how do I ask for things and get people to actually help me (as a manager and as a volunteer)?

A reader writes:

In my both professional and personal life, I notice a common theme, and I’m wondering what I’m doing wrong. I manage people in my work life, and am the chair of a not-for-profit in my personal life. In both situations, I notice that I have a lot of difficulty getting people to help me with things.

For example, we are undertaking our annual fundraiser for my nonprofit, and when communicating with my board members, I get no response. I see the same thing in my work—reaching out to ask for help from my staff, and often getting no response. How do you ask for things and actually get people to help in the work? I am worried that it’s in my delivery—am I asking too much, am I demanding of people or conversely too wishy-washy, what is is it in my delivery that people aren’t responding to?

As an example, here’s an email that I sent to my board. I have not heard a single response from any board member, and no one has accessed the link that I sent (this email was sent out two weeks ago). I was actually worried that maybe my email didn’t send, so I sent a reminder yesterday, and still nothing. This is something that we ask of board members every year, so it’s not something that is new to them:

Hi everyone, and happy Friday!

We have officially launched the Long Table Dinner, officially known as the Autumn Harvest Dinner! I really need help collecting items for the silent auction/raffle. I’ve made a copy of last year’s list, including, wherever possible, the contact person and what they donated last year. If you could help out by contacting some people, that would be great (Jesse, the house cleaning last year was super popular!). Please see link below. I’ve also attached a copy of a donation request that you can give out.

Thanks so much everyone!

The work issues and volunteer work issues might be two separate issues with two separate solutions — or they might not be.

With people you manage at work, you have the authority and the standing to not just “ask for help” but to assign work, with specific responsibilities and deadlines. I can’t tell if you’re doing that or not. If you are assigning specific projects/tasks/responsibilities with clear deadlines and your staff members are just ignoring you, that’s a huge problem! You’d need to sit down with each person individually, name the pattern, and tell them that it’s a requirement of their job to do assigned tasks by their deadlines, and you’d need to treat it as a serious performance issue if the problem continues.

But the example email you shared makes me wonder if you’re not doing that. I don’t want to read too much into it since it’s just a single email from a different (volunteer) context, but here’s what I see in that email: you’re not assigning specific tasks and instead you’re asking a large group for general help. So it’s easy for people to assume someone else will step up. You’d probably get better results if you instead said, “I need each board member to contact five people; your assigned list is attached. Can you please make contact with each person on your list by October 10? I’ll check in on October 1 to make sure you’re not running into issues.” The purpose of the interim check-in is to keep an eye on the work during the time period you expect it to be happening in — so that if it’s not, you find that out early and can course-correct, rather than not discovering it until the end. (Also, ideally you’d mention ahead of time at a board meeting that this is coming, so people know to expect it and have the opportunity to raise any concerns they have about their ability to do what you need.)

If you start approaching work like that with your board members and still aren’t getting what you need, that’s an issue to raise with the board more broadly. Maybe they’re not able to give you the level of work you’re requesting, maybe they think your deadlines are unreasonable, maybe they think staff should be doing some of this rather than board members — who knows. But the next step would be to raise the issue and figure out how to navigate it.

The first step though — in both contexts — is to be specific about what you need and who you are asking to do what and by when. A general “please help out” isn’t explicit enough or individualized enough to get you what you need.

{ 224 comments… read them below }

  1. Trout 'Waver*

    As mentioned in the column, I don’t want to read too much into a single e-mail. But…..

    A former boss had this advice: “If you want something to get done, assign it to a specific person. If you want something to not get done, assign it to a committee.”

    Diffuse responsibility is no responsibility.

    1. ecnaseener*

      Yep! There’s a reason why if there’s an emergency, you’re not supposed to just yell “someone call 911,” you’re supposed to point at a specific person and tell them to call.

      1. AJ*

        The last 911-level situation I was involved in, so many people called 911 that the center was actually overloaded from receiving more calls, and 911 had to call me back to make sure I didn’t have a different emergency.

      2. OMG, Bees!*

        Yep, had the same thought when reading this. In psychology that’s call the Bystander Effect, where people assume someone else will handle the problem.

        Obviously different in a work situation, but if one is already overloaded at work (as is too often the case), then being asked in a group to take on more tasks but not directly told makes it easier to dodge it. Esp if you have to delay other work

    2. Springtime*

      Someone I know who had a very effective system for running small (neighborhood-level) fundraisers with volunteers would start with a list of every task that needed to be done and when. He approached every person individually (in person and if not possible, by phone) and said something like, “We need your help. Are you available at any of these times? OK, good. Would you like to do x or y?” Then he wrote it down. Then he would call every single person and remind them to do it and that the group was counting on them. Believe me, it is much harder to not volunteer in those circumstances than to just pretend that you didn’t see an email in time. It’s a lot of work, but effective volunteer coordination IS a lot of work.

          1. saskia*

            Presumably, you’d already understand the general context and be excited to help out because, ya know, you’re volunteering?

            1. NAL-NYL*

              Lots of people struggle with the less fun tasks of volunteering, reaching out for donations is definitely one of those less fun tasks no matter how exciting the organization itself is to the volunteers.

              1. Cj*

                I used to volunteer for a humane society, and I thought contacting people for these types of donations was really easy, and well received by the people I was asking.

                I would hate to call asking for cash donations, but this organization, as well as the Humane Society I volunteered for, were asking for items to be donated for a silent auction / raffle. We were contacting businesses, and the items (as well as their names) were on display at the silent auction, so it was cheap advertising for them.

        1. Venus*

          I think it’s a very fair way to do things when handing out work tasks and to a group of volunteers who have already offered to help. It’s a good way to do things if “Are you available at any of these times?” can easily be answered with “Sorry, I can’t”. More of a problem if the person pushes.

          1. MigraineMonth*

            I’ve been volunteering regularly for an organization, and I was a bit irritated when I got an initial email that said “Come pick up the materials this Friday to hand out this Saturday and Sunday.” If I’ve opted in, that’s reasonable. If this is your first contact, don’t just assume I’m available on a random weekend!

            The buttering-up about being a great volunteer can be very effective, though, as long as it’s personalized.

      1. Be Gneiss*

        It’s a little different context, but one of my kid’s sports teams goes a step further. It’s made clear at the start of the season that there is an expectation (and parent agreement) that you volunteer for task A, B, and C a certain number of times. The last person in charge just handed out a schedule the first day and said “it’s your responsibility to find someone to switch if you can’t make it.” And do you know what? Every shift was covered all season long.

        1. Gumby*

          When I did competitive gymnastics, parents/families were expected to earn a certain number of points via volunteering. So small tasks (bringing pre-packaged food to sell at the concession stand at a meet we hosted, flashing the scores for one session, etc.) would earn a smaller number of points while larger tasks (setting up and taking down the equipment, organizing and running the whole concession stand) earned more points. You could buy out points if you had more money than time. There were sign up sheets whenever events or other point opportunities were happening and everyone could select something that fit with their budget and schedule. It ended up working out pretty well. Though I may just be saying that because for several years my mom ran our concession stand and instead of the standard menu of chips, hot dogs, and lukewarm pizza of other meets in that era we had taco salad, baked potatoes with BBQ beef, and fresh fruit. We got compliments. (Crock pots FTW!)

      2. Hula-la*

        OP here–I love that idea! When it’s framed as “can you do x or y’, they get a choice, but they’re still doing something.

        1. Hastily Blessed Fritos*

          Classic parenting move. “Do you want peas or green beans with dinner?” You’re fine with either option, but they have a choice.

          1. This Old House*

            Currently cracking up picturing adult nonprofit volunteers responding to a choice the way my toddler always did, by screaming “I want NONE OF THESE THINGS!”

            1. londonedit*

              Yes…my nephew has never had a problem with vegetables, but with any other decision the answer was more likely to be ‘I don’t want ANYTHING’. Not exactly helpful when you need to leave the house in five minutes and the choices are ‘Do you want to wear your blue trousers or your red ones?’

            2. TeaCoziesRUs*

              Heh. My kids knew that if they didn’t pick one of the choices, I’d simply make it for them and then shrug when they pouted that, “but I wanted THAT one, not THIS one…” It was amazing how quickly they learned to make a choice when offered one. Bwa ha ha.

          2. allathian*

            Thankfully my son’s always loved his veggies. He even asked for more when we had steamed broccoli for the first time!

        2. KateM*

          Especially in case of volunteers, I would give a list of tasks to be done and how many people needed for each – x people to do this, y people to do that, put yourself down to whatever you like best (unless it is already taken – so don’t be tardy!).

        3. Chirpy*

          Legitimately, I used to do this with a coworker who I needed to organize lunch times with for coverage. After one too many times where she’d keep saying she was “about to go to lunch” and then just…didn’t, even when I kept reminding her, which meant I couldn’t go to lunch until after 2pm (or later!), I started asking her if she wanted to go at 11, or 12?

          She had to commit to a time, (and couldn’t say something annoying like 11:30 then forget) and I got lunch at a reasonable hour.

          …I learned this technique working with children…

      3. D*

        1000%. I did volunteer recruitment for a time and you really have to set the expectations from the start that basically they’ve already said yes so now you’re just putting them down for a shift.

    3. Goose*

      I will also add: deadlines!! My team has started adding deadlines to every ask because it helps sooo much with accountability and follow through.

      1. Aquamarine*

        Yeah, if I got this email, I would probably have good intentions about helping out… later. And then I would just never get to it because other stuff would get in the way.

        1. TeaCoziesRUs*

          Same. Or I missed it in my inbox because I’m currently anti-tech right now, so I’m missing a LOT of emails.

      2. Betty*

        Agreed! Instead of “If you could help out by…” I’d have:
        “By Friday, please review the list and let me know (1) which previous contacts you can reach out to (2) any new contacts or items that you can add. I’ll send emails with individual assignments for any remaining contacts on Monday.”

        1. I don't wanna*

          I personally like Betty’s variation a lot, i.e. first asking people to self-select, and then assigning the remaining items/tasks yourself.

          Especially for tasks that might have a lot of reluctance, letting people have some amount of agency in choosing their assignments can help them feel a little more involved/connected with the task, so I can see why you’re asking them to choose for themselves, first.

          But then following up by assigning the remainder yourself (or skipping right to this in some cases) probably helps things move along faster :)

        2. Critical Rolls*

          Yeah, I think “Volunteer or get voluntold” is good to include, because it motivates people to select their preferred tasks.

      3. Cat Tree*

        Yes, this is our standard practice and we put it in the subject line of the email, along with what the person should do (review, approve, provide suggestions, etc.) We also distinguish between hard and soft deadlines to help with prioritization. A soft deadline might get missed occasionally, but not as often as no deadline.

      4. I am Emily's failing memory*

        Yes, in my book there are 3 things that should be included in every work request:

        1. What do you need done?

        2. For what purpose do you (believe you) need that done?

        3. When do you need it done by?

        For #3, if there’s no hard deadline, then indicate if this high-priority (the only reason there’s no deadline is because we already need it right now but we’re reasonable people who understand that “end of day today” is probably unrealistic as a deadline no matter how urgently we need it), medium priority (we’d like you to put this in your queue ahead of anything else we’ve requested that isn’t high-priority, if you do that, what deadline can you commit to without working overtime?), or low priority (we don’t strictly need this, but it would help us a lot to have it, so get to it whenever you can in the next 3 months).

        Especially when you working with internal service providers who are getting requests from many different places that aren’t coordinating their work requests, they need something that helps them know what to prioritize, because without it they probably have no idea how important this or that is to different teams.

        #2 is always included because they’re the subject matter experts and they might know a better way to accomplish the same result, and you want them to have enough context to be able to offer suggestions that will improve the outcome or make the process more efficient, because that benefits everyone.

        1. Green great dragon*

          #2 is so important. It also helps with the prioritisation – if #3 is ‘tomorrow 2pm’ but #2 is ‘my boss thought it would be a cool fact for the team meeting’ then nope, you aren’t getting half a day’s work for that.

          1. Cthulhu's Librarian*

            I agree, especially if #2 includes the facet of who is ultimately asking.

