Dreaming of Volunteer-Donor Integration on Blackbaud’s Supporter Journey Tour

As the Blackbaud Supporter Journey tour makes its way across the country, jokes about Journey the band will definitely make less sense than they did yesterday in San Francisco. Steve Perry and company are actually from here, and so tunes like “Don’t Stop Believin’” are part of the official soundtrack of life here – and something not easily translated.

And yet if there was one takeaway from the Blackbaud event, it was not to stop believin’ that the day will come when volunteer engagement and donor engagement operations will truly be integrated at nonprofits – and where leading tech services like Blackbaud and VolunteerMatch could work together to make life easier for nonprofit folks.

I want to be there…

A Dream of Integration

Instead, I’m here, reflecting on the ideas and folks I met up with yesterday.

S.F. was the second stop on the 6-city tour, organized by tech tools provider Blackbaud to contribute thought leadership, bring new ideas to the fore, and make it easier for fundraisers to manage the cycle of donor engagement. After S.F. the tour heads up to Seattle. Registration is still open for the Thursday, 6/16, event in Seattle, and the tour regroups this fall for events in Toronto, New York, and D.C.

I say donor engagement, and not volunteer engagement, with some sadness. That’s because there is so much untapped potential in bringing together the operations and systems of donor engagement and volunteer engagement.

As Blackbaud’s Suzanne Wordock described in the event opener yesterday, fundraisers are eternally reliant on technology to help them properly manage the cycle of donor engagement:  we need those tools to analyze campaigns, to educate and communicate with prospects, to engage and cultivate donors, and to manage programs to appreciate and retain them.

If all that sounds familiar, it’s because this is essentially the same cycle of engagement (and similar tech needs) that volunteer coordinators deal with. And yet all too often that’s where the similarities end. At most organizations, fundraisers and volunteer coordinators use different systems and have vastly different budgets. They’re often on different sides of the board room, too. Development staff sit comfortably inside with their financial reports from sophisticated systems, while volunteer coordinators are back at their desk, updating an Excel file with sign-ups for the big service day next weekend.

These organizations aren’t taking advantage of the time-money relationship.

The Changing Donor Profile Is a Lot Like the Changing Volunteer Profile

To help nonprofits tackle the challenges of managing their engagement cycle, the sessions at Blackbaud Supporter Journey were focused on tactics and strategies to align organizational work with the new realities of fundraising.

Traditional donor engagement is dead now that the donor pool is both shrinking and growing older and younger at opposite ends. At the same time, how and why people give to a cause has changed. Today nonprofits need to be able to demonstrate the meaning created by support for their mission. Finally, supporters now expect truly personalized experiences. Unless they feel a message, request, or event is a personal experience, they may not come back again.

Again, volunteer coordinators who are reading along here are probably nodding. Sounds familiar, right? There is just so much opportunity for volunteer managers and fundraisers to work together to further their work.

Indeed, at many forward thinking organizations this is already happened. Those are the organizations that know that volunteers give more money than non-volunteers, so for them volunteering is viewed as an entry point to a deep and lasting relationship.

Their volunteer and donor engagement staffers share ideas and data on what’s working and what’s not.

Their volunteer opportunities are designed with an eye to donor acquisition, and their staffers are unafraid to ask volunteers to dig deeper and give money… because in the end volunteers and donors share the same basic interest in your mission.

But this group of nonprofits is still quite small. Depressingly small.

Diamonds in Donor Analytics

The line-up at Blackbaud’s Supporter Journey event in S.F. was great. My morning started with Keith Heller (Heller Consulting) talking about how to find diamonds in donor analytics. Heller is a consultant who used to manage fundraising operations at The Exploratorium. He has an engaging, funny, and realistic take about how fundraising, and fundraisers, really work.

