I recently started volunteering in the local office of a national nonprofit organization.  I believe in their mission and have a personal connection to their cause. Though I have volunteered a couple of times, I have been struck by the fact that nobody has asked me why I was there.

For me, this seems to be a pretty obvious question I would think at least one of the many people I have worked and interacted with while volunteering would have asked.  I found that I am not the only one that was having this same feeling.

While having dinner with an old friend, I discovered that we both recently participated in a charity triathlon.  We each raised money for the organization and when we showed up to the event, we had similar experiences. We were not treated very nicely, were not asked why we were there, and were not thanked for being a part of their team. It is such a frustrating feeling, to want to be a part of something, to want to connect to a cause and not be able to find that connection.

I wonder how many nonprofit organizations lose volunteers and/or potential donors because of the simple fact that they don’t take the time to get to know the reasons why people are involved.  I worry that organizations underestimate the power of the simple question: “Why are you here?”

I want to get to the root cause of this unsettled feeling, so I started surveying friends to find out if these were isolated incidences or a larger trend:

  1. If you have volunteered and/or participated in a fundraising event, were you asked to share your reason in an informal and/or formal way? Please describe how if so.
  2. If you were not asked for your reasons, did you notice or even care?  
  3. Were you a fundraiser for the organization? Was there a fundraising minimum? How much did you raise (if you feel comfortable sharing)?
  4. Were you a repeat volunteer/participant? If so, why? If not, why not?

Here are some of the things I’ve heard:

“My reason was really more for the event (it was a 3 day bike ride in wine country outside Solvang) rather than the cause (American Lung Association); however, if I had had a connection to that particular issue, I would have liked to have been asked and would have liked to share my story/reason.  This event was small enough that they could have had people share one night at dinner why they participated in the event and I think that would have been a nice touch and would have acknowledged those who had a close connection to the issue. The fundraising minimum was $500 and I raised closer to $1,000. Yes, I was a repeat participant because it was such a fun event which was well organized.  I recruited family members to participate and to volunteer as well.  I did it for 3 years in a row.”

“During the last fundraising event I participated in I was not asked either informally or formally why I participated.  Upon reflection I think it would be more beneficial for both the organization and my desire to do it again if I felt my voice mattered. I was repeat volunteer and felt invested because my daughter was a member of the school. Unfortunately I think it easy to disregard “the little people” when in fact they are your engine for continuity.  As intrinsically good people are, in general they choose to apply themselves when they have an invested interest. Their interest is often not financial but a real personal connection that resonates with their soul.”

“When registering for the JDRF walk, I was asked how I was connected to diabetes.  (If I had it, if I was a parent with a child with diabetes, l was a friend/loved one of someone with diabetes, or I think you can write in another connection.) I’m not sure what they did with this information, if anything. I think I noticed and cared that they asked for my connection. I’m not sure why I cared, but I guess just knowing that someone had some background on why I was there.  I also think it maybe made my loved ones who were walking with me feel good that they were able to acknowledge their support of a friend/family member living with type 1 diabetes. In the past I’ve always raised about $100.  Usually my husband and I just contribute the money ourselves, although my parents have donated some, too.  I think they ask for a minimum of $50, or maybe $100 this year, but I think you can walk with any contribution. I’ve walked for at least the past 5 years.  I like the day and the event and I have a good friend who always walks with me and encourages me to register each year to do it”.

It saddens me to see that not more organizations prioritize making connections on an individual level with their participants and donors.  Nonprofit fundraisers should look for more ways to connect on an individual level.  While it’s important to have a large turn out for your nonprofit fundraising event as well as reach your financial goal, but all of that wouldn’t be possible without people.  Make sure you’re making the effort to connect and ask “why are you here?”

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