Viva Vivanista: Recapping the Volunteer Fundraising Community’s First Summit

Cody Damon from Common Sense NMS discusses search engine marketing best practices at the Vivanista Fundraising Summit

From its very first days, volunteer fundraisers have been the barn raisers of our social sector. With their passion and energy, their willingness to ask, and their vision of a community with stronger institutions to care for us in body and spirit, volunteers turned a barely settled land into a nation of opportunity.

Earlier this month I was fortunate to join a talented roster of speakers at the first ever Vivanista Fundraising Summit, which took place November 12 at the San Francisco Art Institute in the city’s famed North Beach neighborhood. The day’s program included social media experts like Janet Fouts and JD Lasica, reps from Web services like GiveForward, BiddingforGood, and Razoo, and advisers from online marketing, corporate sponsorship, event production and other areas that are critical to engaging donors.

I was invited to moderate a panel on engaging volunteer communities and moving supporters up the ladder to become champions for your organization. Joining me were Giulia McPherson, Deputy Director for Citizen Advocacy at CARE USA, Chris Cotner, Executive Director of Water4, and Bryan Breckenridge, director of LinkedIn’s new Nonprofit Solutions program.

Audience Cross-over

As I’ve written before, an interesting thing about Vivanista is its audience crossover. While volunteer fundraisers and “free-agents” make up the largest portion of its community, nonprofit workers also strongly represent, making Vivanista one of the few online resources to recognize how much overlap there is between the needs and goals of determined volunteers and the needs and goals of those who work daily at nonprofits.

But while it makes a lot of sense to blur the lines between these two audiences, it’s also important to recognize some general differences.

Many volunteer fundraisers, for example, bring to bear a high level of professional and social skill… yet aren’t all that knowledgeable about the unique aspects or needs of nonprofit organizations. Meanwhile, many nonprofit professionals are familiar with the tools and services that they ought to utilize in their work… but they lack the time management and soft skills to make the most of what they know.

Volunteers in Need: Social Fundraising and Auctions

While I waited for our panel to start, I was furiously tweeting and scribbling notes of my own. Two areas of fundraising that I’m personally still getting up to speed on are online social fundraising and benefit auctions (either online or off). Incredibly, both are heavily dependent on volunteers to run smoothly, yet they’ve flown under my radar for years.

At Vivanista, Susan Gordon from Causes.com and Lesley Mansford from Razoo.com talked about their platforms for crowd sourcing and social fundraising. As the old click-and-give model changes, organizations are recognizing that the combo of passionate supporters and the social graph could be far more powerful. These web services and a host of competitors are making it easy both for nonprofits to engage volunteer fundraisers and for individuals to begin raising money on their own.

The other area I’m learning more about is fundraising auctions.

At Vivanista, BiddingForGood.com’s Perry Allison shared with me that they’ve already helped thousands of schools and non-profits raise more money with online auction fundraisers. But Allison also said that having the capacity to effectively manage an auction – especially to reach out to businesses that might be able to give items for auction – is just too much for most organizations.

Today I can go online to VolunteerMatch.org and find more than 320 opportunities with the word “auction” in them. But Allison said the need for volunteers to help in this capacity is growing. And who else knows the local business landscape better than local supporters?

Engaging Volunteers as Champions

Late in the afternoon I was joined on stage by Giulia, Chris Cotner, and Bryan Breckenridge. While Bryan cooled his heels and waited to share what LinkedIn has been up to, I posed a few questions to help Giulia and Chris open up about their programs. CARE and Water4 both work at different ends of the nonprofit experience, CARE being a large and well-established NGO, and Water4 still emerging. Yet both organizations recognized that they owe much of their health and success to their ability to engage supporters both inside their networks (to become champions) and outside their networks (to become part of their program).

In CARE’s case, they’re working on the challenge of converting 200,000 passionate but lightly involved advocates into donors and day to day volunteers. To help get there, CARE now has regional reps around the country that engage advocates on the ground through the year: an essential model for any group that wants to convert online activists into offline supports.

At Water4, Chris said the secret to helping people get passionate has been making it possible for them to get their hands dirty. The organization, which trains small teams in developing countries to dig wells with available tools and then turn it into businesses, has a strong focus on recruiting for blue collar skill sets… an important and often overlooked potential within the skilled volunteer movement.

Transitioning over the Bryan from LinkedIn, I asked how the well-known social network for professionals is making it easier for nonprofits to identify potential and current supporters. We’ve written about the possibility of LinkedIn’s new Volunteering & Causes field before. So there are things nonprofits need to do right now. But in the long run, Bryan emphasized, organizations that now how to nurture and manage their supporter networks will be the ones who succeed.

Here are a few more links from the Vivanista Summit: