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Photo by The Lazy Artist Gallery on Pexels.com

In times of chaos, the flaws in our systems become starkly visible. One such flaw is the antiquated nonprofit notion separating donors and volunteers.

The stark Covid reality is this:

  • There aren’t enough in-person or virtual volunteer roles for people who flock to help in times of crisis
  • Volunteers who are furloughed may not all return
  • Volunteer roles may forever change
  • Increasingly, people are finding ways to help informally and are bypassing formal volunteering
  • Donations remain a nonprofit’s top priority
  • Nonprofits operate in outdated systems

If businesses ran like nonprofits, they’d go under

In business, it’s all about acquiring and keeping customers. In nonprofits, it’s all about acquiring and keeping donors while using volunteers.

Imagine if a business that made wool socks (the Wooly sock company) looked at customers this way. Customers who buy yellow wool socks get the red-carpet treatment while customers who buy red wool socks are expected to work unpaid for the company. Oh, and they’re also asked to help get the yellow wool sock customers to buy more yellow wool socks.

An acquisition team at the Wooly sock company has a huge budget devoted to enticing yellow wool sock customers to purchase more yellow wool socks. For red wool sock buyers, eh, maybe one employee (the red wool sock coordinator) is handed the role of managing those orders. Oh, and when red wool sock orders are down, the red wool sock coordinator is blamed.

The yellow wool sock acquisition team is given the latest trainings and attends the yearly “Get More Yellow Wool Sock Customers in 10 Easy Steps” conference. Meanwhile, the red wool sock coordinator answers the phones while they are gone.

Volunteers vs. donors

Nonprofits hold volunteers and donors in separate and unequal groups. Sure, nonprofits hit up volunteers for money and seek ways to “engage” volunteers in opening up their wallets. But the fact that nonprofits look at volunteers as a different, magically potential source of money proves their short-sightedness in separating donors from volunteers. And why are donors treated as breakable? Why are they shielded from participating in the nitty gritty work?

The fallacy of silos

One day, the Wooly sock company realized that customers who bought yellow socks and customers who bought red socks were all actually customers, because someone asked for orange socks. After that day, the company successfully treated all customers alike and offered socks in a wide variety of colors.

Because our volunteers and donors all work towards furthering nonprofit missions, they are all advocates for our organizations and causes. They may differ in varying activities at any given time, but they aren’t starkly separated or unwilling to step outside their primary role. As advocates, they accomplish much more than giving a few bucks or a few hours a week.

What do advocates do?

  • donate money
  • recruit other advocates
  • volunteer time and skills
  • engage new advocates
  • procure in-kind donations
  • market to their circles of influence
  • care about mission success
  • support mission staff
  • share knowledge
  • bring outside opinions and trends in
  • are a pipeline to community leaders
  • bring in potential people who could benefit from services
  • raise awareness in every community corner

Dividing mission support into siloed “donating” versus “volunteering” misses all the overlap going on. Why don’t donors receive an invite to volunteer? Why don’t volunteers get invited to the gala? Why doesn’t the marketing team collaborate with volunteer services?

Covid has given us an opportunity to make systemic changes.

Sock companies realize customers buy socks in all colors and so they market to all customers, not just the ones who buy one color.

It’s time for nonprofits to realize that advocates are all people (donors, volunteers, corporate partners, community voices etc.) who step forward to help in more ways than their siloed category. It’s time to treat them equally.