“Handoff” is transactional — It indicates a lack of collaboration, and rarely reflects a thoughtful pathway for someone who is supporting our institutions. So how do we move away from this transactional reference, and embrace our very best work?Continue reading
At the recent CASE Strategic Talent Management Conference I attended, a fascinating report* was presented that outlined factors that make major gift officers successful, and surveyed fundraisers on how confident they felt in their ability to display those factors.
At the very top of the list — tied with using the phone to secure donor visits — was handling difficult conversations with donors.
The relationships between our institutions and donors are, in our best-case scenarios, long term and deeply personal to the donor. And those factors are a recipe for the occasional conflict.
However, learning to manage those conversations is both deeply effective and satisfying for the fundraisers who must do so. Here are my top strategies for navigating these tricky conversations with supporters:
Remember that you’re an ambassador, not the subject of the critique.
- We know that we’re not the institution, and a donor’s concern isn’t a judgment of us as individuals … but how we process emotionally can be an entirely different story!
- One frame that can help us manage this emotion is to think of ourselves as a facilitator: We are not the party who is critical, and we are not the party being criticized. We are here to facilitate a message between those two parties.
Understand when transparency is a gift.
- Don’t delay when there’s information to share. Perhaps your scholarship naming minimums are being raised, or a program beloved by a donor is going away. Whatever the scenario, it is a kindness to share information proactively and clearly.
- Have the facts on both what is happening and why it’s happening before you talk with the donor. Otherwise, the conversation will feel incomplete.
Represent the institution professionally but with authenticity.
- We should never undermine the institution in donor conversations, so we must know how and when to acknowledge our own feelings.
- Not every issue needs you to share your own thoughts, but issues that are very substantive or when the donor is personally impacted can be an appropriate occasion.
- Consider language such as:
- I recognize this is a complicated decision; and while I don’t know that I would make the same one, I understand why it was made.
- I think very thoughtful people can disagree about this issue.
- If I can take off my ambassador “hat” for a moment, I will share that I see this issue a bit differently than the institution does. But I also recognize that leadership is weighing some very complicated factors and is making the decision they think will create the best outcome for everyone.
Recognize when your donor may be unhappy.
- Some donors will tell you when they’re upset about something … but many will not be so direct.
- When something feels “off,” ask probing questions. For example:
- Am I hearing some hesitation in how you feel about leadership?
- It sounds like you may have some thoughts about the event. Would you be open to sharing more?
- I’m sensing that something may be off in how you’re feeling about your relationship with the institution. Am I correct?
Don’t try to resolve right away: Seek to understand first.
- Conflict often has layers to it. Perhaps a donor who is upset about a program going away is just upset about the program … or maybe what concerns them most is that they weren’t consulted first.
- Ask questions to ensure you have a full picture. For example:
- I understand. Can you tell me more about how you would have liked to see us approach this issue?
- What would you change if it were up to you?
- Is there a way we could have managed this differently that would allow you to feel better about the change/decision/program/etc.?
Determine whether the donor is seeking resolution or just needs to be heard.
- Being heard is a basic human need and can resolve many conflicts.
- An apology or acknowledgement can go a long way. Offer it freely.
- Often the donor will respond by letting you know whether the situation is resolved or if they need further resolution. If that’s unclear, ask:
- I’m really glad you shared your thoughts with me …
- Can you tell me more about how you’re feeling now?
- I’d like to offer to arrange for you and the dean to discuss this directly. Is that something you’d be interested in?
- I think the best outcome would be for you to be able to feel confident in this decision. Is there something else I can do to help with that?
- I’m really glad you shared your thoughts with me …
While conflict is never fun, I’ve found that using these tools can make these conversations productive and even rewarding. When we help a donor navigate conflict with the institution, we preserve a relationship that is meaningful to both sides – and that outcome can make the temporary conflict worthwhile.
*Advancement Resources Feb 2020: Early Career Success Factors for Major Gift Fundraisers
Advancement officers are, typically, quite familiar with the idea of transferring a prospect from one portfolio to another. This is most easily done when transitioning a new prospect without an existing relationship. In those cases, it’s easy for a different colleague to reach out and introduce themselves.
