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August 3, 2021
Take Care When Asking Staff and Volunteers to Make a Donation
By Kelly Kleiman

Kelly Kleiman
Kelly Kleiman
It’s tempting and convenient to solicit your organization’s staff and volunteers, but these two critical groups are in very different positions, so they can’t be treated alike in terms of asking for money.

If fundraising is concentric circles, as consultants often say (you ask your friends and then their friends and then their friends’ friends), then it seems to make sense to start asking right in the bosom of the family: from your staff and volunteers. Indeed, this is what most nonprofit executives think of when they hear the phrase “Charity begins at home!’

But agencies are often afraid to ask their volunteers for money on the grounds that they’re already getting the volunteers’ time and it would be greedy to ask for more. But in fact, no one is in a better position than a volunteer to appreciate the value of the work you do or the scarcity of resources under which you labor.

Further, though not all volunteers are privileged, they are at least people who have leisure time to donate, which suggests they’re not grindingly poor. If your volunteers show up at the office with a cup of Starbuck’s in hand, consider what that represents: 1 Venti/day @$2.50 x 5 days/week x 52 weeks/year = $650. So they’re probably spending more on coffee than you’d think of mentioning in an initial ask.

Will any volunteers take umbrage at being asked to give money as well as time? Sure, a certain percentage of the population finds discussion of money distasteful and crude, and such people may well be represented in your volunteer corps. But you’re not any poorer for asking them, and there’s very little reason to think they’d stop volunteering at an activity they enjoy because you asked them a question to which the answer was “no.”

Don’t extend this blithe attitude, though, to asking your volunteers to ask for money. Direct-service volunteers are apt to be offended if they’re asked to do other kinds of volunteer work, such as fundraising, because the request suggests that they’re not already working hard enough.

You understand the difference between time and money ”“ and your need for both; your volunteers are equally sophisticated. So ask them for money, not for more time.

Staff members are a different issue. People who work in nonprofit agencies are already donating enormous sums to the agency in the form of foregone income ”“ the money they could be making working in the for-profit sector. In this sense they are almost certainly the top donors to the agencies at which they work.

I remember taking a nonprofit executive job for half the salary I had been earning as a practicing lawyer ”“ a not inconsiderable sacrifice, though one I was glad to make. But when members of the board suggested that I also write a check to the agency, my attitude was, “The very second the board gives $25,000 a year to the agency—collectively, let alone individually!—it will have the right to come back to me and ask for something more than the $25,000 worth of lost wages I’m already giving.”

To be fair, this is a minority view. Many agencies regard staff donations as some sort of measure of staff commitment to the agency. But staff members indicate commitment every day through the work they do, the salaries they accept, the health insurance they lack.

At some agencies they even demonstrate their commitment by working overtime for which they don’t get paid ”“ and by not ratting out their employers to the U.S. Department of Labor or the state agency charged with regulating wages, hours, and working conditions.

The fact that our agencies do socially valuable work doesn’t entitle us to exploit our laborers, though of course for many years nonprofits have survived their lack of financial capital by consuming human capital instead.

So don’t ask your staff for money, and do ask your volunteers. Maybe they’ll donate enough to make it possible for your organization to offer the staff health insurance, or paid sick leave, or even a raise.

Kelly Kleiman is the author of The Nonprofiteer blog and principal of NFP Consulting, which provides board development, strategic planning and fundraising services to charities and philanthropies. This article was republished from the April 2011 issue of Contributions magazine.
From the Expert Advice archive. Originally published in May 2011
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