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Season 1, Episode 29

While delighting the donors in your campaign is important, don’t overlook the importance of making your campaign volunteers feel great. In today’s episode, Amy and Andrea welcome capital campaign expert Sarah Plimpton talk about the challenges of keeping campaign volunteers engaged. The way you treat your campaign volunteers will set the tone for your campaign now and in the future.

 

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This podcast is the fourth of a special Summer Series featuring our immensely-experienced Toolkit Advisors. Our live webinars will return in mid-August; learn more at ToolkitTalks.com.

Amy Eisenstein:
Welcome, and hello, and thanks so much for joining us. I’m Amy Eisenstein. I am CEO and co-founder of the Capital Campaign Toolkit here in sunny, central New Jersey. And I am today with my co-founder Andrea Kihlstedt, and we’re going to introduce our guest in just a minute.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Yes, I’m Andrea Kihlstedt. I am a co-founder of Capital Campaign Toolkit and I am calling in from the south Bronx in New York. I’m super happy to be here.

Amy Eisenstein:
And today we are super excited to have one of the Capital Campaign Toolkit advisors with us as a guest. We have today, Sarah Plimpton, who has joined us recently as an advisor for the Toolkit.

Amy Eisenstein:
Sarah, why don’t you just take 30 seconds and introduce yourself?

Sarah Plimpton:
Thank you, Amy. And thank you both for having me today. It is a pleasure and a delight to be here. I’m Sarah Plimpton, and I am calling in from Portland, Maine, where it is chilly at the moment. And let’s see, I have been in the capital campaign business for about 20 years and have been intimately involved in many campaigns over that time frame, and I’m delighted to be with the Toolkit now.

Amy Eisenstein:
Excellent. All right. So before we get to today’s topic, I’m just going to share a little bit about the Capital Campaign Toolkit for anybody who’s not familiar. We are a support system for nonprofit leaders running capital campaigns, and we would love to help you with your campaign. If you are thinking about, or getting ready, or planning for a campaign, please go ahead and visit the Capital Campaign Toolkit website, where we have tons of free campaign resources and opportunities to sign up to speak to one of our experts to answer any of your campaign related questions.

Amy Eisenstein:
All right. So today we are going to be talking about delighting and managing volunteers.

Andrea, why don’t you kick us off, and get you and Sarah started on the topic?

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Yes. I love this topic of delighting and managing volunteers. In fact, I love the idea of delighting people. I love the idea of delighting partners, and friends, and children. It’s a skill that the better we get at it more broadly, the better life goes. And it’s also true, I think, of capital campaigns. That effectively designed capital campaigns use and involve a lot of people as volunteers. And it is super important that they feel good about doing that.

The Magic of Delighting Campaign Volunteers

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Now, Sarah has had a lot of campaign experience, both as a consultant and inside organizations, so she is intimately familiar with the process and the magic of delighting volunteers.

Sarah, why don’t you tell us about your experience?

Sarah Plimpton:
Yeah, I think it’s a great topic. And I think in campaigns there’s often a tendency to think about delighting donors, which is obviously very important and something we do need to be thinking about. But there’s also great utility in thinking about delighting volunteers, because they are oftentimes the best vehicle by which we can deepen our relationships with donors.

So I’ll tell a story about a campaign that I worked on where the campaign prior to the one that I was working on, which had happened maybe seven or eight years before I was involved in this organization. This campaign that had happened many years ago met its goal. So it hit its top line objective, but it took seven or eight years to get there, and volunteers were tired at the end of that campaign.

Amy Eisenstein:
Yeah. That’s a long campaign. We try and get people to wrap up in three years for that very reason. It’s a long time to have volunteers working on something for seven or eight years, right?

Sarah Plimpton:
Yeah. Very long time. And there had been lots of valleys, shall we say, in that seven or eight years. There were a lot of times when things weren’t going so well, and there wasn’t a plan and volunteers weren’t tasked well.

So fast forward another seven or eight years, that campaign is in the rear view mirror, and I was involved with this organization, helping them get ready for the next thing. And when we started, it was fascinating to encounter the institutional memory of that experience, seven or eight years ago. And it lasted. There was this, “Oh, fundraising is so hard, and we don’t really want to do it, and campaigns are awful.” Sort of this just hesitation to be involved in campaigning, which made starting that next campaign that much harder.

