Fundraising Event Secret Sauce Revealed: Will You Believe?

Katrina VanHussI had a surprising revelation at the 2013 Run Walk Ride Conference in Atlanta last week. I listened to Melissa Aucoin, National Director, Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, talk about the “secret sauce” Komen has which makes the organization successful at running fundraising events.  The sauce is empowered leadership volunteers. Crickets chirped; few questions; no hands raised. Melissa said, “the overall vibe was disbelief.”

Later, I talked to Becky Lunders, Founder of TeamWorks, who presented to emerging events on a similar topic – empowered volunteers are the route to building capacity. She was met with disbelief, incredulity and even a little hostility.

THEN I talked to attendees and what I heard was this, “No WAY does Komen let volunteers run its events. No WAY do they let volunteers make high level decisions. No WAY could you run a $3 million dollar event with no logistics company and little staff involvement. No WAY could a committee be formed the way Becky described. No WAY would you give volunteers that much leeway.”

To this Becky and Melissa say, “Way Dude.”  (I inserted “dude” because I like imagining Melissa with her southern accent saying it. Becky’s from California and it comes natural to her.) Melissa said,

“In middle markets, like St. Louis, Columbus, Denver and Kansas City, our volunteer infrastructure is very strong, driven by the sense of community in those places. These middle markets raise as much money as much larger markets. And, what we found is that event participation is directly related to the robustness of that volunteer committee.  Interestingly, during last year’s trauma those middle markets with strong volunteer leadership involvement were less hurt than those markets without strong volunteer committees. Volunteer leadership seemed to have an insulating effect.

As an example, in St. Louis the event has an executive director, three staff members, no event management company and raises over $3 million every year. Even the four staff members in St. Louis only spend a portion of their time on the Race. St. Louis has a volunteer committee of 31 people, and another 900 volunteers to help execute the event which has over 60,000 participants.

More than 15 of our events have no staff at all. On average any given affiliate has 3-4 staff including the ED.  Larger affiliates might have 10 staff members, some of whom don’t even touch the Race. It’s a big misperception about Komen, that we use lots of professional staffing when we really don’t. Our volunteers even help with event goal setting to gain buy in.”

So how do you get a volunteer committee to raise over $3 million? Melissa said, “We trust those volunteers because of the extensive amount of training we do. I’m frequently in front to 50 to 60 volunteers, training on every aspect of the Race. And we document everything. We hand them all the tools and resources necessary to be successful, then we get out of the way. For the most part, our events look pretty consistent. All have same key components and that may be where the disbelief is coming from; our presentation looks very consistent and polished.”

The 2012 Planned Parenthood controversy clearly hurt Komen, resulting in significant decrease in donations. But, Melissa noted, “The decrease we did experience I believe was due to the loss of volunteer leadership more than directly attributable to donor loss. Fewer people gave, because fewer people asked, because fewer people were in volunteer leadership. Our markets with opportunity are the ones who lost their volunteer leadership.”

Becky offered similar examples from the smaller market, where she helps organizations build capacity through volunteer infrastructure and leadership development. She felt the same push back from conference participants as Melissa, but was quick to refer back to her experience as a staff person for a large cancer related nonprofit, helping to grow income from $4.1 million to over $30 million for one division using a volunteer driven model. She said,

“I totally felt the audience was disbelieving at Run Walk Ride, though they were really fun and polite. I could feel some people get tense as I suggested that they relinquish control to volunteers. And really, you can understand that fear. If someone gets fired for not making goal, it likely won’t be the volunteer right?

There is no way you can have growth like that without using volunteers for important jobs, in true leadership, installed purposefully in a carefully constructed org chart.  If you’ve got a professional accountant stuffing envelopes, you might want to re-examine how you recruit and place your volunteer talent. But I must say, nonprofit paid staff often have a hard time believing that volunteer empowerment is anything but trouble.”

Small and large income programs suffer the same fear of letting go, Becky said. “If nonprofit staff leadership isn’t bought into volunteer leadership, it won’t happen and the growth will be limited. But, seriously, people think I am kidding when I talk about it.”

In the course of my work at Turnkey (delivering messaging and recognition gift programs for nonprofits), I mess with a lot of organizations’ data. “Mess with” is southern for “I use the data for the rendering of unique and valuable services to my ever-loving and most-deserving clients.”

As I talked to these two ladies, I wondered, is anyone collecting the data necessary to study the effect both purport? Studying the effect of volunteer empowerment on event income would require one field on a nonprofit’s participant table – “served on committee…yes/no” in order to evaluate.  To Becky’s, Melissa’s and my own knowledge, no nonprofit collects and stores this one bit of data on their participant table —  the one piece of data about a fundraiser that appears to be the leading indicator for high, sustained event income.

3 thoughts on “Fundraising Event Secret Sauce Revealed: Will You Believe?

  1. Andrew Feast

    Katrina, Great post. I agree with what you are saying and think that there is another part to the conversation. What exactly IS a volunteer? Is it a fundraiser, a donor, a committee member, the vendor I coerced into donating product, my board member? We have all these categories of volunteers, some of whom we haven’t even identified AS a volunteer, and we treat them all the same way, and communicate to all of them the same way. The truth is, most non profits (dare I say all) would not be able to operate without volunteers. We clearly need to do a better job of recognizing who our volunteers are and what roles they are playing within our organizations.

  2. Steve Balfour

    Great post Katrina! I have been and continue to be both staff and volunteer. Have volunteered for over 40 years and yes, empowering volunteers is the only way to get true growth. Too many volunteers are saying its not fun anymore, and are dropping away because of that. Staff, being open minded and open to possibilities can help bring back the fun and the growth working as partners with the volunteers. Steve – former ACS, now ALZ

  3. Post author

    Steve, I know you…so I know you have a background across several national nonprofits and are speaking in regard to your experience at several. What makes for a better gig when you’re a leadership volunteer?


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