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Volunteer Management and the Salt Shaker Theory

Applying Constant Gentle Pressure to Fundraising Volunteers

How many times have you attended (or led) a lively discussion with a fundraising volunteer corps, left energized by their enthusiasm, only to check back in a week or two to learn that nothing’s been done? It can happen to the best campaign committee, foundation board, gala chairs, or annual fund corps. The fact that it’s a common problem only makes it more frustrating.

What can you do?

We’ve tried all sorts of tactics, ranging from carrots (like public praise for those who fulfill assignments) to sticks (a weekly report showing who’s failed to get the job done). And we’ve insisted that our clients continue to hold regular meetings, even though volunteers are busy people who dread one more standing appointment on their calendar. We know they’ll come to the meeting with something to report, even if all of their activity was a mad scramble the day prior.

Danny Meyer, the successful restaurateur and CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group, has a business philosophy that could apply to our volunteer corps as neatly as it fits his staff at restaurants like Gramercy Tavern in New York or the fast-growing Shake Shack chain. It’s called “The Salt Shaker Theory” and grew out of a conversation early in his career, when a friend and mentor stopped by his first restaurant and helped him understand the nature of leadership. As Danny tells the story:

He pointed to the set table next to us. “First,” he said, “I want you to take everything off that table except for the saltshaker. Get rid of the plates, the silverware, the napkins, even the pepper mill. I just want you to leave the saltshaker by itself in the middle.”

I did as he said, and he asked, “Where is the saltshaker now?” “Right where you told me, in the center of the table.” “Are you sure that’s where you want it?” I looked closely. The shaker was actually about a quarter of an inch off center. “Go ahead. Put it where you really want it,” he said.

I moved it very slightly to what looked to be smack dab in the center. As soon as I removed my hand, Pat pushed the saltshaker three inches off center.

“Now put it back where you want it,” he said. I returned it to dead center. This time he moved the shaker six inches off center, again asking, “Now where do you want it?”

I slid it back.

Then he explained his point. “Listen, luvah. Your staff and your guests are always moving your saltshaker off center. That’s their job. It is the job of life. Until you understand that, you’re going to get pissed off every time someone moves the saltshaker off center. It is not your job to get upset. You just need to understand: That’s what they do. Your job is just to move the shaker back each time and let them know exactly what you stand for. Let them know what excellence looks like.¹

Volunteers can likewise move a campaign off-center. They can dawdle on their calls, ask for a gift over the phone, or stumble when asked to describe the fundraising goals. If it is our job to understand, then how do we move our fundraising goals back to center? For Danny, the lesson led to the creation of a management technique he calls constant-gentle-pressure. Each element is critical, and every member of the leadership team is responsible for reinforcing all three.

How does constant-gentle-pressure apply to fundraising committee members? Let’s examine the elements one at a time.

  • Constant: Volunteers don’t wake up every morning thinking about your nonprofit and its goals. Their lives are full of deadlines and distractions. That’s why they need constant reminders: a weekly (or even daily) e-mail, a personal phone call two weeks before the committee gathering, a consistent agenda at the meetings. Pressure that is gentle but not constant sends mixed messages.
  • Gentle: Let’s remember that they are volunteers (and, without them, the project fizzles). Pressure that is constant but not gentle – such as public shaming – will only demoralize the team. That’s why volunteers need coaching more than “training”. Coaching is correction with dignity. Often, they need the reassurance of a staff person to accompany them on their calls. And they need engagement: a volunteer who comes to a meeting with a specific assignment feels the gentle accountability of high expectations.
  • Pressure: Without pressure, volunteers will lack the drive to fulfill their assignments. Sometimes it comes in the form of peer pressure: most high-performing volunteers want to keep the promises they’ve made in front of friends and colleagues. For others, it’s their internal commitment to the cause. Find the pressure point, and you’ll be more likely to trigger action.

With consistent application, constant-gentle-pressure creates a culture of accomplishment. Just as one salty potato chip leads to another (and ten or twelve more, in my case), the Salt Shaker Theory becomes a self-perpetuating process. At its best, it leads to a successful campaign where the volunteers can look back with a sense of accomplishment, blissfully unaware of the constant-gentle-pressure that kept the effort on track.

 ¹Meyer, Danny (October, 2006) The Salt Shaker Theory, Inc. Magazine.

Laura MacDonald has earned a national reputation for her dedication to the nonprofit sector. She is a Certified Fund-Raising Executive (CFRE) with decades of experience in nonprofit leadership, fundraising, and philanthropy. In 1999, she established Benefactor Group to serve the needs of those who serve the common good.

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