            Because when someone in the c-suite says “It would be nice to have Factoid Y before I go to meet with VIPs tomorrow,” that’s vastly different then a line manager saying “I’d love to know this before our all hands meeting.” But sometimes that information gets lost, especially if you’re down the line a few levels.

            for instance. if the head of the legal department asks my great-grandboss to find an article for them, the truth is my great-grandboss can’t help – they don’t have the experience with our research platforms to find a source and get the article in a timely manner. That request is probably going to get filtered through his executive assistant to my boss, who is going to ask me to take care of it, or get filtered from him to my grandboss, and then trickle down to me. If I don’t know that chain or who it is for, I may treat it the same as everything else in the queue, handled in a first in, first out order – and it could be some time before I get to it.

    4. The Prettiest Curse*

      My team has to do hundreds (if not thousands) of individual tasks to make our annual conference happen. Each of those tasks is assigned to a person, plus a backup if the first person is too busy. Every task that isn’t an ongoing task also has a deadline assigned. Otherwise, we just would not Get Stuff Done – or not all of the stuff that needs to get done, anyway.

    5. Cold and Tired*

      Exactly! Individual names plus deadlines is as close to the magical answer as you can get. I never assign tasks without both, because if I do no one will step up to take them, or they’ll just never actually get completed because they’ll always get bumped into the future.

    6. Beth*

      I’d say to not only assign it to a specific person, but say in very few words. My work routinely involves requesting things from people who I have no real authority over (I manage client-facing projects) and I’ve found that if the recipient can’t scan my email in 5 seconds, find their name, and see exactly what I want from them…then odds are I’m not going to get what I need.

      OP, some tricks I’d recommend:
      – Write the action item as a command rather than a request (“Please do X” vs “If you could help with X, that would be great”)
      – Make the action item stand out. Put it on its own line (not buried at the end a paragraph), and highlight it in yellow.
      – Assign action items to specific people by name, e.g. “Jesse – contact house cleaning donor”
      – Cut your message down as much as you can. I’d aim for half this length. It’s easy for people who are skimming to get lost in the backstory and miss the action item.
      – Put a deadline on each action item. Putting a date on it means it’s on their calendars and to-do lists. Without that, busy people will never get to it–there will always be something more urgent.

      1. Indigo a la mode*

        Great advice. In the Army I learned “BLUF” – Bottom Line Up Front. Just say what you need, then fill in the relevant details.

        OP, I am a writer and can also be overly verbose in email. Like you, I want to be nice and I want to be thorough – but that definitely can result in people’s eyes just skipping over the text! I just started reading Smart Brevity and already I’d recommend it to you. It’s sush a great coach for clear and compelling communication.

    7. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      This. OP. Your email is very pleasant…and very vague.
      If I got the letter, I would wonder if I am calling someone to ask them to make a donation or to confirm details of their ongoing gift they’ve committed to giving. Those are two different calls.
      If I do get this email and start calling people, am I going to be told “I was contacted by Board member 1 and Board member 2 already”?
      And if I am the first lucky caller, do I have the information they need to drop off their donation and all the questions about donating?
      And once I do this, and I tell you, will you pass it on, so that Board member 3 and 4 don’t call as well?
      This is far too general to get people to do anything.

    8. NewJobNewGal*

      My saying is:
      If it’s everybody’s job, then it’s no one’s job.

      Everyone will assume someone else will do it. An individual will accept that it’s their job.

    9. fanuel*

      I manage a nonprofit volunteer board as my professional, full-time job. There are two things I would add for that specific context on top of Alison’s advice:

      1. Make it feel personal and special – ex. “Susan, I thought you’d be the perfect person to give the financial update at our board meeting next week, given your background in accounting. Would you be willing to make this presentation next week?”

      2. Peer pressure/role modeling – Call out the things board members have done that you want everyone to be doing – ex. “I want to start this meeting with a special thanks to Kevin. Not only did he contact every name on the list, he was able to secure 5 new gifts for the event. Kevin, your dedication to this event is so inspiring and I want to thank you for everything you do for this organization.” Additionally, deputize a fellow board member to do some of this work and these asks – it’s hard to say no to a peer.

    10. JSPA*

      Yup. In my youth, I sometimes jumped in and tried to help, upon getting this sort of general ask…

      only to find out that three people had duplicated effort, and ticked off the people who were being contacted 3 times.

      Eventually, realization hit, that acting on a vague ask–one with no explicit division of labor–can be actively harmful to the image of a business or nonprofit–literally worse than taking no ask at all.

      If you want people to choose their tasks, that’s doable, if you’re good at cat-wrangling, and if you have the vastly greater time needed to individualize staggered emails, texts, and calls.

      “Joan, I’m calling you first, because I’m hoping I can give you the job of contacting [list of 8 most popular donors, with specific asks to each donor] by friday. And if not, could you instead take on [other fairly large task]. If I don’t hear back from you by [specific time tomorrow], I’ll instead try Dusty, though I actually had another thing I wanted them to do. I’m sending you the list of contacts by email after I hang up; if I don’t hear from you, I’ll be sending them to Dusty tomorrow evening.”

      “Dusty, so glad I caught you! I asked Joan if she could contact some people for [the thing], but she must be snowed under. Can I shoot that over to you, because it has to be done by Friday? I know you prefer to design the invitations, but unless you can reach Joan, and get her to confirm to me that she will do the top eight people on our donation contact list, I’m going to beg you to do that instead. I’m emailing you the list now. I know you bump into Joan more often than I do, so if you see her, and she’s willing to do the donation calls, please let me know, so I’ll know to follow up with her for the donations, and to instead send you the details for designing the invitation.”

      “Mar, I know that the housecleaning and the face painting donations came from your personal contacts. They were the BEST! Any chance you can ask them to donate again, and get a response by Friday? We would of course highlight them in the invitation emails, and even include their logo, if they’d like to supply a logo. Joan and Dusty are supposed to be calling most of our other big donors. However, if you’d be willing to brainstorm about possible new donors, I’d love to have you over for tea and cold calling today or tomorrow, if you’re free in the afternoon. Yeah, I know, I’m not sure if that’s a treat or punishment either! But I have some nice oolong, and some macarons, and I haven’t seen you in forever. But if you’d rather brainstorm solo and pepper me with ideas by text, I will still be eternally grateful.”

      “Dani, Mar came up with a bunch of potential new donors, but we don’t have contact information. Three or four of them are in your area; do you happen to know them, or perhaps be willing to stop in and chat, and see if they might be open to donating, or if they can give you contact information for the owner, or best times to catch them at the store? Mar came up with boffo’s boofs salon, bingos dog grooming and lulus kitchen…but if inspiration strikes, it would be fine to ask other businesses as well, of course! Any donation, no matter how small, is welcome, as something attractive for the auction or the raffle table. We’d ideally contact them over this weekend, because I’m going to circle back to Dusty about designing the flyers. Not that we have to stop asking people to donate, but we won’t be able to offer the chance to have their logo on this year’s flyer, if they agree after Thursday. We can still offer a spot on next year’s flyer, and a spot in the emails, though! There, I’ve turned Mar’s texts into an email, and added the info about the timing.”

      “Simmie, I know you are also active in arts organizations. Now, we’ve talked about how terrible it is that people always expect artists to donate to fundraisers, when they can’t take a tax write-off for the donation, beyond the cost of materials…but we also both know how many artists are passionate about our issues. We’d love to bring small artworks into our fundrasing mix, or even have a second art auction online fundraiser, for people who are not comfortable coming in person. But it would need someone with your tact and understanding to make the “ask.” Is that something you would feel OK about doing? We could at least comp them a ticket, so they’d be getting a buffet dinner out of it, and a chance to mingle with potential buyers.”

      Know what you want. Ask for it. Be flexible. Be prepared to hear, “I can’t do that this year.” Let people see the timeline; help people feel connected to each other; help them understand, amplify, augment, and even modify your process and your goal, but within defined boundaries.

    11. Fierce Jindo*

      Yeah, and it’s not just “Oh, someone else will do it”—it’s also more WORK to consider each option for what you might contribute and pick one. Definitely, the person who wants it to get done should take on that organizational work.

    12. Sarah*

      Yes, when I have the energy and I’m working with volunteers, I give people finite tasks and I will call, then send a text with information about the reason I’ve called and once they’ve given me the okay that they’re interested, I then email them with information.

    13. Itty Bitty Kitty*

      When we were developing new processes and procedures at work, my former boss would often say, “You know the best way to starve a horse? Assign two people to feed it.”

    14. Ellis Bell*

      Yes, specify individual expectations. What is everyone’s responsibility is no one’s responsibility.

  2. Sloanicota*

    It’s odd to me that you’d frame managing people as “asking my staff to help me.” We don’t see an example of what that looks like, but they should have ownership of a task and be accountable for getting it done – or asking *you* for “help” if they need it. Saying you’d like help from your staff is like when women talk about needing their husbands to babysit, or something. The board thing could be a separate kettle of fish or may be part of the same if it’s framed as ‘your’ thing that you’re asking them to assist you with.

    1. Sloanicota*

      Relatedly, I have a *lot* of experience with tiny board-driven nonprofits and, well … there’s a reason busy professionals don’t always decide to take on the chair role or don’t stay long if they do. It sucks to try to manage people without authority or the ability to enact real consequences, and if *nobody* is enthusiastic about this Fall Fundraiser, that doesn’t make it all your problem – it has to be a team effort to be sustainable.

      1. Philosophia*

        If nobody is enthusiastic about this Fall Fundraiser, it should be allowed to die on the vine. All too often in volunteer organizations, a small subgroup plans an event with the blithe expectation that of course the larger group will make it happen. We can all spell “burnout.”

        1. Sloanicota*

          +1 I think we are really seeing this across the (heh) board right now – in PTOs, in nonprofits, and in nonessential work tasks – there used to be an ethic of doing some things because they were “fun” (for who?) or because it’s always been done that way, but post-Covid along with other social changes, people are more pragmatic about what they’re willing to take on and why. In the case of my nonprofit, we have board members who would be much happier just donating than doing another event – great! Let’s do that.

          1. Lulu*

            it’s a social shift even earlier than Covid. The book Bowling Alone covers the many factors involved in our declining social/civic participation throughout the late 20th Century. Not least the shift of women into the workforce, eroding work/home divides, and new more individual forms of entertainment replacing group events. A lot of today’s divides and social issues stem from our ever decreasing sense of community, writ large.

            1. Cat and dog fosterer*

              There is a larger social shift, but I have also seen mass burnout from the volunteers for animal rescue this year. There is a realization that the pandemic made our volunteer work much, much more difficult and many of us are having to limit what we do this year so that we will be healthy enough to tackle next year.

            2. Sloanicota*

              To be fair, if there was once a huge pool of stay-at-home mothers who were presumably well educated but underutilized in the work force, it makes sense that they might have been thrilled to host extensive volunteer-run events if only as a social outlet for themselves. And that pool may not exist anymore. So people may be willing to be charitable and support good causes, but not enthusiastic about working on events that are at least half about providing social outlet for the organizers.

              1. goddessoftransitory*

                I remember in Mad Men, Betty and her phone tree contacting all the local moms/wives for some fundraiser or other. It was presented as Something That Was Done And Expected by her and all the women of her circle.

              2. CommanderBanana*

                ^^ Yep. My mom was a SAHM or underemployed most of my life because she was the trailing spouse of an Army husband, and she and the other Army wives (because at that point, it was pretty much all wives) did All. The. Things. Red Cross volunteer drives, ran the post mailrooms, single soldier stuff, care packages, new mom support, PTA, all of it.

                It’s way harder to find time for volunteer stuff when most couples don’t have a stay-at-home parent because it’s really hard to make it on a single salary now that we’re all dying under late-stage capitalism inside the rotting husk of the corpse of Reaganomics.

