“My ears are tired,” said my colleague after we hosted a get acquainted luncheon. The person we met with, Cheryl, did 90% of the talking. While I learned a lot, and was interested to know what Cheryl was doing within her company, the conversation was so one-sided that I didn’t have a chance to give my perspective or talk about what I do.

How often do we make that same mistake with donors? We meet with a prospect who has given us the precious gift of their time, and we blow it all by talking about ourselves and our organization. We think we must ‘convince’ a prospect of the worthiness of our mission. We feel obligated to explain our programs in detail for fear they just won’t ‘get it’. We’re nervous and want to make a big impression.

I’ve been in the ‘Asking’ business for decades now and here are some tips I’ve learned along the way. They’ll help you have better conversations and make better asks in every situation—from requesting a large gift, to recruiting board members, to other high-stakes requests.

Tip #1: Prepare purposefully

Careful planning precedes every productive prospect meeting. As I like to tell clients, “The results are rarely better than the plan.” Determine the purpose for your meeting and you’ll be ready to formulate just the right questions you want answered in that conversation. Follow these 7 rules for asking purposeful questions:

  • Write them out in advance
  • Formulate each question to address a single issue
  • Be concise
  • Choose words that are clear
  • Avoid ambiguity
  • Ask thought-provoking questions
  • Be sincere

Tip #2: Listen actively

Listening is the MOST IMPORTANT part of asking. Once you’ve prepared and then asked your purposeful questions, you must actively listen to the responses. Consider these 8 steps to better ‘hearing’:

  • Demonstrate sincere interest
  • Interrupt only to seek clarification
  • Be patient; allow the prospect to finish speaking
  • Listen to understand
  • Use appropriate body language: interest, attention and eye contact
  • Summarize to assure your understanding
  • Empathize with the speaker
  • Observe the nonverbal messages

Tip #3 Ask strategically

Great communicators know the difference between ‘closed’ and ‘open’ questions.  And fundraisers must master the communication business! While occasionally there is a place for closed questions, ask open-ended questions in your cultivation calls. Asking open-ended questions takes some practice. Use your pre-call planning time to practice these questions aloud so you become comfortable voicing them.

My 7 favorite cultivation questions can be adapted to fit any conversation:

  • “May I introduce you (to the executive director, mission, programs, etc.)?” – Closed
  • “Could you ever see yourself being involved, (supporting, serving, etc.)?” – Closed
  • “How do you see yourself being involved?” – Open
  • “When would be the appropriate time (for you to join our board, make your decision, etc.)?” – Open
  • What would have to happen for you to say ‘Yes’ (to a gift request, invitation to serve, etc.)?” – Open
  • Who else should we be talking to?” – Open
  • What are you hearing (about the campaign, our organization, an issue in the community, etc.)?” – Open

Tip #4 Respond sincerely

Once you begin having cultivation conversations, you will naturally need to respond to your prospects’ questions too. You may be responding to a direct question, a criticism, or a request for more information. In any case, always respond in ways that foster further communication. Reply with certainty, clarity, accuracy and kindness:

  • Make sure you understand the focus of the question
  • Ask for clarification if necessary
  • If you know the answer, give a concise reply
  • Don’t guess if you don’t know
  • If you don’t know the answer, promise to get back with them after you find out

Properly conducted prospect conversations are satisfying and rewarding for both parties. You have the opportunity to educate others about the great work you do. Donors have their questions answered while becoming more deeply engaged with your mission.

How do we define success in fundraising?

“Helping donors make well informed decisions.”

Follow these tips and you’ll enjoy genuine success—every time.

As part of Bloomerang’s Content Donation Program, $100 was donated to the Bartlesville Symphony Orchestra.

Major gift fundraising

Kent Stroman
Kent Stroman is a Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE) and a Certified Public Accountant (CPA). He provides counsel which has been honed by more than thirty years of experience in general development management, strategic planning, capital campaigns, major donor solicitation and financial management. Kent's experience includes 25 years in higher education as a Professor, Vice President for Finance and Vice President for Advancement.
Kent Stroman
Kent Stroman

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