Volunteer Heroes and Cost-Effective Fundraising

Some years ago I was working for an Indian Charity in Delhi called Lok Kalyan Samiti and set up their first fundraising department, which was in effect a pop-up direct mailing agency. Every Friday I gathered together a group of staff and encouraged them to volunteer for fundraising duty, which they thoroughly enjoyed as a break from their routines. We would sit together in a spare room and fill countless envelopes with appeal letters, folding, filling, gluing envelopes and stamps in place and posting them off at regular intervals. We joked and laughed and drank a lot of tea. In the months I worked there, we mailed out thousands of letters and pretty soon the results began pouring in and we added thank you letters to the list of activities. Looking back on all the months I worked there, this impromptu agency with its cheerful volunteers gave rise to some of my happiest memories.

None of this would have been possible without the spirit of giving – that is giving one’s precious time freely to help others. A spirit that has also kept alive many of the fundraising departments where I have worked, especially when it came to events which really demanded a high level of commitment from volunteers, often over a long period of time, but which was hugely satisfying as the rock concerts, high art auctions, literary evenings and sponsored walks took off and generated both excitement and profit. If, however, we had had to pay staff to work on these events I wonder how many would have actually made a profit – not many I suspect.

So, this really is to praise the volunteers who put in the hours for little reward beyond the satisfaction of a job well done and the grateful thanks of their fundraising department. I do know several volunteers who started their career in fundraising by volunteering and this is a time honoured route into employment, though far from a certain one.

Volunteering can go wrong and a lot of managers say they can’t be bothered to train up volunteers, who may leave just as they were becoming useful, but I think this is a very short-sighted view; and I have always felt that treating volunteers like staff, so they had a job description, understood clearly what was expected of them and had agreed to a minimum amount of time per week, meant that the department had a great resource and could expand and develop its activities far quicker than engaging in the usual internal battle for more staff, and the whole slow process of recruiting the right person.

A lot of studies are now saying that the rise of the intelligent robot is about to put many of us out of work in short order, but that might provide a huge opportunity to recruit an army of volunteers. Also if the advocates of a Universal Basic Income get their way then many more of us may be in a better position to volunteer for our favourite causes. Let’s look forward to that…

Volunteers – here’s to you!

John Baguley, CEO International Fundraising Consultancy