              3. doreen*

                My kids went to a parochial school in some sort of strange time warp where most of the mothers were SAH and their families were not particularly well off. The SAHM were in control of the fundraising most years and it was as if the goal of fundraising was to fill their days. They didn’t want to just pay the extra $250 or so per family in tuition that fundraising had to raise, and they didn’t want to run a few events that made a relatively large amount of money without too many volunteer hours. They preferred things like bake sales which took a lot of time and made only a little bit of money (actually, it would have been financially better for both me and the school if I just donated the cost of ingredients and what I spent buying other peoples baked goods)

            3. Radioactive Cyborg Llama*

              That is true but nonprofits have been pretty consistently experiencing less volunteerism since the pandemic. It’s harder to get people to do stuff.

        2. Formerly Ella Vader*

          Yes, and repeating fundraising events all have a natural lifecycle. No board should assume that the fundraiser that was popular in previous years will continue, without examining whether they still have the energy to run it (and if not, are there other people who could take over as a committee), whether the usual donors are tapped out, and whether the general public is still likely to be interested in attending and spending money. Sometimes it turns out that the membership contains people with enthusiasm to run a brand-new type of event, while taking over an existing event would come with too much oversight of the “no, no, we ALWAYS do it that other way” for the new committee members to be able to take ownership.

          If you’re stuck having the same fundraiser for this year, I’d echo the other commenters. Stop with the group email. Contact each board member individually – by telephone or in person if that’s within your usual scope, maybe at a board meeting. Remind them which donors they approached last year. Ask them to approach them again and let you know who’s a yes and who’s a no. Ask them to think of two more, outside the usual circle, contact them, and let you know what they say too. (Keeping track of the nos helps avoid anyone getting asked twice.) Also ask various board members to go speak to constituencies within the membership (like, if this is a sports club, “Roy, can you talk to the parents on your niece’s team and ask if they can approach their employers etc; Beard, can you ask at the referees’ meeting.” )

          1. Sloanicota*

            Ugh can you please talk to my boss because we always want to do the exact. same. thing. and expect the exact same donors to leap up and offer an increased donation every single year (literally, the last time I reviewed our fundraising plan, that was the expectation).

            1. The Prettiest Curse*

              Yeah, sometimes it’s difficult to get people excited about an event that’s past its prime and easier to get people excited about something new, just because shiny new things are often more attractive.

              1. Sloanicota*

                And maybe a different donor pool! If you have asked your local caterer for discounted appetizers 5 years in a row, and now you switch your event to an ice cream picnic or 5K, you have different businesses to approach for donations.

            2. goddessoftransitory*

              And so many businesses don’t grasp how often places like pizzerias or grocery stores get tapped for donations–our window for requests is something like six months? And we get asks all the time for “the end of the week” for something like a hundred pies. They basically dump the job of calling and requesting stuff on an intern or receptionist and just assume that there’s a giant pool of food and services waiting to be tapped.

              Nobody wants to think of organizing, especially volunteer organizing, as a job that they aren’t paying a salary for, but that is what it is.

              1. WS*

                Yeah, I’m in a small town and the businesses get a lot of asks. Which is fine, we’re happy to give something, but there’s always someone who needs [major thing] RIGHT NOW and doesn’t have the authority to negotiate or discuss anything about it, so they end up with a no rather than “we could do that with more notice” or “we could do half of that”.

    2. English Rose*

      Yes, that phrase jumped out at me too. Certainly in LW’s professional life, it’s not ‘helping out’, it’s assigning specific tasks to staff. With deadlines. And accountability.

    3. Observer*

      It’s odd to me that you’d frame managing people as “asking my staff to help me.”

      Yes, this is the heart of the problem, at least with your staff. Of course, you should be polite and respectful to people. But you should not be asking for help. You should be assigning tasks and projects. Your job is not to do these projects with the help of your staff. Your job is to manage your staff so that the work gets done, perhaps with your direct help.

    4. General von Klinkerhoffen*

      Yeah, I’m “helping my boss” when I take on a task that’s usually his responsibility and not mine. If it’s a task I was hired for, that’s called “doing my job”.

    5. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      This is what I’m wondering. If participating at events held outside of the office or outside of work hours is required, then you have to make that clear. Not participating is holding people back professionally at your organization, then you are killing them with kindness. And if it is truly volunteer and and you are not getting any, then Philosphia is right.

  3. umami*

    Yeah, I wouldn’t frame it as ‘I need help’, but that ‘it’s time for this event, and here’s what needs to be done, let me know which donors you would like to contact.’ Or even better, assign the board members a list! But asking for help makes it seems like it’s your responsibility, but you would like it if anyone is willing to assist you.

    1. Baby Yoda*

      Agree and a step further is to give them 2 options — do you want to work the first shift or second shift? Do you want to contact the first half of the alphabet or the second?

  4. J*

    I agree that you need to be more specific with deadlines and expectations in the email you sent. Are you asking everyone to follow up with the same people from last year? Identify new prospects?

    if you’ve received no response to two emails, the next step may be to directly contact individuals and say “Hi Sally, are you able to reach out to the same 5 people on this list as last year? Please let me know if you can do the initial outreach by X date because we need the items by Y date.”

    or for people who weren’t invited last year “Following up on this! I know you weren’t part of the committee last year, but take a look at the attached list for examples of the type of items we solicit. do you have companies that you can reach out to? I’m happy to brainstorm ideas if you’d like”.

    I have coordinated raffle item donations, and people need a lot of handholding for this type of thing. you are giving them too much room to ignore the email.

    1. Sloanicota*

      I agree – your next follow up is not a group email. But it’s fair to acknowledge that this much hand-holding is a worrying sign about the engagement of the group; you as board chair shouldn’t have to be single-handedly lifting the whole thing. There might need to be a rebalance. Could there be a finance committee with its own, not-you chair, if you’re also doing a lot of other work for this nonprofit? View is as a question of long-term sustainability because whoever the person is in this role will quickly get burned out if they have to do a bunch of arm twisting and micromanaging to get anything done.

  5. Dawn*

    Quite frankly, I’d ignore your email too; I don’t believe I have contacts who could/would contribute, it sounds like it’s a general request for volunteerism sent out to who knows how many people, and I firmly believe that my own work (and triaging how much work I’m doing) is more important, especially if I’m not being paid extra for this. I might make an effort if I were Jesse but otherwise no way. I have important sh-stuff to do, this does not sound from your tone as if it rises to the level of that.

    Unless the Long Table Dinner is understood by everyone you’re emailing to be significantly more important than I’m reading it as, there’s just no way this would get a response from me. Your mileage with other people may vary, but the experience you’ve related suggested that it isn’t. You’re asking me to volunteer my time and irritate my contacts purely because it would be helpful to you and I don’t know you and don’t really care if your job is made easier.

    1. Sloanicota*

      Well, if you agreed to be a board member of this organization, in theory you’re expecting this task and committed to being a part of it.

      1. The Prettiest Curse*

        Yeah, if you agree to be a volunteer for an organisation, don’t start clutching your pearls when people then ask you to undertake volunteer activities. That’s what you signed up to do!

        Having worked with volunteers a fair bit, I do understand that people are busy and sometimes the requests are too much. But it’s on you to manage your time and your commitments, not the organisation for which you volunteered, because the organisation doesn’t have a complete view of your schedule and you do.

      2. Formerly Ella Vader*

        Depending on how things have been done on this board in the past and how things were done on other boards that the people have been involved with … maybe not quite.

        Sometimes there’s an expectation that board members mostly stay within their lane and get things done with a committee for their role. Like, if there’s a fundraising committee, but I’m not on that one and I’m a member at large and serving on the personnel committee and the hospitality committee — I might not grasp that all of us are expected to round up silent auction items and attend the fundraising event, until that is made explicit.

        1. Antilles*

          As a board member, you may not grasp that you’re expected to be part of the fundraising event. And it’s possible that nobody responded because of that. You’re on the hospitality committee and didn’t realize that OP was including everyone, not just the fundraising committee.

          But surely you wouldn’t go “I don’t know you OP and I don’t care how this helps the organization” if you’re on the board of the organization.

    2. umami*

      The board is sure to be aware that this is a significant event. I think what they are less clear on is that OP actually needs them to do what they did last year because the message just asks for ‘help’. If last year the board members leveraged their contacts to seek donations, and there is now a list, then it would be easy for them to think OP can/should follow up this year. If OP actually intends for them to do the follow-up ask, OP needs to explicitly say so. instead of saying they would love some ‘help’.

      1. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain*

        This would be my interpretation as well… board members might be asked to reach out to their specific contacts again, depending on the org, but in my experience I would think that would fall on a lower-level staff or volunteer to do via a letter or phone call. Those donors, especially if they’ve given for several years, are probably just waiting for the invitation/solicitation in the mail and don’t really need a personal ask.

    3. Radioactive Cyborg Llama*

      “I don’t know you and don’t really care if your job is made easier.”

      It seems like you’re not familiar with how nonprofits work? They’re the board and she’s the chair, so yes, they know her. And they’re not making her job easier, they’re participating in a fundraiser for a cause that they care enough about to be on the board.

      1. HonorBox*

        And key point is that she’s the chair of the board…also a volunteer. It isn’t the job of the chair to be in charge of everything.

        I think it is fair to assume that board members would know about the fundraiser and that aspects of it would be known to all board members through meetings. There might be a couple of new folks who don’t know the event or chair well, but members of the board would understand their role in the cause.

      2. Cj*

        it almost sounds like Dawn didn’t read 99% (or maybe l00%) of the letter. otherwise why in the world would they say “I don’t know you”?

        the email doesn’t sound like it was addressed to the board members by name, or something like fellow board members. but seriously, I can’t imagine she didn’t sign her name, or that either her name or the name of the organization wouldn’t have been part of the email address she sent it from.

        how can you possibly be a board member of an organization and not know it? and if you do know it, how can you possibly not know the board chair?

        if dawn thinks they have more important s*** to do than this, then they shouldn’t be a volunteer at all, let alone a board member.

        I usually try to be pelite in my comments, even if I don’t agree with the person, but holy cow! I think this was at least as polite as Dawn’s.

        1. Dawn*

          I read it, but I did miss that the OP was the chair – something that does change some of the equation.

          And you’re correct, I’m neither a volunteer for a nonprofit nor a board member, but the point stands; the letter sounds like it’s asking pretty please if you have time no pressure. If the OP needs people to do things, the OP needs to say “I need you to do this” especially when they may be talking to people who aren’t being paid to be board members.

          And I do have some experience with non-profit boards actually and in that experience, they didn’t actually do anything much beyond represent their own for-profit employers’ interests to the non-profit entity.

          1. Dawn*

            And you’re more than welcome to decide that I was rude if you want; point remains that “if you could help out, that would be great” doesn’t get anything done because most people aren’t super eager to jump to volunteer even if they are working with/for a non-profit, yes.

        2. Cj*

          after you explained that you didn’t realize she was a board member, your original comment makes total sense. I would have thought the same thing you did if I received such an email out of the blue from somebody I didn’t actually know.

  6. Lizzy May*

    I agree with Alison that by asking a large group for help, no one person is going to take responsibility.

    I also think the ask needs to be more up front and there needs to be less soft language. Even in the letter here to Alison, there’s a bit of a build up to the question. Put the question first and then add the explanation. When people are busy and skim emails, you need to put the most important thing in the very first sentence.

    1. OrigCassandra*

      This. I would immediately worry that stepping up would mean an essentially unlimited drain on my time.

      Let me know what I’m in for, and I’m far more likely to say yes.

      1. Cj*

        volunteering for the board of the directors in the first place could definitely be a time suck, but it doesn’t seem like calling some people to ask for donated items would take much time, especially with a list of people that donated last year, and contact information for at least some of them. And you can only spend as much time and effort on it as you want to, which is a lot better than doing nothing.

        you aren’t being roped into doing more than you want to volunteer for. and you’re only being asked to call people and ask for donations, not to run the actual raffle and silent auction, which I’m sure is a lot of work.

        in my opinion, what you need to do isn’t vague, but asking the entire board to do this with no shared record of who already contacted who is not good. what if multiple board members contact the same person? I would be thoroughly annoyed if I was contacted by multiple people to ask me the same thing. they need to have a shared spreadsheet on Google Drive or something to keep track of who has been contacted, whether they agreed to donate something or not, and if they did, what it was.

