Jeffrey D. Byrne, President + CEO

We know to do our homework on prospective donors. You’ve heard me say time and again “Don’t commit fundraising malpractice!” (See my blog piece on the benefits of prospect research here.)That means do your research – because it reveals information about the wealth and capacity of prospects as well as information about philanthropic giving history, community involvement, natural partners and connections. And your donor database should contain important notes about your prospects and interactions with them. Prepare for your visit.

Sitting still tells your audience you really care about what they should say. Don’t shuffle your papers. Don’t check your phone. Don’t fidget. Sitting still lets you hear what your prospective donor should tell you about their life story and experiences – maybe even how a single instance changed their life. You can learn why they are passionate about your organization and its mission.

I believe in order to be a great fundraiser, you have to be a good – if not great – listener. Human nature might urge you to fill quiet moments with a remark or an anecdote. Of course you are nervous, and anxious to impress. You certainly want to make a connection you can build upon later. But it is in those quiet moments that you, as a volunteer or professional, can learn the most.  Waiting for the prospective donor to share might result in hearing firsthand how your healthcare institution saved their life. You might learn a relative was a long-time volunteer. You might learn how an agency similar to yours provided their mother with safety and refuge from domestic violence.  Resist the urge to talk about yourself.  Ask prospective donors about themselves…and then listen to what they say. Some good lead-ins might include:

  • “Tell me more about that …”
  • “What did she/he say about that…?”
  • “What happened next …?”
  • “What made you decide to …?”

You get the idea. You can think up your own list of “conversation engagers” that will help you get to know your prospective donor and involve them in the meeting. The bottom line is this: regardless of with whom you are meeting, when you get your prospective donors talking about themselves – when you ask about them – your prospective donor will come away from the visit feeling much more satisfied and positive about you and your organization than if you had used the time trying to tell them the 50 wonderful things you are doing to make a difference.

However, all of this doesn’t mean you should not educate your listeners about your organization and your mission. I’d suggest you use the 80/20 rule. Inform 20 percent of the time and LISTEN the other 80 percent.

In training staff and volunteers to make major gift solicitations, we place considerable emphasis on setting the appointment, sharing the vision and asking for the gift. Think about all the times we practice the script for the call or role-play the visit.  But how often do we practice listening? If you have volunteers who are reluctant to go on solicitation calls, think about how can coaching them on listening style can help them overcome their jitters about making the “ask.”

And finally, care about what’s being said and commit it to memory. Make notes when you leave if you need to capture details. This kind of active listening and remembering stems from truly caring about the donor. Don’t let the lure of a gift keep you from truly caring and listening to the prospective donor’s words. If you are listening and caring (and, of course, remembering to ask for the gift,) the gift will come.

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