Sarah Plimpton:
And for me, it made me really feel like we have to get to the end of this campaign, and as a sub goal, we need volunteers to feel the exact opposite, excited about what they’ve just helped us accomplish, enthusiastic about fundraising, willing to do more, not exhausted.

Amy Eisenstein:
Yes. So, Sarah, tell us. How did you do it?

Sarah Plimpton:
Well, I don’t know that I did it single-handedly, but I really tried at every step of that campaign to think about, what is the experience of each volunteer working with my office?

Andrea Kihlstedt:
So, Sarah, give us some specific examples of that.

Sarah Plimpton:
Yeah. So thinking about you have your first committee meetings, and I could tell that some of my volunteers were terrified of fundraising. Loved the mission of the organization, believed in the campaign and believed in its goals and outcomes, but were really wary of fundraising.

And I knew that I needed to spend a little bit more time with some of those volunteers. I needed to manage each volunteer differently. Some people were raring to go, had solicitation experience under their belt from past efforts elsewhere. And I needed to give those volunteers different things than I needed to give some of the volunteers who were a little bit more skeptical.

So, I think really meeting each volunteer where they are in any given moment. I think about staffing volunteers, which takes so much time and so much attention to detail, but really pays off.

So, a committee meeting would end and I would make it a point to have the next day and a half on my calendar cleared so that I could be writing follow up notes for each volunteer, giving them talking points for their assignments, making sure that within 24 or 36 hours, I was giving to each volunteer, “Here’s your list of people that we’ve discussed, and we have a strategy for. Here’s a recap of what that strategy is. Here’s their phone number, their email address, and here are some talking points.”

Amy Eisenstein:
Yeah. I think it is really about providing volunteers with the tools that they need to be successful, and not making an assumption that they know what they’re doing, or they know how to do it. And it is a ton of work on the side of the staff, but the more you can prepare your volunteers in advance, and after the fact, after a meeting, before meetings, the better it will go. And then really leverage your campaign because you’ve got so many more people working on it.

Andrea, what are your thoughts?

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Well, I think all this is really good and a great thing for everyone to keep in mind. What are the things you need to do in order to facilitate every volunteer so that they can do their job successfully and in the best way possible? And I think, Sarah, you point to the details and the specific things that you can do in order to make that happen.

I think about delighting people in a slightly different way, which isn’t to say that it replaces it. I think in addition. And that is that I think that people are generally delighted when they think someone has actually seen them, and has noticed what they have done well.

And Amy knows that I really believe in that as a strategy for life. It’s very easy to notice people when they’ve done something bad, or not done it well, but we tend to let go when people do things well. We tend not to call that out. It’s easy to call out negative stuff. It takes more attention to call out positive stuff.

And my experience is that if you or anyone involved in the campaign gets in the habit of noticing and calling out the good stuff, the, “Gee, Jill I saw that you made all your calls in a remarkably short period of time. That really sets the standard for us. Thank you so much for doing that.” Even all she did was to do what she said she was going to do, she’s going to feel special. She’s going to feel like she was treated really well.

Sometimes in the Capital Campaign Toolkit, we actually spend a lot of time thinking about how to delight our members. And periodically, we really do. We send them things.

Recently, we sent a couple of members the little boxes of Godiva chocolates because they had done… We had one client that all of a sudden they had a really big gift after a very difficult period in our campaign. And we sent her some goodies. She was totally bowled over because it was unexpected.

So I guess the other thing I’ll touch on, then I pass it back to you, is the notion that when things are unexpected, they are delightful. That it’s one thing to get a proforma thank you. “Thank you so much for your help with the capital campaign,” or, “Thank you for going to solicit so-and-so.”

But when you get something that is not what you expected, it has a little more air of delight and excitement to it.

Amy Eisenstein:
So Sarah, what are some other tips and tricks that you use for managing volunteers or delighting volunteers?

