Together we can do more

Let My People Serve

Why Potent Service Experiences are the Key to Your Non-Profit’s Success

Imagine you’ve met this amazing woman. She’s smart, she’s funny. You care about the same things. Honestly, you can’t wait to spend time with her and you confided to your best friend that you can see yourself doing great things with her, maybe even changing the world. You’re totally into her.

On your first date, you show up at her door with flowers. She wrinkles her nose and says “Oh, thanks, but I’d really rather have the cash.” You stand dumbfounded in the hallway as she tosses them on the side table, steps outside and locks the front door to her apartment. Ouch. But, you see such potential, that you swallow your reaction and follow her into the elevator, making a little more small talk about the cause you know you’re both passionate about. Downstairs, as you try to open the car door, she says “Listen, I appreciate the gesture, but if you just give me ten bucks, I can have the valet do that. I KNOW he’s reliable.” What’s the chance for a second date?

Unfortunately, this is how too many non-profits treat their volunteers, refusing their offers to help and treating them like cash machines. It has to change.

There is a destructive meme in the non-profit world that goes like this … “Volunteers are unreliable. Since you can’t count on them, give them something mindless to do and try to quickly convert them to donors so you can pay someone to do meaningful tasks that move your mission forward.” Guess what, it’s wrong.

Each year, 60 million Americans (that’s 26% of all adults) perform some form of volunteer services. Sadly, a full third of those volunteers — 20 million people — do not return to volunteer at the same organization the following year because they felt unappreciated or as if the work they were given to do was meaningless and that the non-profit organization resented their efforts to help.

In no other industry would we tolerate a one-third churn rate among our customers. Worse yet, these are actively engaged customers who believe in our work, are passionate enough about it to step forward and say “How can I help?” And they mean it when they ask. Their “help” can make the difference in your organization’s mission in ways you only dream about.

These smart, engaged people are poised to become an army of brand ambassadors who will revolutionize your PR well beyond whatever your current media campaign can do. Traditional businesses would kill to have loyal customers who care so deeply about their brand and what their product can do in the world. When your non-profit offers volunteers the ability to put their hands to work in ways that matter, they become evangelical about your cause. They WANT to help you make a difference and they will engage their friends and families. They’ll even engage their employers to help you.

The answer is to create potent service experiences for your volunteers that truly engage them and turn them into evangelists for your cause.

Are you worrying right now, thinking “What will I DO with an army of engaged volunteers? They’ll over run me and I’m already understaffed and overworked! I don’t have that kind of time to manage more people. I need cash not hands!” I say, snap out of it — you need both and you’ve been chasing the wrong one. It’s time to treat the people who care deeply about your mission like you give a damn about them and not just about their cash.

Why should you bother?

Because it’s the right thing to do. You know why else you should bother? Because of what else they’ll do when you get back to treating them like they matter. They’ll bring you their cash, but not because you asked for it as part of an organized capital campaign to convert them to donors. They’ll do it because they care about what you’re doing TOGETHER. And they’ll tell their friends, and their employers. And they’ll stop nitpicking you to death about your budget or your overhead expenses because they’ll SEE what you are accomplishing and they will feel engaged with you in making a difference.

Where hearts and hands go, pockets naturally follow. The non-profit community has had it backwards. The real capital campaign that we should be pursuing is Volunteer Capital.

Most of those 20 million volunteers who leave each year take their cash with them. That sense that the organization just wants their money and won’t let them help fuels a deep cynicism that makes people wonder where the money goes and makes them focus on metrics like the percentage of donations used for overhead. Volunteers and donors are smart, they know it takes money to run an organization, to provide a service. The reason they are ticked off is because they know they can help you and you won’t let them. They resent being monetized and turned into a walking cash machine. We all do.

Still not convinced that creating meaningful service and volunteer opportunities is the way to rock your organization’s mission and its coffers? What would you do to get and keep a share of $200 million this year for your organization?

In the for-profit world, we talk about the lifetime value of a customer. How much it costs to acquire a new customer, retain them, and how much that customer will spend over time with the business. For example, spending $1 to get a customer, returns $6 over the lifetime of the customer.

Research has shown that in the first year alone, non-profits reap 6-to-1 for every dollar spent on volunteer development and engagement. That’s a nice return and, all by itself, should motivate you to engage your volunteers. But, the research also shows that engaged volunteers consistently donate (ie retention) and cultivate new volunteers and donors (ie attraction/expansion) and that their donations increase over time as their wealth increases. If you could attract, grow and retain resources for your organization, why would you let them slip away only to have to attract a whole new crop next year? Because it’s too much trouble to allow the people who are passionate about the work you’re doing to help in a way that lets them feel like they’re making a difference. Really?

Let’s return to the fact that 20 million volunteers disengage from non-profits every year because they didn’t feel valued. That’s one-third of your resources pouring down the drain. Even assuming that each volunteer’s current cash value (if we can be so crass as to use that term) was only $10 (and I assure you, it’s far more than that), that’s $200 million annually that non-profits are callously turning away because they don’t know how to engage their volunteers. What would YOU do to get access to a share of $200 million for your non-profit this year and KEEP it?

I challenge you to rethink the way you look at your capital campaign this year. Together we can Chase What Matters — hearts and hands. Trust me, the pockets always follow.

Tell me what you think on Twitter at @DoWhatCounts

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Denise Logan is the Chief Inspiration Officer at Chase What Matters, a mission-driven business, bringing together non-profits with the volunteers and companies who love them.