Are You Asking the Right Questions?

How often have you heard that our job in development is “storytelling?” It’s a platitude we’re all familiar with, but it’s often confused by fundraisers and our partners, leading us to dominate conversations without listening to donors.

Stories – of how our organization impacts a cause our donors care about; about how our donors learned the power of generosity; about why giving to our organization is meaningful to our donors – these all matter.

But we aren’t the ones who should tell these stories. Our donors should.

This recent article about the power of storytelling reminds us that stories are remembered up to 22 times more than facts alone.

Our job is to help our donors tell us their stories about who they are and how they came to care about our cause and our organization. When we prompt with the right questions, we allow our donors to tell the story of their passion and generosity, and why it matters to the cause we’re working for together.

Consider how the types of stories suggested in this article can be remade as questions to prompt your donors’ stories:

  • How did you come to understand your core values?
  • What are you proudest of in your life?
  • Have you ever had a conversation that changed your life?
  • Did you ever win over an important, skeptical customer?
  • How does your professional success align with the issues you care so deeply about?
  • How did you learn to care about the issue our organization addresses?
  • Who taught you the value of generosity?

When you ask the right questions, you allow the donors to make your case – and they’re more likely to remember it! When engaged in this way, they’ll be more receptive to hearing your story too.

To continue to start your new year with a few good reminders to support your success, check out the tips in my blog, “The Art of Listening.” And, I share more about probing questions in my book, Productive Conversations with Donors: A Handbook for Frontline Fundraisers. It shares specific questions that I’ve seen used to great success, discuss how these questions can help overcome objections, and more.

The Power of the Briefing

You’re a development officer, looking forward to a prospect meeting next week. The location is booked, prospect confirmed, and your faculty champion has agreed to join you. You’ve discussed this meeting with your faculty partner, so now you’re good to go, right? Not quite… a meeting without a strategic and thoughtful briefing is a waste of time for both the donor and the champion.

The written briefing document is an irreplaceable tool in staffing faculty, physicians, volunteers and organizational partners/leaders who are so important to our work with prospects and donors.

As someone who has staffed leadership, and been staffed as leadership, I have seen too many briefings that miss the mark. These briefings missed desired outcomes, sought after goals, or why my presence in a meeting is important. I have reviewed briefings intended for key institutional leadership, and could not discern what role they should play, and why that might be important to the overall strategy. I have read pages of background information, none of it tied to the purpose or reason for the meeting. Or worse, too much background with no connection of dots. I have received briefings an hour or two before a meeting … far too late to be able to contribute to a strategy, let alone be prepared for the meeting I was to attend, lead, or otherwise add value to.

However, briefings can be a vehicle for us to do some of our best work. Are you ensuring they serve this purpose?

When our partners give their limited time to development efforts, we must steward that time effectively. This means preparing them to be as effective as possible, and demonstrating confidence in our strategy and our use of their time. The written briefing accomplishes both of these items in one efficient tool.

Why? Because a briefing document ensures you and your institutional partner are on the same page, with key messages, goals, and information recorded clearly. It demonstrates the larger strategy by including context and vision, further building respect for the process and the expertise of the development officer. And, it clearly demonstrates thoughtfulness for the role of this partner, and a respect for his or her time.

The written briefing must incorporate key elements to achieve all of these goals. To serve your prospect/development strategy, it should include:

  • Purpose of the meeting or event – placing it in the context of an overall strategy
  • Role of the partner in the meeting or event and in the larger strategy – demonstrating that his or her presence is a good use of time
  • Key talking points – who is responsible for carrying which key messages
  • Anticipated outcomes – and how to get them

And, don’t forget the logistics too:

  • Dress code
  • Location and parking instructions
  • Critical times for participation (if an event)
  • Phone number for a staff member who will be available that entire day in case of emergency or last-minute request or question

Remember, our prospects and donors want access to leadership, and including institutional partners in our work provides this entrée. Access helps move relationships, and our job is to make it as easy as possible for our partners to provide it.

When we implement this tool of the trade, we get rich returns. By putting our most professional foot forward, we earn the respect of our colleagues and secure the strategic outcomes we need. Our partners and our donors deserve this effort!

 I challenge you to implement or retool written briefings and share your successes here!