But what about when you do have a relationship? When a prospect or donor that you’ve gotten to know just isn’t the right fit for your portfolio, do you know how to provide them with a bridge to a different team member?
Let’s be clear about why we may need to bridge a prospect to someone else’s portfolio. It may be that the individual’s passions more closely align with a colleague’s area of focus. They may not be right for your role, or the area you represent. Or, that their giving patterns and opportunities suit them for the portfolio of a planned giving or leadership annual giving portfolio.
Is it easier to just make the switch on the back end and let your colleague reach out? Yes.
Is it more respectful and supportive of retaining the relationship to make that transition and introduction personally, sharing the shift with the prospect? Absolutely.
But this is where it’s very easy to be at a loss for words. Which is why it’s important to think through the language you use when you create a bridge for a prospect to another colleague.
My tip is this: Never focus on gift level.
Prospects do not want to feel they’re being sorted and assigned in that way. And we do not do handoffs! Instead, focus on interest and demonstrate that you’re getting to know the prospect as an individual and want them to have their best match.
Here’s what this may look like:
- I’d love to introduce you to my colleague, Victoria. You shared about your passion for theater, and Victoria represents the theater program. She works to foster generosity with community members like you who are fellow arts lovers. [For a prospect qualified for another area.]
- May I introduce you to my colleague, Jacob? He runs our President’s Leadership Society, which I think would be a great fit for you based on your interests that you’ve shared with me. I know he would love to get to know you and share more about how community members can get involved through that program. [For a prospect who is an annual leadership giving candidate, not a major giving candidate.]
- Would you be open to me introducing you to my colleague, Alexa? She’s a part of our larger team who works to engage our supporters, particularly those like you who have long-term relationships with us. [For a planned giving prospect.]
These options are definitely more work! But they’re also more effective for the work we’ve dedicated ourselves to doing — developing meaningful, thoughtful relationships between supporters and the institution we represent.
Do you use bridge language with your portfolio transitions? Share how it works for you and what tips you have for others!
Work events: Whether it’s a gala, a homecoming event for university parents, a campaign launch or any other community-facing event, there’s a belief among folks who aren’t frontline fundraisers that we just love to attend these. That we’re naturals at introducing ourselves, making conversation, working the room, and using it to move strategies forward. What many of us know, of course, is that this is not true, and that events often push us outside of our comfort zone, requiring us to be even more intentional in order to be strategic.
So we use that intentionality to introduce ourselves, make conversation, and to make that conversation purposeful, in support of philanthropy at our institution. There’s a lot of talk in our field about “hooks” to engage supporters in meaningful ways around our role and philanthropy, and those can come into play for events too.
But in a recent conversation with a professional new to advancement, we began discussing “unhooking” — exiting event conversations that are lovely, but not strategic or in alignment with our role of introducing or reaffirming the importance of philanthropy.
Imagine you’re working an event. You’re chatting with a fantastic supporter, one whose annual support is thoughtful but who will not be growing that support. Or you’re chatting with someone who is in someone else’s portfolio, and you are not able to move that relationship forward yourself.
How do we as fundraising professionals “unhook,” or exit the conversation gracefully, but with intention? I shared a few examples with the colleague of how we can leave the conversation with as much strategy as we entered it:
- “It was so nice talking with you! I don’t want to stop you from visiting with our other guests/going to the food stations/etc., so I’ll let you do that. But thank you so much for your support of our organization. It makes such a difference, and I’m really glad you can be here for us to show you how you’re making a difference and say thank you!”
- “I’m so glad we were able to connect! I’d love to introduce you to my colleague who works with alumni and supporters of our school of engineering, as I know she would be very glad to chat with you. Let me introduce you – she’s right over here.”
Each of these further build the groundwork for the individual relationship by reinforcing the role of events and/or advancement professionals. I’d argue that each of us can build our impact even more by making sure we have the thoughtful “unhooking” language that works for us at the ready.
What language do you like to use? We would love to learn your tips and tools.
