What do you say when donors ask challenging or uncomfortable questions?

In this interview, Amy Eisenstein sits down with Anne Melvin, Director of Training at Harvard’s Central Fundraising Office, who shares some excellent pivoting techniques when speaking with donors. Anne explains how to how to pivot away from difficult topics and successfully redirect your conversations.

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Full Transcript:

Jay:Hello I’m Jay Love with Bloomerang, and we’re delighted to bring you the following video. One of the things I wanted to point you to is our website where there’s additional educational materials that we provide on an ongoing basis, whether it’s a weekly webinar, ebook downloads, various blogs, etc. from experts from all across the world that will help you be better with your fundraising. Enjoy the video.

Amy:Hi, I’m Amy Eisenstein, and today I have a friend and colleague Anne Melvin here. And Anne is the Director of Training and Education at Harvard’s Central Fundraising Office, but more importantly is the principal of ATM Consulting, and I am absolutely thrilled that she’s here with me today. And today we’re going to talk about pivoting, so welcome Anne.

Anne:Thank you.

Amy:I am so excited to talk about pivoting, and we’re going to talk about having conversations with difficult donors, aren’t we?

Anne:Yeah, we are.

Amy:All right. What is pivoting?

Anne:Pivoting is what you do when a donor or a prospect gives you that incredibly difficult question that you have difficulty answering. At Harvard, it’s always: Why does Harvard need more money?

Amy:Good question.

Anne:Or it might be a scandal that has happened in your organization. Something you can’t change, you can’t do anything about, but yet you have to deal with. And so to deal with it, you pivot.

Amy:Okay. So give me an example. What do you mean by pivoting?

Anne:Pivoting is basically reframing the conversation. It’s helping the prospect see a slightly different viewpoint. So you might be looking at the glass half empty, and I’m looking at the glass half full. So for instance, at Harvard, we had a situation where a fundraiser was asking a woman who’d been a co-chair of an earlier reunion and had made a significant gift if she would be a co-chair and help get more women on the co-chair committee at the next reunion. And you know she said, “I already did that, and we only got two other women to give.” So the pivot is to say two women is fabulous. In fact, that’s a lot more than many other classes have. That’s a great base to build on, and we can go from there.

Amy:Great pivot.

Anne:So the donor was seeing it as not enough, and the fundraiser was showing her actually it’s a great place to be.

Amy:Right. Give us an example of what you would say, I’m curious what you would say when somebody says, “Harvard has enough money.” What do you say to that?

Anne:That’s a tough one. So my first answer is you’re right. Harvard has a lot of money. Now I didn’t say Harvard has too much money. I said Harvard has a lot of money. And then I’ll go on with questions. One of the greatest way to pivot is to ask questions. So one of the questions might be: How much do you think it costs to run Harvard for a year?

Amy:Good question.

Anne:Now many people would answer, I’ve had prospects answer $300 million. It actually costs $4.5 billion to run Harvard for a year.


Anne:So when they start to see the difference between what they thought and then what the actuality is, they start to really tell themselves, “Oh, I can see this in a different light now.” And you want them to reach that realization themselves.

So there are a number of ways to do that. You could ask questions is really I think the best technique, but there are three or four other techniques. One of them is to, especially if you’re talking about a scandal, move to the future.


Anne:So talk about the future, because the past is the area of blame, and the future has not been invented yet. So you’re better on that ground. That’s just one pivoting technique.

Amy:That’s a great example. Yeah. What’s another pivoting technique?

Anne:Another one is what I call the “yes and,” which comes from improvisation. So the donor says something that you don’t really agree with, or that you would like to get away from. You agree with what part you can, such as Harvard has a lot of money. “Yes, it does and . . .” And the “and” allows you to move the story forward and to take it in the direction that you see. So, for instance, the Harvard has too much money. It has a lot of money, and it cost X amount to run 650 buildings that we’ve got at Harvard.


Anne:So then you start to reframe it in that way.

