Skip to main content

Volunteer Hounded to Death by Fundraisers? Lessons To Learn

Volunteer Hounded to Death by Fundraisers? Lessons To Learn


We trust that the dramatic title of this Points of View grabbed your attention.

The ‘volunteer’ we’re referring to is Olive Cooke, a 92-year-old volunteer for the Royal British Legion,1 who was found dead this past May. Although her family cited a variety of possible causes, the British media focused on reports that she “had received an overwhelming number of mail and telephone requests for donations from charities. She had given an interview to the Bristol Post newspaper last year about the high volume of direct mail she received from charities, saying that in one month she received 267 such letters.” An article titled “The Olive Cooke case poses questions for fundraisers,” published in Third Sector online, summarized the public’s response:

The suggestion that Cooke might have been "hounded to death" by charities – as the Daily Mail claimed – attracted the attention of the Prime Minister, David Cameron, who issued a statement urging the Fundraising Standards Board (FRSB) to look into whether Cooke's death could have been avoided. Two days later, the FRSB launched an investigation into the allegation that Cooke was deluged by communications from fundraisers.

Alistair McLean, chief executive of the FRSB, says its investigation will involve meeting the family to find out what charities Cooke was supporting before she died, as well as processing the many complaints it has received since then from people concerned about excessive contact from charities.

McLean says he expects the investigation to lead to a tightening of the Institute of Fundraising's Code of Fundraising Practice. And on the BBC's The One Show on 20 May, he highlighted two issues with current practice: the "microscopic" opt-out notices commonly used in charities' direct-mail communications and the way donor lists are shared among organisations.

The media and politicians may be most concerned about over-solicitation of financial donations, but we see this from a different perspective: What is or should be the connection between donating money and donating time?

Separation of Money Donors and Time Donors

It’s been our experience that too many organizations place a great divide between people who volunteer and people who write checks. This manifests itself in some conflicting practices:

  • Meticulous records are usually kept on all donations of money, no matter how small the amount, with new donors becoming targets of “cultivation” over the years towards ever-increasing fundraising goals. At the same time, organizations shy away from micro-volunteering and single days of service are often viewed as not worth the effort, as organiations rarely keep track of the individual volunteers who respond to such events or considering them, too, for possible cultivation.
  • Organizations budget money for fundraising software and support, but not for software dedicated to volunteer management. Therefore the recordkeeping systems are separated, making it impossible to see the big picture of who is supporting the organization.
  • Thank yous and acknowledgements are always given to money donors, with the most generous funders receiving major visibility through a variety of naming options – from a single room to a large building. Time donors, however, are lucky if they get a mug with the organization’s name on it, even if they have given a substantial amount of time over many years.
  • Most often, the volunteer department is carefully denied access to the records of financial donors and must jump through hoops to add a volunteer recruitment message to any fundraising appeal. In one organization engaged in international youth exchanges, returning high school students were added to the mailing list for fundraising and blocked from contact with those who needed to recruit more students and host families. This convoluted logic anticipated money from teens (who don’t have any) while stopping the teens from doing what they actually wanted to do: share their international travel experiences with their peers.

It’s our opinion that every organization needs friends of all sorts. People come in contact with the services offered in a wide variety of ways – and rarely is giving money the first one, nor the last. This means that an over-emphasis on only soliciting funds is a big mistake. It’s short-sighted and even counterproductive. As with Olive Cooke, requests for money can soon become unwanted begging, while other relationships with the potential to include money are left to shrivel because first contact is not based on a financial donation.

Compare and Analyze

The most important advice we can give is to ensure regular comparison of the lists of all the organization’s stakeholders: money donors, volunteers, clients, visitors, members, event attendees, subscribers, vendors, and anyone else who personally interacts with or benefits from your services in some way. At a minimum, we suggest this comparison be done annually, to see whether these groups are completely separate from each other or whether people show up on more than one list.

Here are just a few questions to ask:

  • If the majority of people are both financial donors and also volunteers, are you in need of new recruitment in both categories?
  • Is there any correlation between how much time someone gives and how much money they give? What about the other way round?
  • If there is no or little cross-over on the lists, are you doing enough “inviting” of people who already connect with you?
  • Cross-check for family relationships: If, say, one person sends in the annual donation, are other members of the family also volunteering throughout the year or attending special events? Why not?
  • Do former clients (alumni, really) ever end up on the donor list? On the volunteer list? Why not?
  • How many different messages and contacts from someone in your organization might someone receive if his or her name is on multiple lists? And would it seem as if the source of one message recognized the other roles already being played or ignored them?

None of this is possible to assess – or to improve or correct – if there is no intentional monitoring and comparing of all the lists.2

Asking Volunteers to Give Money, Too

Whilst the news reports about Olive Cooke stress that she was a dedicated and long-serving volunteer, there is no indication that the organization she volunteered for ever asked her for donations of money in addition to her time. This is all too often the case, as organizations fail to solicit funds from their volunteers.

There are two major reasons for not targeting volunteers as donor prospects: 1) the feeling that it is somehow ungrateful to add a request for money when someone is already giving time; and 2) the questionable assumption that people who volunteer do not have enough money to make asking for a donation worthwhile.

Never assume what’s in the bank account of a volunteer! Think of all those cats who inherited millions from little old lady volunteers seen by outsiders as poor. Wealth, or at least available disposable income, cannot be deduced from appearance. Nor do expensive clothes or cars necessarily prove liquidity or generosity. The only way to get a donation of money or time is to ask.

