We customize our approaches for each client, whether it is for consulting or training, by looking at their longitudinal data to identify predictive patterns. Using what we call a Vital Signs Assessment, we zero in on what we know to be the leading indicators of future success or future struggle. One of the four most important Vital Signs is the size of the volunteer community and the percentage of that community that gives each year. We have seen many organizations where the rate of giving is consistently over 90% and often hovering at 95%. In fact, after having done hundreds of such analyses, we can say that the cohort most likely to give are volunteers. We know that volunteers give 10 times more over their lifetime than non-engaged donors.

If less than 85% of your volunteers are giving it means:

  • You’ve chosen the wrong volunteers, and/or
  • You’ve given them unsatisfying work, and/or
  • An inside view of your organization has caused them to lose faith in it

What most volunteers tell us is, “They use too much of my time and too little of my talent.” What they cite most often as a waste of their time is serving on advisory boards where they are treated as a captive audience like Hansel and Gretel and fed dog and pony presentations, assuming that will fatten up their philanthropy. This is why so many prospects have been led into the Hansel and Gretel deep dark woods of cultivation and so few donors have ever emerged from it.

So many volunteers say, “If they just want our money, why don’t they just go ahead and ask?” The fattening-up strategy isn’t working.

People are most likely to support what they helped shape not what they are told most often.

The more you tap into people’s talents, the more time they will give you, and the more treasure they will invest.

Sweat equity predicts the level of philanthropic investment.

It isn’t just “if you want people to give, ask their opinion,” it’s “let people help build what you want them to fund.”



Jim Langley is the president of Langley Innovations. Langley Innovations provides a range of services to its clients to help them understand the cultural underpinnings of philanthropy and the psychology of donors and, with that knowledge, to develop the most effective strategies and tactics to build broader and more lasting communities of support. Jim has authored numerous books including his most recent book, The Future of Fundraising: Adapting to New Philanthropic Realities, published by Academic Impressions in 2020. 

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