  7. ee*

    LW, I think it might also help to put the specific request you are making on its own line.

    It may not be the way you would split up a paragraph when writing in other contexts, but a single clear request/instruction on its own, at either the end or beginning of the email, will highlight the action items for people who are quickly skimming their email. If I received your example email when I was busy, I might glance at it quickly and think that you were just updating me on the status of the event, completely missing the request in the middle (the parenthetical especially would draw my eye, making me miss the action item for the chatty aside).

    1. Tequila & Oxford Commas*

      Agreed — when I send emails to a large group, or emails with multiple questions/tasks in one message, I use bullet points for clarity, put action items in red, and bold the person’s or people’s names that I need a response from/am assigning a task to. Formatting is your friend!

  8. Judge Judy and Executioner*

    As a member of a non-profit board, I agree with Alison on needing specific assigned tasks. Many board members have day jobs and/or are on multiple boards and the generic “help out” requests likely get lost in the shuffle. For an annual big fundraising event, I would definitely bring up the action items in a meeting to get consensus and make sure all board members are aligned. For example tell them “I need each board member to be responsible for putting together a basket for the silent auction” or whatever it is you need. In addition, if there are regular board member tasks that need to be done every year, include these in the onboarding discussions or documents so they are aware in advance.

    1. Cj*

      since you are a non-profit board member, I thought I’d run this by you. of course I realize each organization is different, but I was curious about your personal experience.

      a long time ago I was a board member for a chamber of commerce. there were very few things that the entire board planned. instead, we had committees for different events, like asking for donations for the downtown Christmas decorations and parade, or planning and holding the King Corn parade (yes, that used to be a real thing, and yes, I do live in the Midwest).

      I was also a volunteer, but not a board member, for a Humane Society. a board member was the treasurer, and the board took care of any legal/official stuff, but other than that the regular volunteers did just as much fundraising, etc, as the board members did.

      in fact, one of the things I did was contact businesses for merchandise donations for a raffle/silent auction, just like the board members were asked to do in the letter. and I was on a committee for that with other regular volunteers and maybe one or two board members.

      so i’m curious if your non-profit generally works by smaller committees, or if the board does most of it as a group.

      1. Judge Judy and Executioner*

        The organization has staff and a handful of regular volunteers who handle the day to day work. For large events, all board members are expected to fundraise, gather raffle items, and show up to work at events. All board members are asked to chair one committee and be on a second, we don’t have any volunteers on the committee, so it’s all board members. The board committees that handle the strategic work and official stuff, like overseeing the facilities and staff, creating job descriptions, finances, special event planning, and legal stuff. So we do in general work by smaller committees, but do not have any volunteers on those committees, just board members.

  9. Vermont Green*

    I admit that when the volunteer chairperson emails me praising the skills I have that make me the perfect person to do whatever, I bite every time and accept the task.

  10. Anonymous Autie*

    So I have some tangential experience with this as an ED&I network lead at my workplace. Typically under-resourced, and although I get a small amount of facility time as a lead, anything we want to do as a network realistically needs others to get involved in the margins.

    My tactics work if you have time to invest and are working with the same team(s) for a while – it is to get to know them. Get to know who is keen on what and find out what you can offload. It can be really small, and really specific. But find out that one thing that one person will do willingly, without you having to push them for it – and the moment you have that then that thing is off your plate. And that person will like you because you let them choose how they’re going to contribute. Principle also works really well with diverse teams – the thing one person loves is going to be a thing somebody else hates, and you just have to divvy it up so that everyone feels like they won.

    This is not foolproof – and the unwanted stuff will still tend to land with you – but it’s better than having to handle it all on your own (which is the way I see SOOOO many volunteer groups / committees go). And there is sometimes a silver lining in that somebody wants to take one part away from you that you really hated doing, and you never knew!

    1. Observer*

      This is excellent advice for the Board.

      But I think it’s the wrong approach for staff. That’s not about getting people to “like” you or do things for you, but performing their jobs.

      1. Sharon*

        I see your point, Observer, however, there’s value in figuring out what you can assign to whom and have them take complete ownership of it.

  11. ferrina*

    A section of my job revolves around getting people to do boring and tedious stuff, and Alison’s advice is spot-on.

    To whit:
    -Give a really clear assignment. “You must do X”
    -Give a deadline. It’s okay if you are making this deadline up- if you don’t give a deadline, folks will let it fester forever. In your deadline, add in buffer time that allows you to follow up with anyone who doesn’t meet the first deadline.
    -Threaten to follow up. Obviously do this in a friendly way, but folks will really follow through if they know that someone will hold them accountable (i.e., they can’t get lost in the crowd).

    I’ll also add:
    -Make your emails easy to read. Bullet points and bold the important stuff. Underlining also works.
    -Make your emails entertaining. People gravitate towards things they enjoy- if your emails are enjoyable to read, you’ll get a better response. I’ve been known to add poems into certain emails.
    -If emails fail, move to IMs, phone or in-person (whatever makes the most sense culturally). It’s much easier to ignore an email than it is a human who is actively conversing with you.
    -Engage them in the process (when appropriate). If folks feel like their ideas were part of building the thing or otherwise feel like they have skin in the game, they are more likely to participate. Similarly, invite feedback when the thing is over (but only if you might actually act on that feedback- if you have no plans to change, don’t bother).

    These are tips for getting folks to comply when you aren’t in a position of authority. If you are in a position of authority, you can just tell them. Always say Who, What and When (also How if it’s something that doesn’t have SOPs and they wouldn’t know what to do). Don’t say “would someone please…” say “Naomi, I need you to help on the koala sweaters. We need 20 made by Saturday- is this doable?” (the “is this doable” gives Naomi a chance to say she needs help with other workload or bring other things to your attention that might cause issues)

    1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

      Give a deadline. It’s okay if you are making this deadline up- if you don’t give a deadline, folks will let it fester forever. In your deadline, add in buffer time that allows you to follow up with anyone who doesn’t meet the first deadline.


      If a request comes to me without a deadline, I’ll add one voluntarily for just this reason. If I commit to getting to you by Friday, then you may get it Friday or the following Monday at the latest, but if it doesn’t have a deadline, its deadline ends up being never.

    2. Cyborg Llama Horde*

      Agreed. Our llama reports need two approvals. If I REALLY need a tight turnaround I will DM specific people who are knowledgeable about, say, llama grooming reports. But it’s my team’s norm to just post the link to the grooming report and ask for approvals. I find that the more specific I can be about
      – What’s in this report (Tells people how much work approving it will be)
      – When I need it by (“We would like to send this report to the editing team on Monday”)
      – Why it’s important (“This is for Big New Client”)
      the better the response is — even when I don’t tag specific people.

  12. The Person from the Resume*

    I saw exactly what Alison saw. You need to assign the task to people in some way and provide a deadline. I’d read that email and see that someone needs to do it, but it’s not assigned to me and I don’t want to do that task so I would not be volunteering for it. The contact “some people” phrasing is terrible because how are they to know if someone already called that person.

    It was an example and may have been cut for space, but do you want everyone on last year’s list contacted again or is it just an example of the type of contacts?
    – How many silent auction items do you need?
    – How many donated items does each person need to bring in? (Some people might love to do this, but I would hate it so I’d do the bare minimum.)

    And at work, you generally don’t ask your employees to volunteer. You task someone to do something with a deadline. If it’s a task anyone of several employees can do, if you don’t get a volunteer by asking for one, you should turn around and assign it to the person tht is least busy/most capable of egtting it done on time.

    1. umami*

      Another thing I do is to provide what they did last time. I actually just had someone email me that our event organizers were having trouble getting a particular employee group to sign up for an annual event that’s happening in about a month. I went ahead and emailed the same group, attached last year’s sign-up that shows what they committed to last year, copied the link that was sent for them to sign up, and said ‘Just a reminder to be sure to sign up for your tables for X Event by X Date if you haven’t already. You can use the link provided below, or email me back directly with ‘NO CHANGES’ if you want the same setup. Last year’s list is attached for reference.’

      I’ve already gotten two responses from the 9 people on the email. It’s not technically my job to organize this, but I wanted to give them a solid example of how to do it that wasn’t just ‘Please have your respective areas reserve their spot using the attached spreadsheet’. Let’s not start over from scratch!

  13. waffles*

    Totally agree with Alison here. The sample email is so open-ended that it is extremely easy to ignore. I suspect in the past that certain volunteers/staff would have picked up on your hints, but then it always does seem to be those same few who do all the work. For myself personally, I’m a bit tired of shouldering more than my share of the load and have started to take a ‘middle management white guy’ tactic of sitting back and waiting to be assigned. Maybe your volunteers/staff are doing the same if they feel the same way?

    Also, your email is too cheerful for me to take seriously, if I was on your board or staff. I would rationalize that as a reason to not comply…

    1. Tequila & Oxford Commas*

      I was with you until the “too cheerful to take seriously.” I have to admit I don’t understand that rationale; there is also a gendered aspect in terms of acceptable tones (not implying anything about you specifically, just pointing that out).

      1. Loony Lovegood*

        Uh, same! Why is cheerfulness unserious? I have the personality of a golden retriever but my friendliness doesn’t mask – or affect – my competence.

      2. ferrina*

        Being “too cheerful” isn’t a thing. I’m very bubbly, and very good at getting people to do boring or tedious things. I’ll crack jokes with them as I give them the ask, I’ve been known to write limericks to promote particularly boring things. At one time I even add the threat “the limericks will continue until everyone has filled this out”….it was the first year we had 100% compliance.

        Obviously cheerfulness isn’t always the answer- if it’s something that has dire safety or legal consequences, I’ll use a serious tone. That serious tone is even more effective because I’m usually so cheerful. If I think it’s too important to joke about, it’s IMPORTANT. And definitely adjust your tone based on your office culture- if the culture is very buttoned up, don’t come in with an email full of puns. Establish yourself first.

        Of course, there are certain people that will always ignore you for being too cheerful. These people have a high overlap with the people that will ignore you for being too young or too woman or too “ethnic” etc. Obviously not everyone – some folks just really like their workplaces to be solemn – but there is a high correlation

        1. Yours sincerely, Raymond Holt*

          I have to say, depending on context, I’d probably feel a bit infantilised if I got work requests with limericks, especially if I got the impression that the sender thought making emails “fun” was the way to get me to do things.

          I’m probably a bit over sensitive but I’m an adult at work. Tell me what you need, by when, and, if not obvious, why you’re asking me.

          I totally agree that disregarding an email for being too cheerful doesn’t make sense, though.

          I just don’t like feeling like I’m seen as a child who needs to be coaxed into doing things. I am sure a lot of people like the limericks though. It sounds like they are effective!

    2. Yours sincerely, Raymond Holt*

      Waffles, I don’t think sitting back and waiting to be assigned tasks is necessarily a negative trait. If I’m told something is voluntary (“it would be nice if someone could help with xxx”) then I’m not out of line for not volunteering if I don’t want to do it/don’t have time/don’t completely understand the ask.

  14. Alex*

    One thing I notice in the email is that it is not only not specifically assigned, it invites people to step on each others’ toes. “Can everyone help by contacting someone” isn’t an effective way to get something done, because no one knows who is contacting whom. No one is specifically responsible, which is part of the problem (so everyone will assume someone else will do it), and for anyone who is actually inclined to, they are likely to stop the task once they realize they don’t know how their efforts are being coordinated. If I were to open the list, I would think–how would I know if someone already called this person? Does someone else have a closer contact than I do? And given the vague language and vibes of being optional, I might put it away and not come back to it.

    1. Ashley*

      I love using Google Sheets to help with this sort of stuff. As the organizer you could try and assign folks based on who did what last year and let them advise you they can’t. Then you have a running list people can easily update.
      That said setting the expectation of what is coming during the Board meeting in advanced really helps soften the blow of responsibility and should help get people to respond to the email.