I won’t go too much into his learning because he makes a lot of his team’s know-how available for free on his Web site. I loved that he touched on the strong correlation between volunteers and donations. Primarily, through, his focus was on how to take the data that’s publically available (like credit history, vehicle info, ZIP, employment, etc) about donor prospects and build campaigns around it.

Afterward Keith and I commiserated on how there wasn’t any single source out there where a nonprofit can get access to the profiles of prospective volunteers. While the US Bureau of Labor has the most wide ranging data on volunteering, the only place I can think of where you can find out where a person has volunteered in the past is if they put it on their LinkedIn profiles. At present LinkedIn is reworking its LinkedIn for Good program, but hopefully there will be more tools there for nonprofits to ID and recruit great volunteers.

Secrets to Creating an “Engaging” Web Site

Next I heard from lead Blackbaud designer Raheel Gauba, who has helped produce more than 400 sites for nonprofits clients. That’s a lot of nonprofit sites, and a lot of arguments about what should go where and for what purpose! While Gauba shared some cool new trends in design, he also shared fundamentals that no nonprofit should ignore: Mainly, those were to put your audience’s needs first, and not to let internal tastes dictate design or functionality.

In the last ten minutes Gauba workshopped sites from the audience. I was struck by how much attention is usually given to the donation buttons on home pages of nonprofit sites. Volunteer buttons? Meh, we get hard-to-spot tabs. And yet the conversion rate for new donors is around 1%, but more than 50% for previous donors. For volunteers I’m betting it’s also close to 50%. What if we used home pages to solicit time and skills as much as money? Yes, we would need to create lots of volunteer opportunities first that are accessible and doable by people of all levels of skill and availability. But that would ensure an ever-full pipeline of donor prospects, right?

e-Marketing Campaigns for Emails

Pamela Snyder from the Zuri Group shared her thoughts on how to do successful emarketing. In the donor world, e-marketing often has the goal of acquiring email addresses and other personal info that can be used to turn fans into donors. The need for smart thinking here has gotten more important as social networks like Facebook and Linkedin bring more supporters into your organization’s orbit – but often without giving your fundraisers access to their email addresses.

The woman seated next to me shared this challenge too, and we brainstormed solutions that involved volunteer activities. For example, she could invite her group’s Facebook audience to take part in a local community park clean up/picnic, and ask them to register somewhere where the email addresses would be made available.  Big smiles!

Peer-to-Peer Fundraising

The final session I went to was the one that got closest to my dream. Ian Gruber works on Blackbaud’s Friends Asking Friends product, and his talk shared what they’ve learned from clients on what works in online peer-to-peer donations.

Finally, volunteer engagement! I liked Ian’s talk a lot, especially his advice about making sure you’re helping supporters tell their own stories and not your organization’s. As Gruber put it, fundraisers need to remember that “Peer to peer fundraising certainly can be about your organization, but it MUST be about your supporters and their relationship to the cause first.” Agreed.

And yet something didn’t stick for me. Where were the volunteer coordinators in all this? Gruber didn’t mention the phrase even once.  I get it: this was a fundraisers’ conference – and it’s not like Blackbaud doesn’t have volunteer management module options for some of its most popular tools. They do, and I heard plenty of folks praise them.

But the brass ring here is still a missing link:

A system to help organizations know what kinds of volunteer opportunities to create and where to distribute them.

A system that integrates volunteer prospects and volunteers into your overall CRM.

A system that combines volunteering and donor history to give a full and complete perspective on a single supporter.

Is there a system out there that does all this? Not that I know of. At least not yet. So for now I’ll keep hoping my hopes and dreaming my dreams, of course. But it’s amazing how silo-ed the two worlds really are.

We’re trying to change this. For starters, please join our free webinar on peer-to-peer fundraising on Thursday, 6/16, with Darian Heyman and Sean Sullivan. We’ll discuss fundraising strategies from a volunteer coordinator’s perspective. One small step on the journey.

And if your organization is integrating donor and volunteer engagement, we’d love to hear all about it.