I was recently conducting an assessment that will lead to a strategic plan outline for a client. As a part of the process, I had the honor of speaking with a handful of passionate stakeholders: alumni, parents, trustees and donors. Each showed up with incredible passion for their institution, and a deep-rooted desire to support the growth of a philanthropic program.
As we discussed the approaching fall season and all that comes with it — sporting events, homecoming and reunions, campus productions — I kept hearing a message from these committed stakeholders: “keep it simple.” And throughout these conversations, that message kept echoing in my ear.
Now, we know that the things that look “simple” to our supporters often are much more complex for those of us implementing them.
But there’s a message in here that I think we need to hear. A question for each of us to reflect on: How do we take time to slow down to truly create engagement opportunities that will support our greatest outcomes — building relationships that lead to philanthropy?
Our to-do lists and moving through the actions is at exact odds with what we are consistently hearing from our most important stakeholders. But are we listening?
As we plan for filling an athletic suite or a homecoming lunch, are we aligned with what our most important stakeholders are looking for? Are we discussing the desired outcomes through their lens, or ours?
Keep it simple is actually a request. Think about what’s often most important to those returning to campus or attending a regional event: a conversation with a beloved professor, the opportunity to walk through storied halls or favorite campus landmarks or seeing old friends and laughing about memories.
Fall events provide an opportunity to build pride and passion for our institutions and our vision. It is the conversations that happen after these events where our best work in philanthropy can come to life.
How can we keep it simple so that we focus not on our to do lists, or how busy we are, but make time for the most important interactions?
As you plan for fall, ask yourself: Are you creating spaces for meaningful, memorable interactions? And how will you build on those interactions to create deep-rooted, long-term relationships on behalf of our institutions?
With Memorial Day weekend upon us, many of us are also thinking about summer vacations. We are also focused on fiscal year end — thinking about what we’ve accomplished and what we’d hoped to do better — while planning for the new year.
The thing I hear most frequently from those that I talk with when reflecting on the prior year likely won’t surprise you: “I need to spend more time with our greatest stakeholders.” And yes, we all do.
Strategically managing philanthropic partnerships requires time and attention. There’s simply no shortcut for this — our most essential work.
Last month, we talked about calendar management, but one discussion isn’t enough to ensure we put enough time, care and thought into our donors and potential donors. We must continue to focus on prioritizing our most important responsibility: building relationships that lead to philanthropic generosity.
Last week, I was on a call with a wonderful fundraiser, relationship generator, and manager. She shared that she has told her team that for the next 60 days, she will be minimizing participation in 1:1 meetings and the institution’s standing meetings, and will be doing a calendar overhaul to ensure she is dedicating real time and attention to prospects and donors.
I love that she has built trust with her team (reduced meetings with exception to donor strategy and hurdles), is role modeling prioritization of our most impactful responsibilities, and is looking to move things off her plate that have created “bad habit creep.”
One of her colleagues actually said, “How lucky, you get to go on a donor vacation.”
A donor vacation! My new favorite word, concept, and habit! And I want it to become yours too!
We must never stop asking: How can each of us take things off our plates so that a donor vacation becomes a norm? Yes, this supports the essential prioritization of donor engagement. But thinking of it as a donor vacation also allows us to reset how we think about our roles and our time, providing better focus and reminding us of the joy and privilege of connecting passionate and generous community members with causes they care about.
How can you build a donor vacation into your summer? And how can you use the good habits you build during this focused activity to provide additional focus and rigor all year long?
This is a question I’ve heard frequently in my recent coaching conversations: fundraisers seeking exceptions for their donors to changes in institutional policies. Whether the policy is about giving thresholds, donor recognition, or any other standard that supports our work, it’s often fundraisers who must help our supporters understand these changes.
And sometimes, it’s fundraisers who seek exceptions. Imagining a donor upset about a new named scholarship threshold, recognition standards, or any other issue, some folks are seeking a way out rather than a way through. They seek avoidance rather than the type of critical conversation that deepens relationships and builds shared understanding.
As fundraisers, though, one of our most important roles is to serve as a philanthropic advisor. And as a true advisor supporting the interests of our institution and our donors, we must step back, understand the larger picture, and represent it accordingly.