      1. HonorBox*

        Google Sheets is a perfect solution. Rather than everyone opening an Excel spreadsheet and working off one document, people can see who has been contacted and by whom.

  15. Cellbell*

    I worked on a team once where the manager frequently expressed frustration at how uneven everyone’s workload was. The main issue was really that she wasn’t actually assigning tasks; we had a twice-weekly meeting to review any new work that needed to be assigned, and she would just read down the list and ask for a volunteer for each item. As you can imagine, some people volunteered to the point of burnout while others were doing just enough to get by.

    I think the LW is dealing with a similar situation but in this case, no one is actually volunteering, which is a huge problem in the work context at least. Workers need a bit of structure and most reasonable employees won’t think you’re a mean, controlling boss if you’re just assigning them work in a matter-of-fact way; this is part of your job as a leader. If the work emails read similarly to the one in the OP, it may not even be clear to the team that these are tasks that belong to them and not just favors for the LW.

    1. Toxic Workplace Survivor*

      One other work-related thought I have about asking staff for help was whether there are communications LW can make to have their staff “help “ by communicating in the best way possible for them, the manager, to be at their best. (This may be a mis-read or the point so take it or leave it). As a manager, you can have conversations about HOW work tasks are completed that make things easier for you so you staff is “helping” you by adapting to your needs.

      “I see a few times you have mentioned you are flexible about an upcoming day off but leave it to me to choose. We end up in a back and forth that takes up too much of my time. What would help me is if, from now on, you suggest a specific date. I will let you know it is a problem and otherwise approve it right away.” That is a message that might feel like asking for help in one context but is in fact a boundary setting “I’m your boss and prefer this type of conversation in this type of scenario” message that makes everybody’s life easier.

      Another example: ask them to send you the TPS reports in the way that works for you. What helps you better, one by one and then you do them in five minute bursts through the week? Or a monthly deadline that is a week earlier then your deliverable and you take a few days to do them all at once? Pick what works for you and then implement a rule for staff to make your life easier. That is how you get your team to “help you” when feeling overwhelmed.

  16. BellyButton*

    I wouldn’t respond to that email either. I would be worried that multiple people were contacting the same people, there is no deadline, and there are no specifics. If I was really invested I would “reply all” and say I would take the first 3 on the list, in hopes that others would start to do the same.

    1. Green great dragon*

      Yep. If I wanted to help, my first step would be to email back, ccing everyone, and asking which ones you wanted me to do. But then what if you assign me too many, or by the time you get back to me you’ll want them done immediately and that’s my busy time at work… maybe you’re being vague because those you’re really talking to already know, I would think. I’ll mention it to my one rich friend, and let LW know if anything comes of it.

      1. Mill Miker*

        And in my experience being on a board, there’s a decent chance someone replied to only the LW with “I called the first 5, they said XYX”.

        At the very least, it would be helpful to ask someone to volunteer to coordinate things, point out to whole when someone does, or the next day that no one has, and message the group again to assign someone if no one does.

        Also, sometimes asking for help this way (especially “I need help” “if you could help”) kind of implies that you’re going through the list yourself, and anyone who called a couple people would be saving you time, but otherwise you’re going to get it done.

  17. Yellow*

    If I got a request like the email metioned I would feel weird about it. Strictly because the LW didn’t assign any specific tasks to any specific people. What if I call the first person on the list but Jan and Stan already called them? The LW needs to break things down much more specifically.

    Also, as a person who works at a place that gets asked to donate things for charity ALL THE TIME (we make a fun product people want)- please look for a Donation/Community Stewardship (or similar) section on the company’s website before calling us to ask for free things. Most places have a process for donations and the phone calls asking for free stuff are relentless.

    1. goddessoftransitory*

      ALL THE YES to your second paragraph! People who are looking for donations of services/products/food, unless they are professional organizers, really have no idea how many requests a business can get. Like, if we fulfilled every request made in any random thirty day period, we would basically give away all our product.

      When I get donation request calls, I always walk them through our website specifically to the Donation Requests page, tell them they must post THERE for the right person to read and respond, and to pay attention to the given times posted to expect to hear back.

  18. Ama*

    Anyone who’s taken a first aid course knows about the diffusion of responsibility, where when a group is responsible for a task each individual in that group assumes someone else will step up to complete the task. My last first aid course actually told us to make sure to point to a specific person and say “call 911 and report back to me”. I think the same principle applies here. Assign specific responsibilities and tell them to report back in some way to make sure you close the loop.

    1. Clare*

      The “and report back to me” half is new to me. I’m making a mental note, thanks Ama!

      I really need to book in for a first aid course, I haven’t taken one since the year 1 BC (before covid).

    2. danmei kid*

      In Economics theory this is called the tragedy of the commons: when everyone broadly owns something, then no one owns it. Everyone assumes someone else will take care of it. When you see litter on the ground up and down streets and highways that’s one good example. People assume someone else will be along to pick up the trash. But then not until the trash problem reaches a critical level does someone intervene, and now it’s a crisis response.

  19. BellyButton*

    Another suggestion – make a document like that a Google Doc so that all those involved can go into the document and see who has or hasn’t been contacted. If they are able to secure a donation they can list it so that you don’t end up with too many of the same things.

  20. Tequila & Oxford Commas*

    It’s the “If you could help out by contacting some people, that would be great” that strikes me as unclear. It’s not really a “would be nice,” it’s a must-have: this is their responsibility as active board members, but the wording reads like it’s optional. Lots of other great suggestions in the comments already, but I’ll reiterate that you have the standing, both with board and staff, to say “This is an all-hands-on-deck situation and everyone needs to ___. Name, I’ve assigned you this. OtherName, please take this on.” and so on.

    1. Ama*

      Yes I manage a volunteer board of very busy people and when we need them to do something that’s crucial to being able to accomplish an important project, I say that — I list out what we need them to do and by what date and then I close with something along the lines of “we appreciate your help with this crucial part of our [name of program], if you are not able to participate this year please let us know as soon as possible so we can reassign your tasks.” For certain projects we will send individually customized emails laying out exactly what that person has been assigned — it’s a lot of set up work but we get much better responses that way.

      With my particular group (which is dominated by type A academics) I’ve found that the best approach is basically telling people “we are assuming you are participating in this *unless* you tell us otherwise.” Before I was doing that a surprising number of people weren’t responding because they felt guilty about telling me they couldn’t help that year, or they’d wait until the last minute to finally drop out (which was far more disruptive). We also have bylaws for our group that lay out what annual activities they are expected to participate in as well, which is probably why people don’t get offended with this approach.

  21. SleeplessKJ*

    I’m on the board of a couple of volunteer orgs and have found that with stuff like this, it’s very helpful to head the email with “RESPONSE REQUIRED” in the subject line so that people don’t just skip over it and it at least gets read.

  22. Warrior Princess Xena*

    I do some volunteer/friend group stuff and the first thing I found was that if you, specifically, want something done, then you specifically get to handle the project management communications. You will get a much better response from “Daria, can you handle the flowers for the vases?” vs “Can anyone handle the flowers for the vases?” Either Daria will step up, and life is good, or Daria will answer back and maybe say “No, but I can vacuum all the carpets” you have still made a little progress. People are surprisingly open to being assigned things as long as it’s clear that you’re assigning things evenly.

    This is true for friend groups and meetings too. Big difference between “let’s meet up at some point” vs “let’s go to that Thai place on Friday for a buffet lunch”.

    1. ferrina*

      This is true for friend groups and meetings too. Big difference between “let’s meet up at some point” vs “let’s go to that Thai place on Friday for a buffet lunch”.

      I dropped out of one friend group entirely because no one ever made solid plans. There was a lot of “we never see each other!” but I was the only one that would say a day, time and place. And then half the group wouldn’t show up, or would try to change the place and/or time. Eventually it just got tedious to make plans with them only to have them call out at the last minute. I have better things to do with my time.

      1. Slow Gin Lizz*

        A friend of mine used to send out blanket emails to a somewhat large group of her friends (not necessarily all friends with each other or even knew each other) inviting them to do some activity or other. Then she would tell me later that no one responded and of course this is exactly what the problem was, that no one is going to respond if she just invites a large throng of people because they’ll all just figure someone else will say yes. I think she’s wizened up to this because now she will in fact just invite one person at a time even when she wants a whole group of people to come.

  23. Lozi*

    I manage volunteers, and I think it is a somewhat different approach than with staff. A few additional things that I think would be helpful:
    – Explain the “why.” Even if you think they already know … “As you may remember, Autumn Dinner is our biggest fundraiser, where we hope to see 50% of our annual budget raised! This year our goal is $–, and we can make that possible by —. These are the funds that go to — (your cause).”
    – Send it individually. As others have mentioned, you need it specific, but it also helps to send personalized emails. “Hi —, thank you so much for your contributions about — at our last meeting! I’m looking forward to working with you on the upcoming Fall Dinner …”
    – Follow up in another format. First sent an email? Follow up by text. Or vice versa. Even add in a real phone call! “Hey —, hope you got my email about –. Did you have any questions about moving forward with —?”

    1. Sloanicota*

      Great point about the cause. As nonprofits, we forget sometimes that this is why people are willing to do not-fun things for no money, so the least we can do it assure them their contribution has meaning for the cause.

    2. nonprofitpro*

      This was what I was coming to say – Saying the”why” is super important! I think you can also then say the impact of that “why.” For instance, this speical event not only creates a meaningful community at the event, the proceeds fund X for X people! OR last year “x participant” said it was one of the most impactful and fun evenings of the year! Your leadership and hard work make this happen!

      For both volunteers and staff this is important.

      I agree with the above though – the ask should be highlighted/bolded and at the top of the page.

  24. Ground Control*

    I’m very protective of my time so if I get a request that doesn’t include all of the info I need up front, I tend to ignore it. Without opening the attachment or clicking on the link it’s not clear how people are supposed to assign themselves the donors to avoid overlap, what the due date is, etc. I would respond to an email like this though:

    “We have officially launched the Long Table Dinner, officially known as the Autumn Harvest Dinner! We need to have the items for the silent auction/raffle by Nov 15th, so working backwards we need to contact last year’s donors by Oct 1st at the latest. There are 60 previous donors and 5 of us, so we each need to contact 12 people. If you’d like to select which 12 donors you want contact you can add your name to the “Assigned to” field of the shared spreadsheet titled “LTD_planning” (link here). If no one has indicated a preference by Sept 20th, I’ll make the assignments myself and send an update/reminder email. A sample donation request is attached. Please update the “Contacted date” and “Donor response” fields in the shared spreadsheet as you work so we have a real-time account of our progress.”

    1. Tequila & Oxford Commas*

      I like the “If X doesn’t happen by this date, I’ll assign Y to you.” Nice way of giving people a little autonomy while still having a backstop if no one steps up. In the workplace that might not be necessary, but it’s helpful with volunteers!

    2. Zuzu's Petals*

      I’m neurodivergent (ADHD/ASD) and this email would fill me with relief and a willingness to help. Clearly defined wants/tasks and an organised approach — bliss.

      In contrast, LW’s original message, though full of good intentions, is far too vague. I’d skim it, be confused as to what I was being asked to do, and then (literally) forget about it as more pressing-seeming things appeared in my inbox.

  25. Bee*

    I tried to read the email from the perspective of an employee receiving it . . . and I wouldn’t really know how to get the results you want (or even what those results definitively are). Good job to Jesse, though. I’m sure he’s got it handled, whatever it is.

    For context, I’m someone who is really passionate about supporting common causes and routinely volunteer, often asking people how I can help. Looking at this email . . . whom am I supposed to contact? The last thing I want to do is harass our donors/contributors if everyone else is calling them, too. I’ll probably give people the link to the donation form — maybe even include it in a bulletin or in my email sign-off below my email with other general things about my employer — but that’s it because my personal responsibility is worded too vaguely, and I don’t want to step on anyone else’s toes.

  26. Jester*

    It’s like how they tell you to make sure a specific person is going to call 911 in an emergency. If you just shout, ‘Someone call 911!’ everyone assumes someone else will do it.

