Better Donor Conversations: Do You Have These Skills in Your Toolbox?

I was recently asked by a nonprofit what qualities they should look for when they hire. They have one position in planned giving. This person will lead all legacy fundraising for their organization.

And it made me consider, what are the tools in a great fundraiser’s toolbox?

This was a fun task.

Every day I have the pleasure to chat with talented and engaging planned giving marketing professionals. They represent every part of the country and they come from a variety of backgrounds. They serve nonprofits with different missions, donor motivations, longevity, budgets, strategies and goals.

But despite their differences, there are certain competencies that I consistently see demonstrated by top fundraisers.

Here are the six tools that successful fundraisers rely on:

Tool #1: Empathy

The best fundraisers care about a donor’s feelings. They recognize that a donor has a story and that they may be emotional sharing it. These fundraisers explore what the donor loves and the legacy they hope to leave. They lean in to discover the donor’s goals.

How to practice it:

Write “What does this donor care about? What are they worried about? Who are they as a person?” on a Post-It note and put it where you can see it before beginning any donor interaction.

Tool #2: Patience

Planned giving is the long game. These decisions—and for many gift vehicles, these processes—are multifaceted. There are likely multiple players in saying “yes” to including your nonprofit in an estate plan. Overall, it’s the donor’s timeline, not yours.

How to practice it:

Embrace silence. “By allowing for pauses and lulls in conversations, patient fundraisers make space for their donors to formulate better answers—giving the fundraiser more information to more effectively tailor what they share and present as funding opportunities,” writes fundraiser Amy Varga.

Tool #3: Listening

A clarity here: This is active listening, not casual listening. Great fundraisers take an interest. They let the donor lead. They reiterate interesting points and dig in for more details. Critically, they avoid the compulsion to make the conversation about them/their organization…until the donor is ready.

How to practice it:

Before calling or meeting a donor, say to yourself, “I will give them my full attention.” Close your screens, including your laptop. Notice when your mind wanders to another topic and corral it back. 

Tool #4: Gratitude

Actively show appreciation. This moves your conversations from transactional—this is an ask for money! says the donor’s instincts—to relationship-oriented. Gratitude should always be personal and authentic.

How to practice it:

Notice when you say thank you. Is it habitual, hasty or impersonal? Move your body and mind back into a space of gratitude, even just through that moment of donor interaction. Start a sentence with, “I appreciate your passion because…”

Tool #5: Storytelling

Humans are hardwired to tell and share stories. Great fundraisers help the donor feel the impact that they can have through vivid descriptions. If you have the chance, invite gift recipients and committed donors to tell their stories themselves.

How to practice it:

Drill down stories from a group (100 students) to a single person (Ben, a first-generation student on a critical scholarship) to prompt relatability. Confer with this infographic to build a great story.

Tool #6: Data

This is a big one, and it’s the tool that reaches outside of who you are in favor of knowing who your donor is.

Data tells you who’s clicking through your emails. Who’s engaging on Facebook. Attending virtual events. Sending $500 diligently each year for the past five years.

Remember these points about your data:

1. Simplicity wins. There is so much data, and all of it seems useful at first glance. But the failure of many data projects is to go too deep, too fast. If you’re new to data gathering or starting over, start by shoring up information on existing records.

Do you have basic demographic information on your donors, volunteers and other invested parties, like board members? Basic information means age, gender, marital status, ethnicity, income, education and occupation.

2. Keep it clean. Resist the urge to customize your database. Customization makes database upgrades and maintenance more difficult. Above all, commit to data cleaning on a consistent, annual basis. Become a data-driven organization—and stay committed to it.

What tool(s) did I miss? Which tool is the hardest to develop? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments, below.

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