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Powerful Probing Questions

Is there anything more impactful to a meaningful philanthropic solicitation than truly understanding your prospect’s motivations, feelings, and values – not just about our organization, but about their lives?

These factors are the very foundation of helping our donors achieve their fullest giving potential, and in turn create the greatest impact.

The use of probing questions is one of the best tools in a fundraiser’s kit to make such solicitations. These questions are critical to the three keys to bringing allies on board for our organization: Assume less. Accept more. Listen well.

What are probing questions? They are follow-up questions that ask for additional information on what your prospect has said, or ask your prospect to give even deeper insights into her thoughts. By “going deeper,” you demonstrate your interest and desire to understand your prospect, and you are able to:

  • Set the stage for a successful strategy by obtaining information that will lead to better decisions and outcomes
  • Assess situations from a variety of vantage points
  • Move a relationship from conversational to transformative, built on creating trust with your prospect
  • Ensure you see issues from your prospect’s perspective, including anticipating objections to a solicitation
  • Open a dialogue where your prospect asks you questions, allowing you to best match her passions with institutional priorities

Probing questions are transformational. Imagine if we all accomplished each of the items listed above in our prospect meetings – our giving conversations would increase in both efficacy and frequency! So ask yourself in your next meeting, “Am I truly seeking to understand? Did I ask How did you decide…, Tell me more about…, Why do you think…?”

We should remember that when we authentically ask and listen,

  • We are fully attentive to the other person
  • We ask questions that are not leading, diagnostic, or confrontational
  • We listen to comprehend
  • We expand our ability to match the passion and mission of our donors to the passions and missions of our organization

The more we ask thoughtful questions, the more thoughtful our donor relationships become … and the more effective we become in raising the critical funds that our institutions rely upon to do their good work.

I will be sharing more about probing questions in my book, Productive Conversations with Donors: A Handbook for Frontline Fundraisers. It shares specific questions that I’ve seen used to great success, discuss how these questions can help overcome objections, and more.

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Transitions: The Power of the Shadow Visit

When was the last time someone on your team joined another fundraiser on a visit with a prospect – not to collaborate on a strategy, but to learn from each other?

Shadowing on prospect visits is a powerful tool we can use as fundraisers and leaders, and one we can implement immediately.

Why should you incorporate shadow visits into your team’s professional development?

  • These visits give a platform for our best talent to share their “secret sauce” with members of the team who are hungry to learn more.  Our high-performing professionals who have honed their skills often want an opportunity to mentor, and shadow visits are a perfect venue!
  • Want to onboard new team members in a meaningful way? Partner them with the development staff who tell your story best, and help them rapidly grow their ability to represent your institution.
  • When you need to expand the approach or style of an employee, having him or her watch another professional in action is a holistic way to do this. Remember to have them build in a debriefing conversation to discuss what they learned.
  • Reverse shadow visits – having a more seasoned team member shadow a junior colleague – are a great way to provide meaningful feedback to our growing team members on their skills.

Shadow visits can support a changing culture in a meaningful way, by facilitating a culture transparency, collegiality, and ongoing learning. It will also support high performance: those who role model strong frontline skills will provide leadership through this tool, and you will see both metrics and numbers of visits grow.

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Transitions: Moving from Conversational to Transformational

Every fundraiser I know has left at least one meeting with a prospect and asked themselves, “What just happened in there?”

One of the most common ways we get sidetracked, and leave without accomplishing something meaningful, is when the conversation gets off track and we are unable to bring it back. This is usually accidental – although we’ve all known prospects who seem quite skilled in diverting the topic from philanthropy!

We’ve also seen our leaders and allies get sidetracked in prospect meetings. Our faculty, volunteers, physicians, and others can be hesitant to move from the comfortable warm up to the business at hand, or from business to philanthropy.

When we lack the ability to make progress in our meetings that move a strategy forward, we lose the momentum in our strategies. Transitions give us the ability to create momentum, focus, and ultimately – more successful strategies AND meetings!