    1. Kel*

      When I did first aid training they told us to specifically ask someone in the crowd. ‘You in the blue shirt, call 911.’

  27. Andromeda*

    When I was a nonprofit board chair, I labeled all of my emails with [INFO], [DISCUSSION], or [ACTION], to indicate what I needed from the members. (Seriously, it was the first word of the subject line.) I’m not sure whether the board members cared — but it was very helpful _for me_ because it made me clarify in my own mind what my actual expectations were with this email. Do I just need them to know something as an FYI, do I need discussion preparatory to some future action, or do I actually need people to do a thing? So that’s step zero.

    When I decided it was [ACTION] time — looking back over some of the emails I actually sent — I see two common themes:

    1. I usually phrased them as “you”, not “someone” or “everyone”. (“To that end I would like each of you to do the following:”, “I need you to fill out this Doodle poll by X date”, etc.)

    2. Whenever possible, I had ONE single call-to action, phrased as concretely as possible. Fill out this doodle poll, add your rankings to this spreadsheet, reply with your preferred liaison roles for the year, etc. If I absolutely had to have a more complicated call-to-action, I broke it down into bullet points.

    The key thing here is that board members are busy people, so I tried to make it _as easy as possible_ for them to understand & comply with my request.

    So in the example above I might have done something more like this:

    “Please choose at least 5 people to contact in the attached spreadsheet by Monday the 2nd. Put your name in the “Board Contact” column for the ones you’re contacting.

    “There’s a sample donation request attached that you can use or personalize. The spreadsheet has information about past donations to help you personalize.”

    This is actually pretty similar to your ask — you’d already done the work of making the spreadsheet and sample language (so important). However, it’s more directive (“please choose…”, “put”), concrete (has a specific number of people), time-bound (there’s a deadline, and it’s pretty soon), and auditable (they put their name in the board contact column — now I can follow up individually with people who haven’t signed up.


    In the case of _fundraising_, unless people in your organization have a lot of experience with it, I’d do more groundwork. Many people find fundraising intimidating (even though it is honestly super fun!) and need extra handholding to do it. So I would actually have a fundraising orientation meeting where I walked people, synchronously and maybe even face-to-face, through the strategy and also WHY we do it, and where I do things to reduce their anxiety about the process (underscoring that many donors actually LIKE being asked to support an org they care about). Fundraising just brings up complicated feelings that inspire avoidance (until the first time you’ve participated in a successful campaign, and then it feels awesome :).

    1. Yours sincerely, Raymond Holt*

      That’s such an important point about the fundraising aspect of it! It definitely brings up feelings that inspire avoidance, what a great way to put it.

  28. Hula-la*

    Hey, that’s my letter! Thank you so much for answering, as well as the great advice. In the case of work, it’s not the people that I manage that are the issue, but fellow managers on the same level as me.

    For the non-profit–you are so right that we need to have a conversation about being a board member and what roles they are willing to take on. It’s something that I have been noticing about the members in general, is that there’s a lack of engagement. However, I am going to take to heart being more specific in my asks. I wonder if I am being more general/hesitant because people are volunteering their time, and I am worried that if I push, they will just walk away.

    1. Mouse*

      My husband also runs a board-driven volunteer nonprofit, and has a lot of the same reluctance as you to push people and potentially lose them. I think he’s starting to come around to the idea that if pushing people to contribute makes them leave, then those are slots he can fill with people who care more and will contribute more, so it’s a net gain for everyone.

      1. bighairnoheart*

        Yes! I know these situations are often not so incredibly black and white as I’m about to put it, but in general, what’s better: a board member you never push who thus remains inactive, or one you push who leaves as a result? I’d say the latter is better because at least you have the chance to replace them now with someone who will do more!

    2. The Person from the Resume*

      Even with fellow managers at work if the task is part of their job, you can basically task them. “Joe, we need your team’s XYZ spreadsheet back NLT COB Thursday so we can add it the the report on Friday. Who is the POC for that spreadsheet?” It’s not a favor if it’s their job.

      If it is a favor because it is some volunteer committee or something that’s trickier, but you can still say “Each office needs to contribute something to the Thanksgiving potluck. We need 3 appetizers, 2 sides, and 2 desserts from each office.”

    3. Observer*

      In the case of work, it’s not the people that I manage that are the issue, but fellow managers on the same level as me.

      That’s not as straightforward as dealing with your staff. But Alison’s (and everyone else’s) advice is sound. And you also have more standing to ask for cooperation rather than help. Because what you are effectively asking for is not a favor per se, but for them to do their job.

      But it is true that with colleagues who are at the same level as you, you need a bit more buy in, so a little more explaining of the reason might work. And also, if you do tighten up you communications and people are still not stepping up and doing what they need to do, you might want to talk to your manager or the manager of these other people (if you are on different teams) about what needs to happen to make the cooperation take place.

    4. OyHiOh*

      My sense, with the non profit board, is that this is expected to be a “working” board, rather than a “governing” board (or for that matter, distinguished from a “board of trustees”) correct? Do incoming board members know, as part of their application/nomination and through onboarding or orientation materials, what the expectations are as members of a working board? A board that I served on a few years ago defined the number of events each board member was expected to attend annually, the number of monthly volunteer hours we were expected to log, and the $$ figure we were expected to bring in annually (which not as onerous as it sounds because new memberships and donations for silent auctions, getting a sponsorship for events or introducing a new donor to the org, tickets purchased for events, all counted in addition to what we might individually contribute). The point though, is that it was made very clear, as soon as someone expressed interest in board membership, what was expected.

    5. FashionablyEvil*

      More specificity is better! If you tell me, “Could you help with X?” with no specifics, I’ll probably say no. If you say, “Could you please contact these 10 people by next Friday?” the answer might still be no, but it could also be “yes” or “I can’t do 10, but I can do the 3 I know best.” If people aren’t engaged, knowing what you can/can’t get them to sign up for is also really valuable information.

    6. Becky*

      By being more specific in your asks, you are enabling (in a good way) their volunteer work to actually help. Volunteers want that.

    7. Clare*

      It’s totally possible to be assertive without being aggressive. You seem like such a polite person that I think you’d actually be able to walk that line really well! If you’re wondering what that looks like, Ground Control has an excellent example 4 comments above yours.

      When you’re not used to being assertive, it might feel pushy. But your board signed up because they want to be there. They want to help, and to feel like they’re clever and good at it. Vague tasks make people feel less clever because they’re struggling to understand what to do. Making it clear and easy makes them feel smart.

      As far as your fellow managers, they may be less enthused to do things if they’re just there for the pay, however being assertive and organised helps them do their job of supporting the company. Every competent person will appreciate that.

      Being clear and specific on what you need can feel pushy when you’re not used to it. You might feel super uncomfortable. Remember that you’re being helpful. Kind, confident, competent. Assertive, not aggressive. You can fake it ’till you make it. We believe in you, Hula-la!

    8. Andromeda*

      I think it’s actually the opposite – board members tend to be doers and joiners with a lot options for how to spend their time, and they walk away from the orgs that DON’T give them things to do.

  29. Capt. Liam Shaw*

    I think this comes down to what are you asking from me at work. Everyone is like “assign” people. Sure, but what is the request? Help with a spreadsheet or come in on a weekend to finish a big project (or cover for a missing shift).

    The first one of those I will help if you are not always asking and I think you are not terrible as a manager. I shouldn’t be doing your job and not getting paid for it.

    If it is the second request (coming in on a weekend). Hahaha! Yeah I am nopeing right out of that.

  30. NobodyHasTimeForThis*

    Yes, too lightly worded. We have a similar function and we worded it as an expectation. By wording it as helping you, you are keeping it as your responsibility. Put it on the board as THEIR fund raiser, it isn’t YOUR fundraiser

    The event is fast approaching and The Teacup Rescue relies on this fundraiser to fund our dancing teacup program. In order for the event to be successful, each board member will need to acquire a minimum of 5 auction items with an average retail value of XX. Attached is a list of last year’s donations along with the board member contact from last year. The second tab has a list of organizations that were not previously contacted and each board member has been assigned 5 new contacts. Please make notes in the spreadsheet …etc.

  31. Nay*

    Something I would recommend too is not to send something that requires a good read and time investment for follow up on a Friday; it is most likely going to get shelved with the intention to do it next week, but then next week has its own problems. If you’ve written your email on Friday, hold off until Monday to actually send it, and then do a soft follow up later in the week.

    1. Ez*

      I came here to say the same thing. A Friday email with a vague ask is definitely not going to be prioritized.

      Also agree with all saying the ask itself is too soft. Replace the passive “that you can send” with “please send to three contacts by Friday the 10th.”

  32. Jenny*

    I work with a large volunteer organization, and beyond the excellent advice given here, I have found a combination of specific outreach and general asks to be very successful. There are always people who would do a fabulous job who won’t volunteer themselves–because they’re modest, because they’re busy, because they don’t feel themselves to be part of the in-group, whatever. A specific ask just to them often gets excellent results. But it’s good to do a general ask as well, unless for some reason you need a specific subset of people, because you also may be overlooking people who would love to participate.

  33. Heidi*

    I’m kind of curious about how the Long Table Dinner got accomplished last year. Did this same type of email go out, and people were just more engaged last year? Or was a different approach taken? If the OP did not organize the event, I wonder if they could ask the former organizer how they did it.

  34. saskia*

    There’s a lot of good advice here. I hope OP ignores the comments that are like, “I would avoid helping, avoid volunteering, wouldn’t respond and I hate when people ask things of me.” If you’re an employee, you need to work and do tasks assigned by your manager. If you’re a volunteer, well, you signed up to do this, so you should do reasonable tasks when they’re asked of you.

    1. Anne Shirley*

      This why we need more context and examples. This could be an incredibly busy team of employees, many of who have a “second shift” of personal and family obligations as well. Or not. We just don’t know.

    2. H.Regalis*

      Yeah, that’s the thing. If you’re like “screw helping”, presumably you would not sign up to as a volunteer in the first place?

    3. Philosophia*

      Signing up to volunteer is not equivalent to signing up to do everything you are asked—and reasonable minds can differ on what is “reasonable.” I’ve gotten to the point where I include caveats up front about what I can and cannot do. One of the many things that led me to that point is having volunteered to be one of three people on a committee formed specifically to review a set of documents and report on the review, only to have the other two people drop out with no explanation, leaving me to perform the review and produce the report alone. I got the job done, but I didn’t volunteer with that particular group again. (If I’d ever received the explanation of why I’d suddenly been handed the entire task, it might have been another matter.)

  35. Kel*

    One thing I’ve started asking myself when I send out emails is ‘what is the ask’? What am I asking for? Make sure that part of the email is clear. It’s not ‘It’d be really great if you could help’ it’s ‘Please start contacting people on the list and collecting donations’.

    You can use softer language, but make the ‘ask’ part VERY clear. Right now it’s buried in the middle.

    1. Ground Control*

      YES!!! If it’s not a direct assignment to me and I have to put effort into figuring out what’s even being asked, it immediately becomes my lowest priority.

  36. skadhu*

    As everyone has said, it sounds like most issues come down to communication re expectations and responsibilities, but some other things to think about…

    I’m on the board of a small non-profit that relative to its size does an enormous amount of work and has had some substantial accomplishments, and I think it comes down to a clear organizational process all the way through.

    We have a fully volunteer working board and everyone understands that, but we do far too much for just the board to handle, so we also have committees to carry out specific kinds of work, both regular ongoing committees and ad hoc temporary committees for projects. Every committee has a board member who can represent them at board meetings (the board member is usually but not always the committee chair).

    Monthly board meetings. Agenda is sent out in advance and includes a package of reports from all committees that provide updates on what has been happening, upcoming work to watch for, and any issues arising for either. If the executive or a committee is bringing a motion to the board that’s also in the agenda package, with any relevant info about it. Ditto requests for assistance on upcoming projects. This gives people a heads-up, saves us having to go over everything in detail at the board meetings, and also provides a good written record.

    Every board discussion focuses on action items. If something needs to happen, the meeting minutes specify ACTION: [task] [person responsible] [any applicable deadlines] (in a different colour from all the other text). This makes it very clear who is doing what, and ensures that someone takes on responsibility. This approach is also used at the committee level.