Sarah Plimpton:
Yeah. Andrea, I completely agree with everything you just said. I think that is spot on. I think that every once in a while, write a handwritten note to your volunteers just saying, “We wouldn’t be where we are toward the goal of this campaign without you.”

And to your point, Andrea, call out something great that they’ve done or that they’re working hard on. Those things really, really do matter and make a difference. And I think when people feel like you see their effort and appreciate their effort, they’re that much more willing to keep going and give more, and do more, take on more than they perhaps might have imagined that they would take on.

One of the things that I loved by the end of that campaign that I started out referencing, was some of the volunteers who I began the campaign with, by the end of it, were almost running at my speed in terms of strategy. We could almost speak to each other in shorthand, where you don’t need to hold people’s hands quite as much because you’ve supported them so well, they start to think like fundraisers in a different way, which I think is really what you want. And they feel quite empowered to think and act that way, which is lovely.

A Remarkable Story About Delighting Volunteers

Andrea Kihlstedt:
This conversation has brought me back to a remarkable story about delighting volunteers.

Years ago, I worked on a hospital campaign and one of the co-chairs was a remarkable woman who had been a nurse and had been involved in that hospital for a great many years. And she really took the bit for this campaign. She worked tirelessly for a long time making the campaign successful. I don’t know how many, two or three years. And she would solicit gifts, and she would be dug in and determined. Everything you would hope for in a volunteer.

And at the end of the campaign, which was very successful, the board, I think with the encouragement of the development director, wanted to do something special for her to make her feel special, her and her husband. So the board took up a collection from among them to raise money, to send them on our all-expenses paid trip to Italy, where they had always wanted to go. That’s what they did. They presented it to her at a meeting. She knew nothing about it, and it was a 10 day, all expenses paid trip to Italy.

Amy Eisenstein:
All right. So that’s an extreme example. We don’t have to come up with examples like that. Not everybody’s going to do that. But let’s talk about things that you can do. A 10-day trip to Italy sounds heavenly, but let’s talk about things that are probably more realistic, more practical, more cost-effective, ways that you can still delight, and inspire, and genuinely thank your donors.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Yeah, but Amy, let’s not dismiss this so quickly because there’s actually some profound stuff. Clearly that isn’t going to happen with every campaign. I got that. But the effect of it was that every board member who gave to make that trip possible felt great, and special, and excited to have been part of this campaign, and excited to be part of recognizing what this woman, with everyone else, had achieved.

So, while it maybe feels like an outlier, the reality is that if you get other people involved in thanking and acknowledging, and making other people feel special, they feel special too. It’s not to be dismissed and it is extreme, for sure, but it has some powerful lessons in it, I think.

Amy Eisenstein:
Yeah. I think that’s true.

Leadership Celebration Events

Sarah Plimpton:
So on some campaigns that I’ve run, at transition points in the campaign phasing, when we finished the quiet phase or the leadership gift phase, and we’re moving down the gift chart, if it’s appropriate culturally, I’ve had small little events for our leadership where it’s not a donor event. It’s just for the leadership of the campaign at that juncture where we might have a catered lunch. And instead of an all business campaign meeting, we might have a catered lunch, social time with each other.

The executive director or CEO might say, “You all are working so hard for us. We are so grateful. We’ve made a ton of progress. We wouldn’t be here without you. There’s a lot of work still to come. We’re taking this moment mid-campaign to pause, to celebrate as a group of leaders, what we’ve accomplished and to just take a breath right now.”

And that has really been a lovely thing to do, to not be, go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go the whole way through.

Amy Eisenstein:
Yeah, I think that’s a great point is to chop up your campaign into milestones and really celebrate as you accomplish each milestone. Because if you do wait to the end of the campaign to celebrate, you’re going to be waiting a couple of years in most cases. And so I think that’s a really good point. I like to celebrate accomplishments big and small. So whether it’s somebody, as Andrea mentioned, made some thank you calls or wrote some thank you notes, and of course, scale the celebration based on what the accomplishment is.

Amy Eisenstein:
But if you have a volunteer who successfully asked for their first gift, you had better celebrate that and acknowledge that.

