It’s about the donor, not you

publication date: Oct 9, 2012
author/source: Janet Gadeski
One (cartoon) solicitor to the other, as they approach a prospect's office door: "Let's not scare him off with talk of leadership, vision and legacy. Let's just ask for money." Karen Osborne of The Osborne Group reminds major gift professionals that there might be a better way to deal with most of the donors in their portfolios.

Her training sessions emphasize the strategic questions that form and strengthen a relationship between donor and charity just as much as the actual techniques of asking. The deeper and more intimate the strategic questions have been, the more powerful the ask can be. 

The key, she says, is the donor's desire to be known, to be an individual rather than just another record in the database.  That's why she suggests attaching a personal note to any mass mailings such as newsletters. Other techniques for engendering one-to-one conversations with major donors include asking for advice, giving an update, asking what inspired the last gift, or enquiring how the donor learned to give and what makes the donor give generously. 

Even the donor's support of another charity can open a revealing conversation. What is it that attracts that donor to the work of the other charity? The answer will tell you what the donor values, and make it easier for you to find a connection with the work that your organization does. 

Explain the questions 

Sometimes the donor may be uncomfortable with such personal questions. Osborne emphasizes the importance of acknowledging the discomfort and explaining how the answer will help you connect the donor with the organization's work. 

Though a charity's mission is important, Osborne's experience has shown that donors whose only link is belief in the charity's mission generally make small gifts. It is when those donors are knowledgeable about the actual work that they become major donors. 

One of the most effective questions a fundraiser can ask is "What do you find compelling about what I've just shared with you?" rather than the bland and usual, "Do you have any questions?" 

Even the names of giving levels can send powerful messages about the impact of donors' gifts. For example, imagine an organization working on behalf of the disabled renaming its plain vanilla categories of Friend, Supporter and Patron as Ability, Dignity and Independence. Such imaginative categories make the impact of a major gift very clear. 

Listen, don't talk 

Effective cultivation conversations, says Osborne, require far more listening than talking. She recommends that a fundraiser devote about 30% of most conversations with donors to asking, listening, sharing and "selling". The other 70% is for listening to the donors. The right kinds of questions disclose the donors' needs and values as well as their motivational triggers.  Some revealing questions include:
  • What was your earliest experience in giving, and how did you feel about the gift?
  • What have you heard about our work that you could share with a friend interested in our work?
  • How can I help people like you understand the impact of our organization?
  • What inspired this gift, and what made it possible for you right now?
  • What more do we need to do to inspire you to give to this project?
  • As you think back on your life, what is the gift that meant the most to you? What impact did it have?
  • Who among our family of supporters do you think could give at these levels?
  • What did you see in your last visit/our last report that moved you?
  • What difference do you think your gift made? How can we better help you see the difference you're making? 
Even the most open-ended question is pointless, though, unless we listen carefully to the answers. Osborne reminds us that contemporary communications research shows people remember 34% of what we said and 78% of what they said. Another vital tip is that the conversations most people enjoy the most are the ones during which they talked the most. 

Let the donor speak 

Two insights emerge: we need to let the donor talk, and we must avoid the natural human tendency to take an equal or even stronger part in the conversation. Stay in the present, stay curious about the donor and ask additional questions about anything that isn't immediately clear. Listening is easier if we plan the general outline of the dialogue beforehand. 

Osborne reminds us that while it is helpful to show empathy, it is best done not by saying "a similar thing happened to me..." but remaining focused on the donor with "that must have been very hard for you." In short, it's not about you; it's about the donor - the golden rule that guides nearly every facet of fund development. 

So would you ever plan a conversation like the one that opened this article with a donor? Osborne's strategy might suggest yes, if careful attempts to ask strategic questions had led you to realize that the donor preferred to give, and give generously, without discussing the charity's leadership and vision. Communications research, psychology and common sense suggest, however, that such a donor will be rare indeed. 

Karen Osborne is President of The Osborne Group. For more information, visit

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