    Apart from process, another thing to consider is whether board members don’t have the ability to do the work needed, and if that problem contributes to what’s happening. What’s reasonable to ask of your board? Do you need to create committees to support board members in their work? The answer likely varies a lot between non-profits and is partly dependent on the contexts they operate in. Our board and committee volunteers (supported in a couple of areas by contracted subject-matter experts in areas requiring specific technical knowledge skills) recently hit our limit, so we’ve initiated a mandate and capacity review to ensure that we know what we need to do, and what we can do, and that we can do it properly. Maybe we’ll hire staff or an ED; or maybe we’ll decide to say no, this is what we are able to do at this point and just accept that. But we’ll be making that decision based on an analysis of our capabilities and resources, both financial and otherwise, so can stay realistic in our goals and projects can be properly supported. If we don’t do this, it won’t be long before important stuff doesn’t get done properly.

  37. Magiggles*

    I no longer manage people, but have found that most people respond really well to reasonable deadlines. Usually I’ll just provide a date about a week or two out and confirm that date works for them. You don’t always need an external factor to influence deadlines, you just need to have one. It helps people prioritize work.

  38. But Not the Hippopotamus*

    I would ignore the email because I don’t know who might have already been contacted. It is vague enough that I would feel like I’d need to manage it in some way not just actually reach out to folks. That makes it a LOT more mental work.

    For instance, to act on it I feel I might have to email back saying: “I’ll take the first ten folks in the list.”. But if I didn’t get to that email right away, I’d be concerned that someone else had already done that, so now it’s: “I’ll take the first ten on the list if everyone can confirm they haven’t already done so.”. Then I’m waiting to hear back and tracking who hasn’t responded.

    Basically, the vagueness makes it a whole lot of extra and I would “Nope!” that into the bottom of my to-do list..

    1. Generic Name*

      Yes, exactly. Not only are you asking people to do the task, you’re also asking them to coordinate it amongst themselves. It’s one of the reasons group projects in school suck so bad. Because a project is given, but there are no instructions on who should do what, it often leads to a Lord of the Flies type scenario. So of course most people don’t respond.

  39. lost academic*

    Too vague and too broad, and I’ve also handled this in the same roles as the OP has. Break requests down into concrete tasks that take a clear amount of time that isn’t seen as too much (I like to keep them 15-30 minutes) and give the assignments or requests out specifically to the individuals who should be handling them. If you don’t know, ask others to help you figure that out. Then focus on following up to ensure that everything’s getting done.

  40. FashionablyEvil*

    My grandmother had a habit of saying things like, “I think someone should take their glass to the kitchen.”

    Me: “That’s cool. My name isn’t someone.”

  41. cmdrspacebabe*

    As a communications professional who deals with this a lot – I’m with Alison: you aren’t making it easy enough for people to help. There aren’t very clear steps to follow and it’s impossible to judge how long it’ll take, and most people aren’t going to feel comfortable doing something without more guidance, which they’d need to do more back-and-forth about. Every extra step you ask people to take is an extra risk of drop-offs. I would format the email with lists and provide everything you can in advance:

    “Hi Colleagues, we’re doing X! I need a few people to help 0ut with [contacting people about y] – it’ll take about an hour of your time. Here’s what I’d need:
    – I’ll give you a list of 5 names and their item.
    – You’ll fill out the attached template email and send it to each contact.
    -Once you hear back, [action – e.g., enter it into this Excel sheet].
    Jim, hoping you can handle the set with Z since that was a hit last year! We’ll need this done by [date] in order to make the deadline, so let me know by the end of the day if you have time to help.”

    Bullets are way easier for people to parse than sentences; you’re telling them up front exactly what actions they’ll need to take; you’re removing all the ambiguity; and a deadline will add urgency so they won’t go “I’ll think about it” and then forget. Response rates still aren’t generally great, but they’ll get better if you remove as much up-front work on their end as you can!

  42. EA*

    This is Board specific advice. Getting a nonprofit Board to act can be hard. Here’s what’s worked for me:

    1. Share the key asks for the next few months in the Board meeting and give them a chance to respond. Example: present the Harvest Dinner plan in the meeting and ask for feedback.

    2. If Board members say they’ll do stuff during the meeting, put it in the minutes and send them out promptly following the meeting. In a nice way, being like “hey you agreed to do this, remember?”

    3. Talk to one or two “champions” on the Board specifically about key projects. If one or two get fired up, I find that helps get others on Board. Also recognizing above and beyond contributions is great, like you did in your email about Jesse’s auction item. People like being thanked!

    I also think you sometimes have to let Board members who aren’t involved go… my boss is not on the same page about this though, unfortunately!

    Good luck!

    1. CM*

      I have a lot of Board experience and was coming to give a lot of the same tips! Definitely set expectations in advance at a Board meeting. Get everybody’s verbal agreement that they will do whatever it is, and tell them when they can expect to hear from you again about this.

      You could also consider following up in the next Board meeting: say thank you to those who did their assignment, tell them what the positive impact of their work was, and for those who didn’t step up, give them a new assignment. (Gently — “for next time, would you be able to…?”)

      And #3 in EA’s comment is especially effective, recruiting “champions” who also feel invested in this and empowered to ask other board members about it.

  43. zebra*

    I agree with what mostly everyone else is saying and want to emphasize that the subject line of a message is almost as important as the contents of the message. Your subject line needs to be brutally specific and short; if it’s not obvious what the email is for by reading the subject line only, it’s not specific enough.
    One board chair I used to work with asked everyone to put specific phrases in email subjects. “INFORM: xyz” if it didn’t require a response, “ACTION: xyz” if he had to do something, I think there were a couple of others that I forget. But the point is, don’t worry about making the subject line friendly or grammatical or pretty. For this example message I’d do something like “Action Needed: Silent Auction Donations”.

    Also, an old boss always told me never to put a to-do item in the middle of a paragraph. If you need to put a couple of sentences of context or niceties up top, followed by a question or a thing you need, make a new paragraph and put the thing you need on its own. And if you need more than one thing, don’t be afraid to do a numbered list. It’s much easier to figure out the ask when you’re skimming an email quickly.

  44. Anne Shirley*

    This is only in response to your paid work as a manager. There’s not enough context here, and another sample email would have helped. Are you referring to asking for help with things not specifically or ordinarily part of your staffers’ jobs?

    If this indeed the case, consider what you’re asking and how busy these folks are with deadlines and personal-life obligations. This could be a case of irritation at the thought of adding more to their plates.

    Or I could be way off base here. Examples of things you want done would be so helpful.

  45. OhGee*

    In my work place, we call this kind of ask a “volun-tell.” You will never get enough ‘volunteers’, in paid or unpaid roles, until you assign them something specific. Nobody likes the volun-tell, but it has been the only way to equitably distribute tasks that are all-hands-on-deck AND actually see them get done.

  46. librarianmom*

    In addition to the less soft language, it is sometimes helpful to focus on the results or the importance of the task — “This is our major fundraising event for our feeding the llamas program, so getting participation of our donors is very important.”
    Also for volunteer work, a little guilt can be a nudge —- “Without your efforts we can not successfully reach all llamas in need.”

    1. The Rafters*

      Volunteer for over 30 years, almost 25 with current group. Reason for those 25 years is that guilt and bossiness ticks me off. Ask me to do something, and I’m very likely to do it, but order or guilt me? I’m gone. Group I’m with now asks and will take “no” for an answer without the theatrics.

      1. hellohello*

        I think there’s a difference between guilting/not taking no for an answer and just reminding volunteers what the stakes are. If an event is not going to happen unless five volunteers sign up for shifts, letting people know that might be “guilting” but it’s also important information about a cause they presumably care about.

  47. B*

    Always relevant…. When you assign a talk to ‘everybody’, everyone assumes ‘somebody’ will do it. “This is a story about four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody and Nobody. There was an important job to be done and Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it. Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it. Somebody got angry about that, because it was Everybody’s job. Everybody thought Anybody could do it, but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn’t do it. It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have.”

  48. The Rafters*

    I also volunteer with a non-profit. I regularly volunteer for specific tasks that I love to do. Other vols don’t like those tasks so much, but they excel at tasks I detest. Break down what actually needs to be done. If you know that someone does the same task every year and is good at it, try asking them to help with that one specific task. Volunteers sometimes shy away from larger events b/c they’re afraid too much work will be heaped on them.

  49. Observer*

    I found it interesting that your first thought is that you are asking too much of people. And yet, your email to the board is asking almost nothing of people. Even for board you could ask for more and get it done, much less staff at work- even people who you do not manage.

    I think that one of the keys is the communications that everyone highlighted. But the other is for you to be a lot less tentative about this stuff. This is all perfectly reasonable stuff to ask for. Especially at work, even from people you don’t manage. Unless you are constantly coming to the TPS data people with last minute requests for huge complicated TPS reports and they are swamped, telling your colleague “I need a quarterly TPS P&L report for the prior quarter by next week. Can you have someone in your department get that to me?” is perfectly reasonable. You might want to add the reason for this – “The Board is trying to look at the P&L for our different departments, and I need to roll up the TPS reports with the Cumquat reports ti give them the data they need.” It feels bald, but it’s clear and concise. Although I would say that this is where it’s handy to have a relationship with folks where you do some minor chit chat about life – When a request like this comes from someone you’ve talked about trips, sports, lawn care, or whatever, it feels a lot more human than when it comes from someone with whom you have never had a non-purely business conversation with

  50. Ex-prof*

    “YOU! call an ambulance!” is what I was thinking of as I read LW’s email to the volunteers.

    Longer ago than I care to recount, I took Red Cross Lifeguard training. We were taught, when performing a rescue, to turn to one person in the gathering crowd, grab them by the shoulders, and say “YOU! call an ambulance!”

    Because if we instead said “Someone call an ambulance!” in those pre-cellphone, find-a-payphone days, no ambulance was going to get called.

    The grabbing by the shoulders is probably no longer a good idea, if it ever was, but the advice remains sound. Requests for someone to do something are never as effective as individual requests.

  51. NotARealManager*

    As a good friend of mine once said, “Asking everyone is asking no one”.

    Assign the work in whatever detail you can. That might be people or it might be tasks or both.

  52. Rara Avis*

    When it’s a work event, we get an email saying, “The sign-up for shifts/tasks will open on xx/xx at 5 p.m. If you do not sign up for a shift, you will be assigned one.” The year I forgot to go on until 5:15, I got a really sucky job.

    However, for my volunteer gig (animal rescue), the volunteer coordinator often sends out emails saying, “We need such and such covered” and it seems to work. I am seldom able to sign up for an extra time outside my usually weekly commitment, but it seems like many people are able to. Of course, coordinating a big fundraising event/eliciting donations is a lot more complicated than scooping litter boxes.

  53. I*

    Call them! Call them call them call them. Call them 2-3 times per effort you’d like them to make, until you reach them. Chit chat a bit when you do reach them. The idea is to teach them that saying yes to you feels good and will help them live in alignment with their values (hence why they said yes to being involved in the first place), and avoiding you will result in more phone calls. Think about the kind of friends who you would drop everything for if they needed you, and do this until those people are that kind of friend.

    1. Yours sincerely, Raymond Holt*

      This really depends on the person, though. Some people absolutely respond to this. Other will wonder why you’re wasting their time to ring them and chat about personal stuff.

      It also risks underplaying how important the ask is. I actually suggest making your ask the main focus of your conversation.

      Build relationships with people separately, not when you want things. You dilute the ask, and your relationship building can come off as disingenuous.

  54. Jesse*

    I would be confused by the email, I have to admit. It doesn’t mention a sign up sheet or any way of knowing if someone else already took the initiative of contacting someone. Ideally I’d respond and ask for clarification but I can also see just getting busy and forgetting to circle back.

