How to Build A High-Dollar Fundraising Volunteer

I don’t sing because I am happy. I am happy because I sing.

- William James

I don’t lead because I fundraise. I fundraise because I lead.

- Said No One Ever (Yet…)


Here is a story for you:

"I started reading palms when I was in my teens, as a way to supplement my income from doing magic and mental shows. When I started, I did not believe in palmistry. But I knew that to 'sell' it, I had to act as if I did. After a few years, I became a firm believer in palmistry. One day, the late Stanley Jaks, who was a professional mentalist and a man I respected, tactfully suggested that it would make an interesting experiment if I deliberately gave readings opposite to what the lines indicated. I tried this out with a few clients. To my surprise and horror, my readings were just as successful as ever. Ever since then I have been interested in the powerful forces that convince us, [palm] reader and client alike, that something is so when it really isn’t."

In this story, famed University of Oregon psychologist Ray Hyman described how acting the role of a palm reader convinced him that palmistry worked.

Let me reiterate - he said acting the role of X convinced him of X.

When we look at the people who serve on volunteer leadership committees for nonprofit peer-to-peer fundraising, we assume those people are our highest fundraisers and that’s how they came to be on the committees. Or we assume that these folks have a strong mission connection and that is why they are on the committee.

What if, because they simply act the role of people who are completely committed to their mission by being on the committee, they fundraise like people who are completely committed to their mission? What if serving on the committee is not a marker for high fundraising, but instead is causal to high fundraising? What if Ray Hyman is right and, if we get people on the committee, we can get them to fundraise?

We offer what limited proof we can. And wow, it is limited. The reason it is limited is that organizations by and large do not mark constituent records with “served on committee.” Because they don’t - it’s hard to study. We have one data set that illustrates our point. Unfortunately, this data set is from an organization that is only beginning to invest in volunteer leadership in a significant way, so the number of volunteer leadership and advocacy volunteers is small. With that said, take a look:


Yes, you read it correctly. Let’s just look at median fundraising:

  • Participant = $20
  • Volunteer leadership = $1,307
  • Advocates (lobbies on behalf of organization) = $2,600

Volunteer leaders outperform the group median 65/1. In the past, we have simply said, “Of course they fundraise at high levels, they are the most committed.” But according to social scientists, they act committed and, therefore, fundraise at high levels.

So powerful is the impact of our behavior on our attitudes that the behavior doesn’t even need to be a physical action—it can simply consist of spoken words. Psychologists refer to this as the “saying-becomes-believing” effect. What does that look like in our world? It looks like a volunteer taking the microphone and talking about the event. It looks like a team captain recruiting team members. It looks like an advocate calling a congressperson.

In the last 30 years, social psychologists have demonstrated time and time again that we are more likely to act ourselves into a way of thinking than we are to think ourselves into a way of acting. This is a startling notion. The observation that our attitudes follow our behavior has been noted across a wide variety of social situations.

So, at the end of the day, how do you make use of this idea—that to change an attitude in a target, we must extract a behavior from that target? You extract the behavior however you can.