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?

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

Recommended Posts