Special to the Philanthropy Journal Disseminating expertise already inside your organization greatly improves performance
By Phillip S. Coles
Often nonprofit organization leadership assumes consultants, professional fundraisers and financial incentives are needed to solicit funds successfully. This can result in a significant portion of donations going to fundraising expenses. In reality, extensive expertise already may exist among current volunteers. The challenge facing organizations is how to access and channel existing knowledge to improve fundraising success.
Every organization has fundraisers who consistently emerge on top. Often organizations reward these high performers with incentives, but little effort is expended learning why they are successful or how to share their skills with others. How can lesser performers achieve the same success others in your organization experience routinely? The answer for any organization, including non-profits, is discovering the tools top performers use.
Learning what your top performers know, however, can be difficult. Often when asked why they are successful, we get answers like, “It’s not hard to do,” or even, “I don’t know.” The most successful persons within an organization frequently cannot verbalize the steps they take to get results. Fortunately, there is a tool that can help you learn what the top performers are doing and use the knowledge to improve performance across the organization. The tool helps your top performers verbalize their strategies. It is called laddering.
Laddering is a simple tool that can be used to discover successful strategies. Winning fundraisers do things without having to think; it’s automatic. Through laddering, an interviewer can delve in depth, revealing the details of successful fundraising efforts.
Laddering is an interview technique originally used to understand consumer behavior. It involves a series of direct probes intended to reveal the deeper, often unarticulated, reasons why people are attracted to various products. By determining how consumer perceptions of product attributes, consequences and values are linked, laddering can generate new insights for a wide range of behavioral applications. For our purposes, we extend the traditional laddering technique to develop a method for exposing details of how people perform a particular process. In this use of laddering, interview questions go from general to specific in order to capture in detail the techniques volunteers use to raise money.
Big Brothers/Big Sisters (BB/BS) of Berks County, PA, used laddering to improve fundraising. BB/BS of Berks serves the city of Reading and Berks County. Reading is one of the poorest cities in the United States with over 40% living below the poverty line. There is a large need for BB/BS’s services.
The principal fundraiser at BB/BS is Bowl for Kid’s Sake. Local companies provide bowling teams through a company coordinator at each organization. Coordinators enlist captains who form teams of five bowlers each. Bowlers raise funds by finding sponsors. However, at a time when funds are needed more than ever, many businesses have left the area or consolidated, significantly reducing team numbers and, consequently, donations. The reduction in volunteers, however, did not affect some company coordinators and teams who consistently performed better than others. BB/BS employed Laddering interviews to learn how the best fund raisers excelled, and to develop strategies to increase team numbers and maximize donations.
The figure shows ladders from three interviews. The first two were from successful team coordinators and the third from a BB/BS volunteer in Tomkins County, NY. All start with the general question: Why are you a successful fundraiser? Each response elicits a more detailed question and a more detailed response until the essential actions are revealed. The first ladder demonstrates the importance of recruiting coordinators from supportive companies.
The second illustrates a successful communication strategy: contacting many people with email blasts telling the story of BB/BS and its success, sending follow-up emails and placing follow-up calls. By implementing these methods, the company coordinator reduces the captains’ workloads; paperwork is streamlined, reducing the “cost” of volunteering.
The right side of the figure shows another source of fundraising personnel: “Big Brother/Sister” volunteers. Since they work directly with the kids, these entrenched volunteers exhibit strong dedication and are unlikely to switch to fundraising for other charities. They obtain teammates and solicit funds from acquaintances through Facebook and email contacts. Additionally, this ladder showed us how fundraising sites can simplify these volunteers’ responsibilities.
Through laddering, BB/BS identified its best volunteer sources, strategies of top fundraisers, and a state-of-the-art collection method. Insights generated by this tool will be implemented within the organization to improve fundraising. Laddering proved to be an essential tool for BB/BS to capture and use knowledge from within. Your organization can do the same.
Phil Coles is presently a graduate student at the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University and was a Big Brother volunteer and board member at Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Berks County.
 Reynolds, T. J. (1988). Laddering theory, method, analysis, and interpretation. Journal of advertising research , 28(1), 11-31.  Brudereck, J. “Reading Sheds ’Poorest’ Rank, but Poverty Still a Challenge.” Reading Eagle, 9/20/2012, http://www2.readingeagle.com/article.aspx?id=415738, accessed 11/25/2014