    1. Perfectly Cromulent Name*

      Yes! A sign up sheet or a checklist or something (WITH A DEADLINE) or even just telling them what to do- Susan, I need you to X by October 7. Bill, I need Y by October 8. If anyone has questions about XYX, please feel free to contact me privately- if anyone has a conflict, please let me know by September 30…

      I once had a boss who was always SO WORRIED about looking “bossy” that she would have me spend the last hour of the day reading the email she was about to send out to make sure it was ‘polite.’ So I’d read it, and I’d be all, “This is all friendly and nice, but you are so polite that you are not actually asking them do DO anything. It is okay to tell them to DO THE THING. It is literally their job to do the thing.
      So I’d revise “Hi John, it was good to talk to you on Friday! Thank you for telling me about Issue A. It was super nice to see you!” To “Hi John! It was nice to talk to you on Friday! Thank you for telling me about Issue A! To resolve it, please reach out to Jane and send her Form B by October 9. Please copy me on the email. If you have trouble with Ted, let me know by October 5 so I can handle it. I know that you said that he was giving pushback, but Form B does need to be submitted and that is not optional. Be sure to have Deliverable A ready to submit by October 15. I will reach out for a progress report on Deliverable A when I get copied on the Form B email. Thank you again for the update- it was so nice to see you! ” She ALWAYS left out the middle stuff. ALWAYS. Because it was “bossy.” But GURL. YOU ARE THE BOSS.

  55. hellohello*

    With volunteers especially, making the volunteer request as specific as possible will really help you out. One of the biggest barriers to getting volunteers to do things is just the mental load. A vague ask means your volunteer has to check their calendar, figure out exactly what needs to be done, figure out if they can actually do that thing, tell you they’ll do that thing, then follow through, and when you’re not getting paid to do all that it can be really easy to just… let it slip by.

    If you say “here is a spreadsheet of tasks I need help with and when I need that help. Please sign up for one!” makes the whole process a lot easier to agree to. Or if they need even more encouragement, call the volunteers directly and ask them to do one specific thing at a specific time.

  56. sagewhiz*

    Strongly recommend to anyone involved in non-profit event planning: _How to Put the Fun in Fundraising_ by Phyllis Eig, available on Amazon.

  57. I'm the Phoebe in Any Group*

    I’ve had to get work from people I don’t have authority over, both above and below me. I’ve found that in person is more effevtive than email (that was a hard lesson for me to learn). For the board, doing it at a board meeting adds the peer pressure element. And if you board is required to be involved in fundraising, do a reminder of that.

  58. PlainJane*

    Yeah, OP, I get why you’re phrasing things the way you are–it’s awkward to just give orders sometimes! But from a social or work perspective, I would be completely frozen by your email–guilty because I know I should be doing SOMETHING, but totally unable to figure out what I’m expected to do, if it’s voluntary or (in the professional case) something that’s part of my job… what is it, exactly? And–and I’ll admit, this might just be me–I’d be afraid to ask because I’d be thinking, “Am I supposed to know this? Did I miss something? Should I admit not understanding?” Just be clear. A vague disclaimer is no one’s friend. [/Willow]

    For something like this, at work, I’d tend to have a planning meeting–you go with a list of things that need to be done, get any feedback you think you need, and leave with the tasks assigned. Maybe that would make sense for the volunteer scenario as well, at least if there’s a regular meeting time.

  59. DrSalty*

    I just took a CPR class this week and a key step in the process is to look directly at one single bystander, make eye contact, and say “You, dial 911!” Otherwise no one will take action because people in a group tend to assume someone else will. Applicable to many types of requests!

  60. Triple Nerd Score*

    Beyond the other items mentioned here, the line “If you could help out by contacting some people, that would be great” really jumped out at me. If I am busy and juggling other tasks, my reaction to that “If you could help out…” is going to be, “Well, I can’t help out” – without stopping to really think and consider.

    I am also a big fan of the, “If I don’t hear from you…” trick. “If I don’t hear hear from you by XYZ date, I’m going to do ABC” – where ABC might be a more aggressive assignation of tasks than they’d prefer! ;)

    Definitely put the clear ask in the subject line, with a date it’s expected to be completed by as well.

    Good luck!

  61. the bat in the office popcorn machine*

    The request should be it’s own line, as specific as possible, and even bolded.

    “If each person could contact 3 people and do XYZ by [DATE] that would be great.”

  62. Lbd*

    Some commenters have mentioned the idea of feeling uncomfortable about approaching someone for donations. If you can provide scripts for your volunteers for each type of communication they might use (email, text, phone, in person) you can take a bit of the emotional labour of the task from them, and perhaps help them be more successful. Maybe one of your volunteers would even be good at this and could compose something?
    I find that if I have a script it feels so much more manageable to phone or email someone, and I think my more relaxed tone is more successful in engaging with my audience!

  63. Tiger Snake*

    I’ve put on my “I work here” hat while reading your email.

    And what I found myself saying was “I’m already busy, and I don’t actually understand what OP is asking for. I can’t help out, and I’m clearly not the one she’s actually asking. So, I’ll leave it to whoever she was actually referring to.”

  64. JaneDough(not)*

    LW, I wonder whether you equate direct/forthright speech with impolite speech, as many people (esp. women) do — yet they aren’t the same. Those of us who aren’t accustomed to speaking directly tend to have trouble making the transition; one reason I read this website is to learn from Alison, whose use of direct-yet-cordial speech is masterful.

    Three problematic phrases stood out to me:
    1. “I really need help collecting items for the silent auction/raffle.” That “really” sounds pleading / wheedling — a bit soft, which indirectly invites people not to comply.
    2. “If you could help out …” No. It isn’t optional. Please ditch “If you could ___” and try instead “Please do __ .”
    3. ” … that would be great.” Again, this equals “I use soft language because I’m a softy — you can ignore this email.”

    Best wishes as you proceed with direct-yet-cordial communication.

  65. KitCaliKat*

    I used to manage the fundraising team at a nonprofit. The Board was notoriously unresponsive to all of my communications about fundraising. Group emails, individual emails, phone calls…it didn’t matter, more than half the Board just would not respond. It drove me bananas!

    Come to find out that my Executive Director was telling me one thing (“I expect the Board to give you a list of people to solicit”, for example) and telling the Board members something completely different (“This isn’t a fundraising Board, so you don’t have to fundraise”). As you can imagine, this made it quite difficult to do certain parts of my job.

    So, some suggestions:

    1.) Be very clear with your Board members about what your expectations are, when you recruit them and once they join your Board.

    2.) Find out how your Board members like to be communicated with, and then do that. I personally LOVE email, but a lot of people nowadays do everything by text, and a phone call to a Board member is often a great way to ask for help AND to give them the opportunity to raise questions / contribute ideas in the moment.

    3.) Be very specific with your ask and give your Board members all of the materials they need to do the job.

    4.) Use Board meetings to call out individuals for their contributions. Like, “Many thanks to Bob for dropping off our sponsorship packet at ten of the businesses on this year’s list. Five of them have already signed up to sponsor our event!” And then briefly explain what the impact of Bob’s actions are for the organization. Sometimes, people need an illustration of how their work translates into positive change.

    And don’t be afraid to ask Bob to speak up about how he made time to deliver those packets, or how he decided which businesses to approach. This information could help another Board member, and you’re also giving them an “expert” to approach with questions.

    Good luck!

  66. I Have RBF*

    Let me put my documentation hat on here. IMO, you are making a mistake by bunging everything into one paragraph. Try this instead:

    Hello and happy Friday!

    We have officially launched the Long Table Dinner, officially known as the Autumn Harvest Dinner! Your help is needed to make this a success.

    I really need help collecting items for the silent auction/raffle. I’ve made a copy of last year’s list, including, wherever possible, the contact person and what they donated last year.

    If you could help out by contacting some people, that would be great (Jesse, the house cleaning last year was super popular!). Please see link below.

    I’ve also attached a copy of a donation request that you can give out.

    Thanks so much everyone!

    Yes, it is a lot of short little paragraphs, but each one has a different focus. It answers question like what is needed, why, how to get it, and gives resources to accomplish things.

    When you squish it all into one paragraph, in an email it just looks like a wall of text, and most people only read the first line.

    Might some people put the paragraph breaks in different places? Yes. But the idea is to break it up so that even people who skim their email will get the gist of what is being requested.

    1. Peanut Hamper*

      I agree with you completely. Short paragraphs are definitely better in emails!

      But still, you should replace “If you could help out by contacting some people” with “You need to tell me by the end of this week who which people you can contact. Just respond to this email.”

  67. nodramalama*

    I wouldn’t necessarily cosign this method because it is quite annoying, but at my work we have a jokey term for this kind of thing which is “voluntell”. Basically when there’s something at work that is not strictly mandatory but is highly pushed or ‘encouraged’ by the executive, where will be a call out for volunteers and if they don’t get enough responses, some people will get a tap on the shoulder.

  68. Peanut Hamper*

    Stop asking. Assign. To a specific person or team. That’s what managers are supposed to do.

    Mischief managed.

  69. BatManDan*

    It’s generally true that an email never actually FUNCTIONS as a call-to-action, no matter how it’s worded and regardless of whether it includes a call to action. Most emails don’t get opened, those that do get opened don’t get read past the first line or two, and those that are actionable get pushed off to some unknown future date, and then forgotten (frequently; not always). So, it’s best to assume that an email is just an ANNOUNCEMENT, and then follow it up with a phone call to talk about specific actions that you’ll need from the recipient. (The board email in this letter is a particularly bad example of what to do, because, as a recipient, even if I was moved to action from just this email, I’d wonder if I’d be contacting someone that had already been contacted before.)

  70. HonorBox*

    Thought about this a little bit. LW, I think you need to be more specific in your requests. With your staff, you HAVE to assign versus ask. “I need you to do ‘x’ by ‘deadline’.” With the volunteer board, you need to be a little more nuanced, but you still have to make assignments. When you’re sending out the list of previous sponsors, make it a Google Sheet, which allows people to see everything happening in real time. Assign specific contacts to specific board members and then tell everyone that calls need to be made by a specific date. If they want to switch with someone because they have a better contact with a sponsor, great. But everyone will be able to see who is supposed to contact whom and what the response is. You can’t tiptoe into this. They’re volunteer board members, but they’ve committed to specific things by agreeing to be a board member. In the meeting or two before you send that list out, provide the context about the event, remind people that you’ll be sending out the Google Sheet, and remind them of the importance of the event for the organization. And then tell them you’re going to be assigning each person a list of contacts. You’re the board chair, so not their boss, but you’re also the person who has say over the process. Don’t assume that people are going to just willingly jump up and make calls. Don’t assume that it will go smoothly. It will take a little extra time on the front end for you, but will save you a lot of time later since you won’t need to hope that people are going to do the right thing.

  71. Pink Candyfloss*

    LW, I am a busy person with multiple conflicting priorities so I really appreciate when people are SPECIFIC with what they need from me, and when they need it by. Your email stressed me out, lol. “It would be great IF you could contact SOME people” … I need to know what you need me to do and by when you need it. Then I can manage myself accordingly. If you are talking to the volunteer board of a non-profit then you are adding something to their already full lists, and they likely need the same help.

    Alison’s advice is spot on: when you send a generic email, everyone is likely to assume someone else is doing things. If everyone owns a task, no one owns it. If you ask me to go look at an external link and figure it out on my own, it’s going to the bottom of my priority list. Give me in the main email what I need to respond in a timely and efficient fashion. Otherwise, the louder voices & squeakier wheels and higher priorities are going to suck up all my time and attention and you will be lucky if by the end of a week I even remember you sent this email in the first place.

  72. Just Thinkin' Here*

    Your staff are not helpers – they are employees. Assign tasks to individuals. Or if you don’t know who likes to do what, in a group setting ask for volunteers. If no one volunteers, then each individual is voluntold.

  73. Annie*

    Another good tip is to ask people specifically for help. “Hey Jane, I really need help setting up a display at this conference and I would really appreciate your eye for detail.” You can rephrase it based on being their boss or at the volunteer position. The point is to let them know that you specifically need them. It is much harder to say no when being asked one on one. Be conscientious with how often you ask people to help you with things so they don’t get burned out.

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