After all, when we request the exception, who is it for if not ourselves? When we avoid a conversation, it’s rarely because we think the other party can’t handle it. It’s because we don’t want to handle it.
When we ask for exceptions instead of engaging in conversation, we are robbing supporters of a meaningful discussion. And we are robbing ourselves of the opportunity to better understand them, and to build the relationship on trust and transparency.
So, what does having the conversation look like? First, let’s remove the stories in our head (the donor will be upset, the donor will no longer make a gift, I will ruin the relationship) and instead start with courage.
Next, make sure we know why the change happened — these evolutions always have a back story, and they are often in alignment with what our donors hope to accomplish. Then, ask your colleagues how they’re approaching conversations.
And let’s remember the donor perspective. If we know why the donor has engaged with us, that’s our starting point. Anchor in their “why,” and then use that as a foundation to align their desired outcomes with ours:
“We’re in awe of your passion for making sure new researchers have the resources they need to pursue really ambitious ideas. You know how resource-intensive that is. To make sure we keep up with today’s needs, the university is discussing our fellowship endowment levels.”
Be direct — be transparent about the why — and ask them what they think.
If you don’t have deep knowledge about the donor’s relationship, this is an opportunity to requalify, making a match from their passion to our work before moving to the critical conversation.
And let’s remember, changes don’t happen for change’s sake. They are often in alignment with what it truly takes for a program, scholarship, or endowment to work. Giving thresholds are tied to actual costs and ensure we can achieve the impact our donors care about. Changes in recognition standards may provide greater consistency. A larger scholarship threshold may attract more applicants. The examples are countless.
Our organizations are going to continue to evolve. Donors partner with us because they want to make a difference, and that requires evolution. To give them this opportunity, remove exception from your vocabulary. It’s an excuse.
Instead, engage in the discussions that lead to greater understanding and generosity. And recognize that courage is where we grow, and one of the most rewarding parts of our role.
It’s a nearly universal truth among gift officers that expanding our portfolio is a critical — and often challenging — part of our roles. Volunteers who are passionate about philanthropy can be incredibly impactful partners in this work. But despite this clear potential, cultivating truly effective philanthropic champions often gets lost in our day-to-day shuffle.
Today, let’s take some time to reflect and recommit to identifying and cultivating philanthropic champions with clear next steps — because the potential is endless and our programs deserve it!
Step 1: Identify potential philanthropic champions
Seek out champions with a diverse range of experiences and backgrounds, and who have three things in common:
- True connection to the cause
- Deep belief in our institution and its ability to impact the cause
- Commitment to the power of giving
Step 2: Develop your champions
To strengthen their connection and effectiveness, invest in three areas:
- Relationships: These individuals should have strong relationships with multiple representatives of your institution, spanning the advancement team, program staff/faculty/physicians, and institutional leadership.
- Deep knowledge: A true champion is in open and honest dialogue with the institution about its challenges and opportunities, and about their own role.
- Meaningful gift opportunities: Champions should be giving in deeply meaningful ways that reflect a stretch commitment as defined by their own circumstances.
Step 3: Activate champions
Work with your champions to identify opportunities to expand the pool of prospective donors, including:
- Hosting salon events, inviting their peers to learn more about your institution
- Participating in peer screenings
- Hosting regional events
- Being a social media champion
- Demonstrating gratitude to existing donors through phone calls, emails, or note cards
- Opening doors at their workplace (to corporate giving, alumni networks, and more)
Step 4: Support and celebrate
Like every strong partnership, this one requires mutual support, lots of communication, and celebrating wins. Make this role fun and rewarding, and enjoy the relationships that result!
Consider your own priorities and goals, and the role the champion model can play in moving those forward. Whether you’re seeking to put a fundraising project “over the top,” brainstorm a new project, introduce a new leader, or any other strategy, strong champions can help achieve those goals while building a stronger portfolio. What steps can you take today to build and implement a stronger philanthropic champion model?
Think about the relationships in your life — the ones with those you’re closest to, or who you most enjoy engaging with. Do these relationships focus on key milestones like events, or visits if they don’t live nearby? Or do those activities just provide added value to a relationship that flows naturally, following the rhythm of your conversations and lives?