These transitions for common conversational road blocks will help you make the most out of your prospect meetings, whether you’re representing your organization alone or staffing a leader through the dialogue:

  • I know you said you only have 20 minutes, and I want to be respectful of your time.
  • It’s wonderful to get to know more about you, and I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts on our work at our organization.
  • I promised when we spoke on the phone that I wanted to discuss how you can be a part of this, so may I share some ideas?
  • Would you be comfortable if we shifted the conversation to this project we’re seeking community support for?
  • Your feedback on this new initiative is critical to our next steps, would you tell me about…
  • You’re right, it is a big project. Would you be open to learning how you can be a part of it?
  • It sounds like you’re excited about this program – I’d love to share how you can support it.
  • It’s been great to hear about your story as an alum/patient/etc. May I ask about you as a supporter/community leader/etc.?

Transitions are most effective when they match your style and feel natural. As you noticed in the examples, asking permission to transition can be an effective technique if it suits your approach.

Regardless of style, however, the skillful use of transitions can lead to more impactful prospect meetings – and ultimately, more success.

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Donor and Prospect Meeting Essentials: The Golden Rules

Many fundraisers thrive on the feeling of walking away from a prospect meeting having made a meaningful connection and envisioning the possibilities before us.

This dedicated, thoughtful time to build a relationship face to face is irreplaceable – which is why we so often ask ourselves, “Am I at my best in these meetings?”

Over the years, I’ve seen my colleagues be successful in meetings across many individual styles in working with donors – new and experienced, extroverts and introverts, creative dreamers and practical thinkers. And, they’ve been successful because they’ve built their styles on a shared foundation of key behaviors.

What shared foundation do the best fundraisers have in common in how they meet with donors and prospective donors? They all practice these four Golden Rules of Prospect Meetings:

  • Silence is golden. Not once have I seen a development officer, physician, or organizational leader talk someone into making a gift. No well-crafted sentence, researched data point, or honed appeal will lead someone to make a thoughtful gift they do not truly want to give you.What does work? The age-old concept of story listening. Let your prospect tell you what they care about, what motivates them, what deeply held belief your organization can align with. You can’t get there without asking questions and listening. But that answer is always the prospect’s story, and that story is the roadmap to a gift.Research shows that we remember what we say in a conversation, not what someone else says. So ask the questions that allow your prospect to tell you how your organization supports their vision for the world. Ideally, you should speak 25-30% of a meeting, and allow your prospect to fill the rest.
  • Materials just don’t matter that much. I know this statement may meet with strong disagreement from some corners. But here’s what I can tell you from first-hand experience: materials do not make a case. Not even expensive, glossy case statements truly make the case. Brochures, white papers, proposals – these tools are at their most impactful when specifically used to underscore a meaningful conversation.If you hope your written material, or your video or web site, will have an impact – set them up accordingly. Use them as take-aways to underscore a conversation you’ve had, a visual aid to illuminate the finer details of a proposal, or in some other manner that is secondary to the dialogue. Plan in advance for when you present materials in a meeting. If you put a brochure on the table, does that facilitate the dialogue, or distract from the person-to-person connection?
  • The institutional relationship matters immensely. Development officers tend to be pretty friendly – we enjoy talking with our prospects, forming connections, and building relationships.However, no relationship matters more than that between the donor and the institution we represent. Therefore, our interactions with donors must always represent this fact.What does that mean? It means representing the institution’s interests over any personal or short-term interests. It also requires us to think about the longevity of our donors’ relationships. Perhaps you’ve been with an organization for six months – your donor may have been involved for six years. Be sensitive to how often they’ve had to tell their story, and that they may perceive themselves as more expert on the organization and its cause than you are.No matter the circumstances, your first and last responsibility is to represent your organization professionally – and we should commit to being as organization-centric as we are donor-centric.
  • Respect the value of time. Whether during a meeting or at other points in the relationship, demonstrating your commitment to the value of time, and keeping to time commitments, demonstrates integrity to your prospects.How does this play out? When you tell a prospect that you want to visit for 30 minutes, you demonstrate that you are conscientious and trustworthy by keeping to 30 minutes – making it more likely that you’ll get the next meeting.When you promise to follow-up with a key next step or information in a certain timeframe and you do so, you demonstrate that you are reliable – allowing your donor to feel that he or she will be well-stewarded throughout the relationship you are building.When you are thoughtful and strategic about timing, you build momentum into your strategies – leading, ultimately, to more gifts.

There is no one “right” way to be a fundraiser. Our individual styles and personalities can be our greatest assets when we build from the Golden Rules.

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