ask more questions

In our industry, we spend a lot of time telling. We do a great deal of storyTELLING. Heart-wrenching stories about the community we serve. We TELL about our mission. We TELL about our need for funds — both why we need funds and how we plan to use them.

As fundraisers, we could learn something from those in the “program” side of our organizations. They are quite adept at learning about and understanding the need for our organization’s services. Whether it is case managers conducting triage to prioritize a client’s needs, or an educator interacting with a child to assess their deficits, the members of our team that deliver our services understand that it takes relationship and trust to get individuals to use the services we offer despite their individual need. The same is necessary when we are identifying investors in our organization.

As we welcome new members into our profession of development, we do an exceptional job teaching our story. We take them on tours, we TELL them about the people we serve and why our mission is important. We provide them with jaw-dropping statistics that reinforce the value of our mission.  

How often do we take the time to help them learn why others feel our mission is important? Do we train fundraisers to learn the donor’s story the way our case managers learn a client’s story?

The ability to question is a skill, and like any skill needs to be developed. It is also necessary to the start of any relationship. Think about an interview for a job and how it’s filled with questions. The strongest candidates are the ones prepared with questions of their own. Consider a first date and how it’s a volley of questions in conversation to consider if there is mutual interest for a second date. So why do we equip our fundraisers with a bevy of statistics and a laundry list of needs when we send them to meet with donors (especially when it is their first meeting with a donor)? 

Instead, here are a few things fundraisers can accomplish by focusing on asking more questions

  • Build trust and rapport – Because the focus is on learning rather than making an “ask,” it allows everyone to be a part of a new paradigm. In fact, share this when you start your meeting or set the appointment.
  • Understand a donor’s motivation – Find out why a donor supports your organization. Ask them the “lottery” question: If you won the lottery and could fix one social problem, what would that be?  Learn about their goals in philanthropy or life.
  • Learn about capacity – Listen for key identifiers like second homes, or annual vacations to exotic places. Learn about what other organizations they support and why. Also, how have they supported those other organizations (stocks, bequests, annual fund, capital campaign)?
  • Establish credibility – You’ve already put your relationship in a unique place by being focused on your donor rather than “the ask,” now cement it by having a clear next action. That could be gathering information by a next date, arranging an appointment, or a dozen other actions. Whatever it is, accomplish it before you said you would.

As much as we provide new fundraisers information, stories, and dollar handles, we also need to provide them starter questions. Just a few questions like “How did you first become involved with ABC charity?” or “What is your favorite program?” to start with. Then we must practice this exchange like we practice our storytelling. Using these questions and soliciting valuable responses need to be as conversational as a lunch with a long-time acquaintance would be.

In addition, it takes understanding the difference between open-ended and closed-ended questions, or the value of continuing questions like “really?” or “you don’t say?”.  Most importantly it takes practice. No great player walks onto a court and is a champion without practice, nor is a speaker admired because they are unscripted or unrehearsed.  

Take the time to role-play donor meetings. If you don’t have anyone in your office or other teammates, contact a colleague from another organization. This is also a great opportunity to engage and prepare your board members, and collaborate with program staff to help them understand what you do.

PB&J marComm would welcome the chance to train you and your staff on becoming an outstanding relationship builder through questions. If you want to know how, just contact us.

Patrick Belcher

Patrick Belcher

Principal Strategist at PB&J marComm
Patrick brings his nearly 20 years of sales leadership to the field of fundraising. He helps non-profits develop fundraising infrastructure and strategy that will help them to be successful and sustainable. Through practical solutions and strategy, Patrick has helped many organizations increase results, improve their donor relationships, and fulfill their mission.