Rob once worked in the fundraising department of a national organization that researched which groups of people were most likely to leave legacies to the agency in their will. Not surprisingly, those most likely to make such a gift were those who used the organization’s services. But more surprisingly, the next most likely group were the agency’s volunteers. Volunteers were therefore invited to events to find out more about leaving a donation on their will and consequently pledge rates increased.

BUT (note the capitals for emphasis!) whatever organiations send to a volunteer to ask for money MUST start with a grateful reference, acknowledging the value of the time and skills the person has already donated throughout the year as a volunteer. NEVER just send the same fundraising pitch without this acknowledgement and never guilt anyone into feeling they must give. Here’s a suggested approach:

Because you already donate your time and skill to our mission as a valued volunteer, we know that you care a great deal about our work. Therefore, we would be remiss in not giving you the opportunity – should you so choose – to also participate in our annual fundraising campaign. You know that we need both volunteers and money to succeed.

Only send such a message once a year. On the other hand, volunteers are excellent candidates for personal outreach for planned giving. If they have spent hours and hours over many years volunteering for you, it is not a stretch to acknowledge this favored cause in their wills.   

Asking Money Donors to Give Time and Talent, Too

The other side of this coin (pun intended) is how rarely financial donors are asked to consider volunteering! If someone comes to our attention by writing a check, they immediately are typecast into this role only. Perhaps there is even the misguided sense that it would be insulting to ask someone of wealth to also give time.

As already noted, a single individual writes a check, but many other people are represented by it, especially family members. So, when acknowledging a donation, why not include a message about volunteer opportunities?  Again, the invitation can be worded along these lines:

We so appreciate the donation you just made to our work and will keep you informed about what your generosity has helped us to achieve. Of course, you can see for yourself if you – or anyone in your family – wishes to multiply your financial donation with the gift of time. We have a range of volunteer opportunities available and encourage you and family members to talk with our volunteer services office to see if any of them match your skills and schedule. Feel free to let your friends and work colleagues know about these, too.

Include a link to your Web site where current volunteer positions are advertised, or include the name, phone number, and e-mail address of the Volunteer Resources Manager (VRM). Note that you have not promised acceptance as a volunteer.

Fundraisers speak of “donor fatigue,” which happens when someone has given to a cause for many years and one day thinks, “Gee, maybe it’s time to give to some other group.” This means loss of the feeling of personal connection to the organization. One way to counter this is to show interest in the donor as someone with skills that matter. Even if the person does not respond to the invitation to volunteer, the recruitment pitch itself sends the critical message that the person is seen as more than a hand writing a check.

The exception to all of this is that special group of donors who give large amounts of money, so-called major donors. These people are often wealthy and well connected. Fundraisers who specialize in working with these groups often seek to engage the donors on committees to help plan major donor events: high profile social gatherings where the donors can use their contacts to help sell places and encourage friends to also give large amounts of money. In such roles major donors serving on committees are clearly volunteers but they are never given that label, as if volunteer management were beneath major donor fundraisers. After all, volunteers never do anything significant, right? And those who give money are only interested in helping to raise more, not in the actual services of the organization, right?

Integration is Key

Throughout this Points of View, we have highlighted the separation of different kinds of supporters, be they volunteers, financial donors, visitors, members, event attendees, etc.

Truly smart organizations recognize that this separation has to end. They see that they need to provide what in the jargon are called “integrated supporter journeys.” That is, supporters of all types are able to dip in and out of supporting the cause in whatever way is appropriate to them throughout their lives.

So teens may be active as volunteers, then become financial donors as well when they get a job and their income increases. These same people may then increase their volunteer hours again in retirement before leaving a legacy in their wills as their final act of support.

Such an approach requires everyone across an organization, VRMs included, to stop seeing their constituency not as ‘my donors’ or ‘my volunteers’ but rather as our donors/volunteers /members.

Individual supporters must lead the way in identifying what type of contribution they are ready to make, while agency staff then seeks to maximize their support in the most appropriate and effective way. This in turn means the removal of barriers and more equal valuing of time, talent, and money. This challenges long-held orthodoxies about how people support an agency’s work; in other words, the bread and butter of what many VRMs have to deal with every day. What an opportunity for us to demonstrate leadership in our organizations!

Integrating engagement with all your supporters is key to running an effective non-profit in the 21st century. If more of this takes place, then something good will have come out of the sad death of Olive Cooke.


For those readers interested in exploring the Olive Cooke case further, take a look at Rob’s additional take on it in his blog posting for June 2015:


1We should point out that the Royal British Legion for whom Cooke volunteered has not been accused of being one of the charities who pursued her for donations. No link between her volunteering for the organiation and the organization pursuing her for money is drawn or implied.

2 Note that we are encouraging you to share these lists, which may sit on separate recordkeeping systems. We are not suggesting all these systems are combined into one super-database of everyone in the organization, though this is sometimes an agency’s goal. However, in our experience, no system does everything needed by each of the specific teams who manage this data. A good volunteer management system does not do all that fundraisers need, nor vice versa. So have whichever tools make most sense to the teams who use them and then ensure that comparison between them takes place.

To add or view comments

Wed, 07/15/2015
I encourage my development colleagues to check in with us personally before proposing volunteer engagement opportunities to donors -- we have been introduced to truly amazing volunteers via this route. The challenge comes when we're encouraged to place the teen/relative/acquaintance of a donor to maintain the relationship in lieu of those who've gone through the rigorous application process without inside assistance. Balance (as in tightrope) and effective communication are key!