And you want to be careful if you’re acknowledging every single thing, it probably will get to the point where it sounds disingenuous. So pick and choose. But I think it is so important to acknowledge, both as a group and individually. And really the more specific you can be in terms of what you’re grateful for and thankful for, I think the more effective and powerful it is.

When you say to a whole group, “We couldn’t do this without you,” that’s true, it’s wonderful. But if you can pinpoint specific things that each member has done, it becomes even more effective because they know that you’ve taken the time to think about them in a personal and specific way.

Keeping Volunteers “In the Know”

Andrea Kihlstedt:
There are a couple of other things that come to my mind about this topic.

One of them is really quite simple, and I think underused, and that is, people are often delighted when they are in the know before other people. Sharing information early, confidential information, or clearly information that can be shared, but information before it is public knowledge, before it’s even known by the broader committee, makes people feel delighted that you would take the time to email me or call me and say, “I thought you might like to know that this gift just came in and it’s so exciting. Here’s what it has done.”

Just to call like that makes people feel like you thought about them. You saw them. They are insiders. We all like to be insiders.

So, I think people who are running volunteers, who are working with volunteers should keep a list, write an easy to access list of people that they might want to give early information to. And they should scan that list and say, “Well, who should I be telling about this now?”

And it’s very easy to forget to do that because you’re in the heat of everything else.

It’s very simple, but I think remarkably powerful, in a surprise sort of way.

Sarah Plimpton:
What you just brought up for me, Andrea, I love that. I love that point you just made. People also like to be successful. Success feels good. So are we being really deliberate and thoughtful about setting our volunteers up for success? So you have a new excited, but perhaps a little bit timid fundraiser. This might sound obvious, but don’t give them for their first assignment, a bulldog donor. Let’s give them a couple wins early on because that is going to make them feel good.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Right. I think that’s so important.

Setting Volunteers Up for Success

Amy Eisenstein:
That’s a good point. So, I was just saying to someone they were asking me not for a campaign specifically, but for just general major gift fundraising, they said, “Who should I start with?” I said, “Start with people that are going to say yes.”

So same thing with your volunteers. Don’t set them up for failure. Why would they ever want to do it again if they don’t get the first gift?

So yes, Sarah, I love that point. Make sure that they’re set up for success.

Sarah Plimpton:
And I also think that it applies… I mean, that’s a very micro example on a prospect level. But on a macro standpoint, it also applies in that, and I think that The Toolkit does this brilliantly, not having one campaign committee that is a monolith that runs through the whole campaign where when you recruit, you’re asking people to commit for two years or three years of their life. That is a bear of a commitment. But rather stacking your campaign committees as a series of shorter, tighter, more focused bodies where you may end up having a good handful of people that cycle through every single one of those committees, but you’re preserving them.

You can make a choice to let the people go who’ve kind of expended the energy they’re going to expend on your campaign and you can do so happily. They can walk off happily having done the thing you asked them to do in a short chunk. You can also re-recruit somebody who still has gas in the tank.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Yeah. I think that really works so well when you think about using volunteers that way. For short term specific assignments, and then thanking them and celebrating them. Actually the end of every committee, you could use it for a mini celebration. If you’re together, you can have some bubbly, you can actually go around the table and talk about what everybody did. I’m a big fan of funny awards. I know not everybody does that. And it actually takes a fair amount of work to do it and to do it well.

But I have, several times in my career, actually encouraged people, and seen the idea of funny awards work. So where you look carefully at what someone has accomplished, and then you come up with a funny award. The Marilyn Monroe award for the most glamorous solicitor who has raised money for so-and-so. If you have some creative people to think about that, you can actually create little art awards, little awards. And it has a particular resonance to it when it is creative, as opposed to just an official plaque.

When somebody has really noticed what you’ve done and come up with something that captures that as a special award. But it takes some doing, it takes the right collection of people who have that kind of creativity. But I have seen it work wonderfully well.

Amy Eisenstein:
I think as a default, if you can connect the mission with the thank you, it’s always a nice touch. I’ve worked with a soup kitchen that also has a culinary school that’s training people for on-the job training. And during cookie week when they’re teaching people to make cookies, oh boy, every donor gets a batch of cookies, and let me tell you something… Or volunteers get cookies and that is special because the participants in the program have just learned to make them, and it connects it to the mission. And so if there’s a way to connect your gratitude to the mission, I think it’s also a lovely touch.

