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  • Writer's pictureJessica

How Executive Directors Can Boost Fundraising through Volunteer Engagement: A Conversation with Robyne Walker Murphy

Robyne is smiling directly at the camera with warm eyes. She’s wearing a black turtleneck. Silver earrings that incorporate the shape of Africa and long black curly hair frame Robyne’s radiant face.
Robyne is smiling directly at the camera with warm eyes. She’s wearing a black turtleneck. Silver earrings that incorporate the shape of Africa and long black curly hair frame Robyne’s radiant face.

I met Robyne Walker Murphy through Cindy Wagman’s Impact & Profit Program for non-profit consultants. And let me tell you, Robyne is a powerhouse in the social justice and arts spaces. 


In one of her previous roles with DreamYard Art Centre, she oversaw the expansion of program offerings from three to 16 programs. DreamYard Art Centre was recognized by the White House as one of the top twelve out-of-school programs in America and Robyne accepted the award from Michelle Obama! In another previous role with the National Guild for Community Arts Education, Robyne created the Guild's first network for leaders of color in the arts, ALAANA (African, Latin, Asian, Arabic, Native American) to raise the profile of work being led by people of color (POC) in the arts, increase POC access to sustained resources, and invest in the growth and leadership of people of color in the field of community arts education. 


Nowadays, Robyne is the Leadership Strategist and Curriculum Developer for Brooklyn Arts Leadership Collaborative, a new cohort learning program with the Joe and Clara Tsai Social Justice Fund at Brooklyn Museum that supports BIPOC-led organizations whose budgets are 500k or less. She regularly conducts workshops and writes about her areas of expertise for leading institutions and publications. While chatting about our work, Robyne was shocked that I’ve encountered fundraising colleagues, including executives, who have said to my face that “volunteer engagement doesn’t bring in revenue.” 


She shared her experience as an Executive Director (ED) of a $2.3 million organization where the opposite was true; a volunteer for that organization boosted revenue and showed Robyne the power of genuine connections. I appreciate Robyne for allowing me to share some of our conversation with you.


JPP: Thanks for your time Robyne. Please tell me about the organization you led and how this volunteer became involved. 


RWM: I was the Executive Director at Groundswell, a social justice youth mural making organization. When I joined, it had been around for over 20 years and had produced over 250 social justice focused murals all over the five boroughs of New York City.


We brought together youth artists and community members to use the mural making process to create a dialogue, to build community, and to bring awareness to really important social justice issues through this powerful medium of mural making and public art. The process of art making and public art making lent itself to having lots inviting people in, because when you make murals, you need people to get things done. 


I met this volunteer through an event that I was invited to by a board member. It was an event hosted by a high-end paint company. When I was invited to these kinds of events as an Executive Director, I went with the mindset of: “Who are the people here? How can I get them involved in Groundswell?” 


At that time, the board was in a rebuilding phase and I wanted to build relationships with people who could potentially make an impact through board service. But of course, you can’t just walk up to someone at a party and ask them to join your board. This is where volunteerism comes in… 


When I think about volunteers, I don't just think about them as just volunteers. I see volunteering as a gateway to all the other opportunities that are within the organization and an invitation to get to know the organization better.


I invited this person, and many others, to volunteer with Groundswell through a community paint day. But once they volunteered, I made sure we told them all the other really cool things they could do with us.


JPP: What about this person and your conversation with them prompted you to invite them to volunteer?


RWM: When we started talking, I found out that she was from Brooklyn and was looking for paint for her brownstone. Although Groundswell serves all five boroughs, the headquarters are in Brooklyn and the majority of the murals are in Brooklyn. As we chatted, I found out that she was familiar with Groundswell’s murals. 


I also found out that she volunteered at other organizations focused on young people and has a deep appreciation for art.


JPP: Is she an artist?


RWM: She works in finance. Alongside art, her other passion was around financial literacy for young people. 


As I listened more than I talked, I thought, “How can I find a space for her at Groundswell?”


JPP: That's cool. You found her motivations and matched them to the kind of impact she wanted to see.  


How did you engage this busy finance professional to come out? Did you integrate financial literacy into that day’s work?


RWM: I just invited her to paint and to come learn more about us, no mention of financial literacy at all.


These invites were also a bit of a test. I wanted to see how interested the person was in our work and if they actually showed up.


When observing them at paint days, I looked for whether they gelled with the community and how they interacted with the young people working alongside them.


Seeing that a board prospect will invest time and energy into the community and the organization is critical. It’s just as or even more important than their financial capacity to donate or the networks they might connect the organization with. 


JPP: So what happened after she volunteered at the community paint day? I know you had already thought about her in a board role. What was your volunteer stewardship process?


RWM: Volunteer stewardship process- I wasn't even using that language but I love it! For me, I was thinking:

  • I’m bringing this person in. 

  • I want to get this person involved. 

  • I want to get this person connected. 

  • I want to follow up with this person.

  • And, I'm going to find other ways to show this person the impact that we're having.


I did this through sending her photos the day and the completed mural with a thank you note. Then, I invited her to lunch.


At that lunch, I was very transparent about the board being in a rebuild phase and some of the challenges we were having. I shared my vision and about where we wanted to go. I shared the kind of partners we wanted. 


I answered her questions honestly and listened to see if our strategy excited her.


JPP: That's amazing advice. I find that, you know, sometimes on boards, you see people who join because their friends are on it or because they think it's sunshine and rainbows. I also find that some people want to sit on a board, they don’t want to serve on a board.


I love that you were honest and genuine in that chat. 