Amy:That’s so interesting, because I actually was facilitating a board retreat once and the board, the organization had an endowment. And so the board members said, “We don’t feel like we need to raise more money. There’s no urgency. There’s no pressure, because we have a cushion. We have an endowment.” And I said, “What do you think they say at Harvard?” And, you know, the answer is we want to continue to be the most prestigious university in the world and make sure that we’re able to stay in that spot. And for the answer for this small nonprofit was that we’re looking to grow and thrive, and we have lots of plans and big vision, and you’re a part of that, and having a secure financial position is also part of that. So but I love the “and,” you know, really taking it to the future.

Anne:Well, there’s another technique that I call expanding.


Anne:So often a donor will get down in the weeds with one particular Picayune point that they don’t like. So, for instance, what if there has been say a scandal with a particular professor? What you could do is to say, “That’s true. There has been a scandal with this particular professor, but we also have hundreds more for whom there’s not a scandal, and that does not exemplify the values that we have at this university.”


Anne:So when they start to see the view from 10,000 feet, they start to say, “Okay, it’s more than just this one thing.” And hopefully they can get past the objection that they’ve got.

Amy:Right. That’s such a good point. You know, a lot of times when I’m coaching folks to raise major gifts, they’re not sure exactly how to go about cultivating or certainly first getting a first meeting, and we’re often talking about asking for advice. And sometimes the issue comes up: Well, what if you get advice that you don’t want, or that you can’t use? And I think pivoting sounds like the perfect way to sort of get yourself out of that situation.

Anne:Absolutely. That’s when you want to use the “yes and” situation. That’s a great idea, and we would love to have an event. In fact, we’re already having two, one in San Francisco and another in Dallas.


Anne:So that when they suggest an event in Cincinnati, you show them you’re on the same wavelength, but going in a different direction.

Amy:I think that’s so great. I mean what I have been telling people is, you know, that’s an interesting idea. I need to think about it and take it back to my team, and I’ll get back to you.

Anne:That’s a great way to do it.

Amy:But pivoting is also another tool in the fundraiser’s toolbox if they can think on their feet and pivot like that. And if you can make a list of objections or ideas that a donor might have, if you’re having a scandal, or if you know that there’s an issue that comes up repeatedly with donors, you can prepare your pivots in advance and really use them to your advantage.

Anne:Yeah, that’s one of the things that I call the mise en place, from the restaurant business, where a chef will prep everything before dinner service. You know you’re going to get certain questions. When a scandal is happening, you don’t want to go in and just cross your fingers that they’re not going to ask about it.

Amy:Because they are.

Anne:You’ve got to get your mise en place.


Anne:Figure out ahead of time, know what you’re going to say, so you’re prepared for it when it comes at you.

Amy:So any final parting thoughts you want to leave us with?

Anne:I suggest that fundraisers remember the acronym BEAT. And that stands for B-E-A-T. B for change the field of battle. Politicians do this a lot where they’re asked one question, and they answer on one that they’re on stronger ground.


Anne:That’s B. E is expand, don’t contract the discussion. Go to the level of 10,000 feet, the big picture instead of the Picayune point.


Anne:A is for the improv technique “yes and.”


Anne:Agree and move the conversation along into a direction that you want the prospect to see it.

And T is for verb tense. Don’t talk about the past. The past is the area of blame. Talk about the future, what’s going to happen in the future, because the future hasn’t been invented yet, and you’re on stronger ground.

And then always remember the question mark at the end of BEAT, because asking questions allows you to help the donor or the prospect answer for him or herself the questions that will then get them going in the direction you want them to go.

Amy:Fabulous. So our viewers today, the fundraisers should not be doing this on the fly. This is prep work that you’re doing in advance of meeting with your donors. Remember BEAT question mark. I love it. Thank you so much for joining me today Anne.

Anne:Thank you, Amy. Great.

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Kristen Hay

Kristen Hay

Marketing Manager at Bloomerang
Kristen Hay is the Marketing Manager at Bloomerang. From 2018 - 2020, she served as the Director of Communications for the Public Relations Society of America's local Hoosier chapter. Prior to that she served on several different committees and in committee chair roles.