Yeah. I have another great example of that, that was incredibly successful, actually. It was a daycare center that was having a campaign. And they actually took kids’ art and framed it with a little plaque on the bottom of it. And some cases, they took kids art and they made gifts. They made cards out of them. So the front was a small piece of art done by the kids and then they mounted it on a card. And it was real, it wasn’t printed. And with a little note about whoever the child was, who had done it, in some cases. It brought it right back to the mission. It was very effective.

Sarah Plimpton:
I have a couple other thoughts as well. I love this discussion by the way. So fun to be thinking about all of this. I think also about checking in with volunteers when you don’t necessarily need something, just see how they’re doing.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Yeah. Wonderful idea. I think that’s, again, something that we should be doing more of.

Sarah Plimpton:
I also am a big fan of asking for feedback at various points and just saying, “My goal is to support you really well. And to make this a great campaign experience for you. How am I doing? Are there things that I could be doing differently or better to help you, or to make this an even more delightful experience for you?

People Remember Endings

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Yeah. One of the things that I’ve learned over the years is that people remember the endings. We tend to remember the way things end. We remember the high point, the high emotional point of the meeting, whatever that was. Sometimes it’s in good high emotional point. Sometimes it’s a big blow up. And then we remember how something ends.

So, I think we can delight people by doing a better job of endings, of the way we end individual meetings, and more importantly, the way the volunteer ends their involvement with that campaign. The more we think about that, and the more we use that to make the volunteer feel great… If your campaign, if the first campaign you talked about, Sarah, had done that at the end, even if it had been a problematic campaign ,they had really taken care of volunteers at the end, you probably would have had less challenge when you tried to re-engage them.

Sarah Plimpton:
Absolutely. And I also think we perhaps might have raised more money in that subsequent campaign, which is a bold statement.

Amy Eisenstein:
Yeah. I think to your point, Sarah, our volunteers are likely among your pool of biggest and most loyal donors. So to keep them delighted and happy, they are going to give more. And so most the vast majority of your volunteers in a campaign are going to be your significant donors. So we have to do a good job, both because they’re volunteers and because they’re donors.

Final Thoughts

Amy Eisenstein:
All right, let’s start to wrap up. Let’s think about final thoughts, words of wisdom.

Sarah, do you have any final words of wisdom you want to leave listeners with?

Sarah Plimpton:
I think I said this at the beginning. If I didn’t, I should have, but this is what I would emphasize. At every step of your campaign process, and at every step of engaging volunteers, think about their experience of the engagement. How are they feeling when they come to the committee meeting, when they go through the committee meeting, when the committee meeting ends, when they go on their first solicitation, and use that reflection to guide you in fortifying those volunteer relationships.

Amy Eisenstein:
Yeah. I think that’s great parting thoughts. Put yourself in your volunteers shoes for a day and see what’s going on with them. What are their fears? What are their worries? What are their questions?

Andrea, what about your final thoughts?

Andrea Kihlstedt:
So, my final thought is this, you will know that you have done a really good job with your volunteers, with your volunteers who serve on the committee, when they don’t want the committee assignment to end. That’s the test. If they say, “No, no, no. We want to keep coming together,” then you know that they’ve had a great time.

Amy Eisenstein:
Yes. It’s social as well. They should be getting things out of it, emotionally, socially, as well as giving back. As much as they’re giving back, volunteers always say they get more. So think about what are you able to give or provide for your volunteers so that they want to keep coming back and being a volunteer for the months and years ahead. Yes.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
So I have one more thing to say, which is everybody who’s listening to this through this session, I encourage you to get off the session, pick up a piece of paper and pen, or open a document on your computer and write down as many things as you can think of that you could delight your volunteers. Just write them down, one after another. See if you can come up with 50, you may surprise yourself, and that’ll set you up for doing a good job with your volunteers.

Amy Eisenstein:
Excellent. Sarah, thank you so much for joining us today. We just loved having your wisdom and your experience with working with volunteers.

Sarah Plimpton:
Thank you for having me. It was a pleasure.

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