If you’re like many of us, your personal life is full of this more natural relationship style. So why is it that so many of us in fundraising are wed to a style that instead creates donor relationships based on external opportunities rather than natural, internal momentum?
We know what a typical donor strategy looks like. It’s built around standard milestones like events and regional visits. But what if we took a page from our personal relationships? We could decrease our reliance on these tools to engage with donors in a more authentic pace, capitalizing on every natural opportunity to engage them further with the mission they care about.
What does this look like?
- Virtual meetings, regardless of where people live
- Inviting natural partners and champions into these virtual meetings to bring additional voice to the conversation
- Smaller, more intimate lab tours, facility tours, and program discussions that are easily replicated to engage more people in invigorating discussions
- Faster follow up on discussions in meetings to more quickly build momentum
- Not relying on a once-per-quarter “what do I do now” process, and instead using the inspiration and alignment from each conversation to take the next step immediately
The benefits of such an approach would be numerous. Relationships would be more authentic, allowing you to craft more effective engagement strategies. Relationships would move more quickly, as they don’t wait on external events but only internal momentum — having the potential to significantly reduce the model of 12–18 months to a major gift.
We saw this approach work in the midst of stay-at-home orders, as in-person events and face-to-face meetings were cancelled. We spent time on the phone with donors, and we scheduled virtual meetings for whenever we, or the donor, wanted (in alignment with our strategy) … not during a regional visit we take every quarter. The approach we took during COVID may be becoming less and less necessary, but that hasn’t changed its efficacy. We built some wonderful new skills that brought both vulnerability and authenticity to our donor relationships. And in doing so, we saw new heights of joy from our donors.
Take this opportunity to consider your strategies. Can you change those where external milestones are the foundation your strategy is built on, and instead make those milestones value-adds that enhance a natural conversation? Doing so can allow you to build more authentic, and more fruitful, relationships — and isn’t that what we’re all here for?
Share your tips for more authentic donor relationships in the comments!
How have the last 15 months changed you? Have you been impacted by the political and social justice developments of recent years? I can tell you that I’ve felt significant effects — everything from my business and my husband’s business, our conversations around the dinner table as our kids were sent home from college to attend remotely, to distance from family during health challenges, and so much more. I know we all have our own stories to tell.
Our donors have the same stories: stories of evolution, personal reflection, trauma, and so much more. As more and more fundraising teams are returning to in-person engagement with donors, we must make sure that we don’t also return to outdated assumptions about donors’ personal circumstances, world views, or causes they care about.
Instead, we must re-discover our donors, re-qualifying their philanthropic priorities, capacity, and personal circumstances. Re-qualifying is one of the most important and timely tools in your toolbox to ensure relationships are authentic and evolving.
The right questions will allow you to grow your relationship based on how your donor experiences the world today, not 15 months ago. Consider how the following questions might support your donor strategies:
- The last 15 months have been hard, but I talk with a lot of people who have also found some unexpected positives. When you think back over this experience, what has been your silver lining? Your family’s silver lining? Your professional silver lining?
- How did you use this time differently, and how will you carry that forward?
- This time has been really challenging, and not just because of the pandemic. Has it changed how you think about the causes you care about?
- This was a difficult time for a lot of businesses. How is your company doing?
- I feel like we all found different ways to connect during quarantine: virtual events, phone calls instead of meetings, etc. Do you feel like you might carry any of those into the future?
- I know I spent a lot more time with family during COVID. Did you end up doing the same?
- When you think about your engagement with us now, how do you want to engage (virtually, in person, a combination)? Note: we should know how every person in our portfolio wants to engage with our organizations. If you have not asked, build this question into your strategies, and ensure that the information learned is captured in your database! And then, respect the wishes of our donors/volunteers!
Taking the time to thoughtfully re-discover our supporters creates space for openness and reflection and will enrich our relationships and our strategies. And if we skip this step, we may be surprised when some of our most generous friends fade away. By staying connected to your donors’ motivations and personal circumstances, you can make sure your cause fits into their future, not just their past.
What questions will you be using to re-discover your donors this summer? Share in the comments!