulations may apply to you. Depending on the type of organization you want to be, you might want to be able to issue charitable tax receipts. Do your research. When you feel confident that you know enough, do a bit more. You want to ensure that you have your bases covered, especially when it comes to money. The taxman is distrusting and will come after you if you don’t have your books in order.
On the other hand, depending on the work you want to do, there may be government or private funding available to you. That funding and government support might determine whether or not you forge ahead with the work you want to do.
My professor, Shaun Lynch once told me that people give to people to help people. Actually, he said that at least once a week. More than 80% of Canadians give of their money and more than 40% volunteer their time and knowledge. Twenty-five percent of donors gave four fifths of all donations (Stats Canada has done some great research on volunteering and charitable giving in Canada). A healthy non-profit sector in any country is a sign of a healthy society. Volunteering, for example, brings about feelings of trust and social cohesion as mentioned in the report. Giving money gives people a sense of belonging and stake which in turn means that citizens are finely tuned to the idea that we share a common humanity.
If you’re a non-profit start up, or a veteran non-profit organization, thank you for your service to humanity. I would love to hear from you about your experiences and suggestions.