Over the pandemic I took some time to enroll in an intensive coaching course. Over Zoom, of course. It was designed for people who don’t necessarily intend to become certified life coaches as a career path, but who want to incorporate a coaching approach into their daily life.
The heart of this approach, I believe, can be distilled into two words. And they’re extremely useful for donor conversations:
When you’re genuinely curious about another person you ask questions to draw them out. And questions to help them get to the place they want to go; not where you think they should go. Because what’s right for you is not always right for someone else. They’ll tell you what’s right – with you acting as their guide – but only if you’re interested enough to ask.
It happens some questions are better than others if you want to get to the core of the matter at hand. We’ll get to those in a moment.
There’s a better way to have dynamic, effective conversations than jumping in prematurely with your own opinion. I’ve always known this, but it turns out there’s more to it than adopting the old adage: “You have two ears and one mouth; use them in that proportion.” Because it’s how you approach the listening that matters.
The most powerful listening comes from a loving stance and pays attention to feelings. This has been termed “generous listening” by at least one other fundraising colleague, Amy Varga, who counsels listening for what the donor cares about and why your mission speaks to them. More broadly, simply notice in the moment what is going on for the other person; speak to that.
Value comes from the value you seek.
With major donor prospects you won’t get far unless you know two things. Plan to ask questions to suss those things out:
(1) What do they most value? This tells you:
- What people believe makes life worth living,
- Where they see problems, and
- Where they see promise, hope and the possibility for change.
When you know what people value you can guide them towards living their values to the fullest of their potential. When you don’t know, you’re just shooting in the dark around the edges of the target.
(2) What motivates them to give philanthropically? This ties back to values and:
- What they’re grateful for,
- Who they cherish and honor, and
- What matters to them and inspires them towards “love of humanity.”
There’s no one “right” motivation; it simply pays to know which one moves your donor so you can connect on that level.
Example NO: “I know fighting for voting rights is at the top of everyone’s priority list right now, even more than supporting diversity, equity and inclusion – which I know you care about. But we won’t have DEI without fair voting. So that’s why I’m asking you to give $1,000 today towards the voting rights initiative. And everyone who gives this week will have their gift matched.” NOTE: What you care about may not be what the donor most cares about. Also, the motivation to have their gift doubled may not have as strong a values tug for them as you may think.
Example YES: “Were you aware of our current voting rights initiative? I’m wondering how this might speak to you? I’d love to chat with about your feelings about these plans and also what programs most interest you right now. Maybe you might tell me what legacy you’d most like to leave the world right now?” NOTE: By opening the conversation up to what the donor values you also get a window into what motivates their philanthropy.
Value comes from the questions you ask.
The best questions are open-ended, generative and directional. They are asked with intention to guide your donor towards their own powers of creation. Because all philanthropic gifts, truly, are acts of creating a better outcome.
Every question you ask sends the donor somewhere. Avoid “why” questions, as these tend to evoke defensiveness. Stick with “what” and “how” questions to move folks towards inner values and possibility. And never, ever ask yes/no questions. These will end the conversation with a thud.
Here are some simple, spacious, energetic questions:
- What would your dream be?
- What legacy would you like to leave?
- What about this work first spoke to you?
- What about this work seems relevant/most speaks to you now?
- What is most important to you when you make a gift?
- Who set an example of generosity for you?
- How do you decide which causes to support with your philanthropy?
Value comes from the quality of your listening.
You don’t need to “get it,” understand or relate to your donor. You just need to hear the truth of their experience. As a philanthropy facilitator your role is to gently guide donors toward their own inner power, wisdom and possibility. You neither push nor pull. You stand by their side.
Dedicate yourself to caring about, not necessarily sharing, what your donor most cares about. You’ll get much further than coming from a place of what you care about.
Example NO: “I hear you saying you’d rather give to support the new therapy pet program, but we’ve targeted raising money to expand the adoption program and, since you were adopted, we thought this would be a good fit for you. And it’s our highest fundraising priority right now.”
Example YES: “I wasn’t aware you felt that way about therapy animals. Please tell me more. I’m curious… what about this speaks to you?”
Magic happens when people care. When a donor senses you care about them and their interest, not just your own agenda, they will become more open and comfortable with you. So much so that the $1,000 gift you were seeking for the adoption program might turn into a more valuable $10,000 gift for the therapy pet program!
Value comes from the quality of your follow-up.
Don’t rush to conclude things. Stay curious and try to find out more. Again, be sensitive to the donor’s feelings. What may be causing them to respond to you this way? How might they be arriving at this conclusion? Here are some extremely useful follow-up questions you can use in almost any situation:
- Can you tell me more about that?
- Might you elaborate on that a bit?
- How did that happen?
- What happened when that occurred?
- What else can you tell me about that?
- Is there anything I haven’t asked that I should have?
You can expect to encounter things you don’t know. That’s why you’re asking questions and listening to the answers!
Bring a sense of wonder and curiosity to donor conversations.
Be fully present in the moment, rather than thinking ahead to your next question or end goal.
Don’t make assumptions about donor interests, values and philanthropic motivations. This holds true, especially, for values you think are universal. They aren’t, and these unconscious blind spots can send you in the wrong direction.
Notice what gets in the way of generous listening. Avoid bringing your own stories to the table: “Oh, this person reminds me of my mother.” Or “I went through something like that.” As soon as you notice yourself making up a story about the donor, return to curiosity.
When you bring your own story, biases, stereotypes and assumptions to the conversation you won’t hear as clearly and fully. So don’t work so hard to “relate.” All that does is center YOU into the dialogue.
What’s right for a given donor is not always what’s on your today agenda.
Work to center your donor and discover their agenda.
Partner with them to get them where they want to go.
Every donor conversation should be co-creative.
Want More Help with Strategic Donor Conversations?
You owe it to yourself, and your donors, to check out the newest Veritus Group course: Making Effective Donor Asks. This course is all about “permission-based asking.” Just like the conversational listening principles outlined in this article, this approach to asking will make you comfortable asking for anything — both in your personal and professional life.
Your donors know themselves better than you do! Many of them want you to know them better, but you can’t be ham-fisted about it or they’ll get skittish. If you want to avoid common mistakes and learn how to ask with confidence, sensitivity and aplomb, this 4 module online course is your ticket! With this model, no donor encounter is wasted. Whether they say “no,” “maybe,” or “yes,” you celebrate what has, could and will be accomplished. Most asking models miss this celebration point; turns out it makes all the difference!
The course begins January 24th. You can register here. Please take advantage of my exclusive discount code to save $50: CA5