Can you give me a bit of a time frame between this volunteer coming to her first community paint day and joining the board?


RWM: I would say I shared my intentions a few weeks after the paint day. She joined the board about four to five months later. After about five months on the board, she became the Board Chair. 


This individual is still on the board today, after almost five years, staying through COVID and the leadership transition from when I left the Executive Director role. 


JPP: Okay, let’s talk about financial giving. Did you have to ask her for a donation? Or, did she just hand over her credit card?


RWM: Well, when we ask people to join the board, there is a role description. And inside that role description, is information about giving financially, and getting donations in the door. 


Of course, different people have different circumstances. At the beginning of the year, we had conversations with each board member. Sometimes it took a long time for people to make their pledge but we made it explicit. We also set the expectation that board members would create and share a peer-to-peer campaign page for our spring campaign. 


JPP: Amazing. So much of volunteer engagement is about setting and managing expectations. 


How did you manage expectations when the give and get wasn’t happening in the timelines you needed?


RWM: Sometimes you just have to nudge. Sometimes people, especially folks with corporate careers, just don't understand financial urgency in non-profit and things like having cash for operations at the beginning of a school year. 


Every time I saw the board, I would remind them of upcoming needs, which did make a difference. 


Another thing I would remind the board of was company matches. But, I’ve also come across a board member who changed jobs and their new company didn’t match. 


JPP: So based on your experience, is it important to treat donors who also volunteer differently? 


RWM: When I see a volunteer, I don’t make a distinction between how I treat them and a donor. I see it all the same. 


What’s important is their interests and what they want. It really is through listening where you’ll find out what they want to do. You'll see if a spark comes in their eye during conversations at that initial one-off volunteer activity. 


And if you don’t see that spark, try a different angle. For instance, Groundswell has school partners and there were folks who wanted to support specific schools. Others were really jazzed about painting; for them, we would invite them on a mural tour.


From there, we would let them know the impact that the gift has had over a period of time. And if they made lots of gifts, I would ask, “Do you want to become more deeply involved?” 


Each person is unique and it’s important we recognize the richness in their experiences and connections to the cause. Don’t pigeonhole folks into specific volunteer roles. 


I would say that our sector needs to expand their minds around what volunteers can do. Each volunteer is a potential ambassador, connector, and network builder for your organization.


JPP: I love that ethos and I’m wondering how you coached your team to steward volunteers the same way that they were expected to steward donors. I’ve seen fundraisers who are very focused on their quarterly or annual revenue goal. 


How did you encourage your team to think beyond chasing the next donation and focus more on long-term relationships?


RWM: I think of fundraising as an ecosystem and communicated this to the team. Fundraising is not just the Executive Director or Development Director’s responsibility. 


All aspects of the organization, including volunteer engagement, need to be working well for fundraising goals to be hit. We all have to be thinking about working at our highest level to be able to do that. 


I’m also big on creating goals at different levels, like stretch goals versus realistic goals. 

Also, it’s important to think more expansively about how resources are coming into the organization. One area of consideration is in-kind donations. In-kind support, including those that volunteers connect you to, provides needed supplies and helps to alleviate fundraising pressure. 


Finally, our work is about relationships. Sometimes, we get too focused on building relationships with funders and overlook relationships with staff, volunteers, folks who are just in the neighborhood, folks down the street, the businesses across the street. These are the sustainers of the organization. 


Many times in our sector, we’re trying to find that rich person who's gonna give the money. This means we overlook smaller donations from these volunteers who are waiting to be engaged more deeply. It takes time, it takes a strategy, and it means making an investment. 


JPP: Okay. So, one of the things that I don’t want to result from this conversation is fundraisers reading it and thinking, “I'm going to get someone to pull the whole list of volunteers, and then we're just going to blast them with the same ask.”


That's not going to work because they’re ignoring your advice on seeing people as individuals and listening to them. So how did you coach your team to gather unique information that was helpful for revenue generation?


RWM: I encouraged them to get a sense of what capacity people had through active listening. 


The other thing that was really helpful for us was having different giving levels and outlining the tangible impact at each level. For example: $10 a month allows us to buy metrocards for a participant, $50 a month funds arts supplies for a classroom, $500 a month allows us to pay part-time facilitators a fair wage. 


JPP: And what advice do you have around how to be more comfortable with asking for donations?


RWM: I took a quiz created by Brian Saber called Asking Styles. One of the things that happens in fundraising is people kind of make you feel like there's one way to fundraise and one fundraiser personality type. 


Earlier on in my career, someone told me that I should go to a prospect’s child’s baseball game. That’s just not me. So knowing my style and learning that I would feel most comfortable asking for donations over lunch made a big difference. 


Another thing I learned was that I am more comfortable when my intentions for that lunch are known in advance. So, in my invitation, I would write, “I would love to have lunch and talk about you giving a gift to Groundswell.”


JPP: Any final thoughts to share around being authentic and respectful when fundraising and engaging volunteers?


RWM: Yes! A few things:

  1. Get out from behind your desk and into the community! Learn about who community members are and ask them to be involved!

  2. Show volunteer appreciation by directing resources towards snacks, transportation support, or recognition events. 

  3. Make opportunities flexible and accessible. If you can’t get people to come out, it might be because the opportunities available are limited to a certain time of day, require too long of a commitment, or aren’t easy to get to.


JPP: Thank you Robyne for your incredible insights! Where can people find you?


RWM: I’m on LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/robyne-walker-murphy. Thanks and take care! 




Thanks for reading! Like this post and want to buy me a coffee? Please visit https://buymeacoffee.com/learnwithjpp

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