5 Ways to Expand Your Pool of Donors and Volunteers

by Joan Garry

Ever feel like you’re always fishing in the same pond? Here are 5 ways you can expand your pool of donors, volunteers, staff members, and board members too.

Do you ever feel like you’re always fishing in the same pond?

This week I gave a speech at the JDRF national conference in Chicago. I learned some powerful stuff. For example, 1.25 million people in the country are afflicted with Type 1 Diabetes, or “T1D,” and there are 40,000 new diagnoses annually, largely in children. It changes their lives and their families’ lives forever.

Something about the conference felt like a family reunion. It kinda was.

Now I’m not saying that everyone there had a family member living with T1D but a heck of a lot did.

Here were hundreds of men and women, fierce advocates for the eradication of T1D. Wonderful people.

But when you are too insular it’s a big problem. Nonprofits must think more broadly about who to engage in their work and the challenges being insular can create.

I spoke to the Chief Development Officer and the page is beginning to turn. There is a growing realization that if you want to raise the kinds of funds necessary for critical research and for lobbying elected officials to push for more government funding, you simply have to fish in more ponds.

A lot of folks feel stuck in this way. They know how to ask the usual folks to volunteer their time or give money. But not how their nonprofits can expand the pool.

Pool… ponds… sorry for mixing my metaphors. But they just both work so well.

Here are five ways you can expand your pool of donors, volunteers, staff members, and board members too.


You may know that I spent nearly a decade as the Executive Director of GLAAD, an LGBT rights organization focused on holding the media accountable to tell the story of LGBT lives as a means to change hearts and minds.

The LGBT community has done a remarkable job at changing hearts and minds in this country over recent years. But it used to be harder.

Once upon a time, long ago, the gay community fished only in gay ponds for volunteers, staff members, donors and board members. Why? The biggest reason is that it was hard to engage with anyone else.

I remember a straight media executive we honored at the Rainbow Room in New York. It was 1998 at a corporate luncheon. She spoke eloquently and with outrage about how hard it was for her to sell tickets. “I’m afraid someone may come on to me,” one person told her. Yup. 1998.

So what’s changed. One of the biggest things is that more and more straight allies have joined the fight for equality. Parents, friends, neighbors and just good old fair minded people. And the engagement of non-LGBT allies has fueled a movement, changed hearts and minds and the LGBT community and society as a whole has benefitted.

The pool got bigger.


A client of mine does class action legal work, arbitration. They fight against pollution with industries for years at a time to secure justice for communities. Arbitration clauses, for example, find their way into contracts that keep regular folks from suing a car company. These are long protracted cases. Affecting hundreds or maybe thousands.

Their entire board? All lawyers.

All their donors? Lawyers.

It’s not enough. Sure lots of well-to-do lawyers can give and get money. But what if you actually engaged in grassroots organizing and had communities involved? What if you started to really think about how to reach out beyond the legal community? Wouldn’t that enable you to do more? Have greater impact?

A board of only lawyers think only like, well, lawyers. This my friends is why diversity is so important in our sector (strike that… in our UNIVERSE). Different life experiences, professional backgrounds, ages, genders, cultural experiences. This is what generates new ideas and different approaches.

And when it comes to the hundreds of thousands of illness-based nonprofits fighting to end AIDS or cancer or diabetes, or the thousands of organizations founded in response to tragedy, it feels even more important to add the voices of those who don’t live and breathe that emotional drain every single day.

Clearly those who are very close to the illness or tragedy are key ambassadors, advocates and champions. But you can be so close it’s hard.


  1. You have to believe and be open to the possibility. There are two issues to overcome. One is the comfort that comes from knowing how to raise money from a particular cohort (attorneys for example). The second is more complex. In an illness-based organization, there can be a bias against those with the lived experience. You have to take a leap of faith that others will bring value.
  2. Invest in public education. People can’t engage in causes they are unaware of. Strong communications and marketing can help you swim in new and bigger ponds.
  3. Be creative In thinking about who else might care. A great example is work the folks at Big Duck (a branding firm that works with nonprofits) did with an organization called “Families of SMA.”SMA is a rare disease and the organization was trying to reach new audiences. First a name change: Cure SMA. A very smart pivot. Then they went looking for folks who cared about kids, about sick kids. Then they started to reach out to scientists who cared about rare illnesses. It worked. They took the new brand out for a spin and doubled the number of donors AND dollars. You can learn a whole lot more about this on my next podcast episode coming in just a few days…
  4. Create an organizational narrative with a universal theme. So maybe you think legal work takes a long time and feels wonky. But re-read the legal work I described and then think about the Julia Roberts’ movie based on the actual class action suit, Erin Brockovich. This wasn’t a movie about a lawyer and a long protracted suit. Yes, a lawyer was central to the story. But the real story was about how a woman and then a group of people played “David” to a company’s ‘Goliath.” A common narrative with a universal appeal.
  5. Cultivate and steward. One of the ways folks try to engage new folks in a cause they feel may not be relevant to them is through races, runs, walks. These can be very successful in raising funds but not necessarily keep these folks engaged all year round or attach them to the cause. A person likes to run and ask folks to sponsor her. This will give this new stakeholder a modest level of investment in the cause and it will be up to you to send follow-ups to folks, to send an email with news or an organizational accomplishment that cultivates that runner and begins to move her.


Take 10 minutes and come up with the names of three people who would not be usual suspects for engagement. Maybe your kid has T1D and you are connected to her teacher or soccer coach.

Or with regard to the class action organization I mentioned above, do you know anyone who has ever been a part of one? Or, to use a overused phrase, a person who has been taken advantage of by “the man” (a big company.)

I guarantee you will come up with a few new names. Send those folks a note with a good old fashioned, easy-to-understand story about your work. End the story with “would you like to know more?”

Let us all know how it goes in the comments below!

2 thoughts on “5 Ways to Expand Your Pool of Donors and Volunteers”

  1. Joan, great words of wisdom. Likely all of us are guilty of going to those who are presently out of our circles. I really like your action points, all doable. What can it hurt to expose folks to an issue, /need they may know nothing about? As an example, my Dad was T1D and I saw how he suffered, dying at age 52. Have I ever been approached by NEED? Nope. Would I give, possibly, but somehow need to learn of them.
    So appreciate all your articles.

  2. Right. the question is how do organization dedicate time and energy to developing a more creative outreach strategy. Thanks for your comment and I’m sorry you lost your dad at such a young age.

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