I once worked with an 85-year-old philanthropist who liked to communicate by text. Forget everything about seniors avoiding technology. Forget that some of our elders believe that email and text are a rude replacement for good, old-fashioned conversation and letters.
This particular octogenarian liked to text because it was hard for him to hear on the phone. On the phone, his hearing aids rang and beeped, and it was hard for him to understand what the caller was saying. The conversation was frustrating for both parties and the communication left him feeling ineffective. But text was the great equalizer. He could receive a text, get information and plan a meeting, all without feeling like the other person perceived him as feeble. Then he could go to the lunch, talk about the business of the nonprofit and decide how he wanted to participate in the mission.
Why am I telling you this? I relay the story of my philanthropist friend as a way to say, "Meet them where they are!" All throughout my career—first in sales, then in the nonprofit world—bosses always have had the mantra, "Pick up the phone and call!" And yes, sometimes calling is exactly the right thing to do. But not always.
As a consumer, I get completely irritated if I email a company asking for information, and they call to give it to me. If I’d wanted to talk to a sales rep, I would have called them. To me, they are not reading the signs and reacting to what their potential customer wants. Often, I’ll even include in my message that communication by email is preferred (not because I am antisocial, but if I’m getting info from several companies, emailing saves time—and saves me listening to so many sales pitches). But the company will still call me to give me information because that is its sales model and it wants to make sure it can answer to any objections. Unfortunately, what the company is doing is increasing the likelihood that I won’t buy from it. Because I don’t like talking on the phone? No. Because if it can’t even listen to what a potential customer wants on something as simple as communicating by email, how can I trust it to listen to what the customer wants on something that really counts?
Listening, paying attention and reacting accordingly are probably three of the most important things a development professional can do. We expect to listen to what our organizations' philanthropists are interested in and want to achieve so that we can help match their philanthropic desires to the right project. So why wouldn’t we be as sensitive to how they like to communicate?
Now, I am not suggesting that everything in life can or should be done electronically. Of course, it makes sense to meet with a donor, have the individual in for a tour and bring a success story to show. Most relationships will be made up of a mixture of different modes of communication. But if that 85-year-old donor wants to set up lunches by text, by all means, text him!
If a donor prefers phone calls on his or her home phone, call the donor there. If a donor prefers email because he or she is so busy and it is easier for her to keep track of things via email, then email her (and, as a plug for the database people out there, make sure you mark that communication preference in your donor-management system so that others at your organization can benefit from the information).
As professionals, we should not impose the way we like to communicate on our donors and volunteers, we should meet them where they are, and communicate in the ways that they prefer. Even if it goes against any long-held sales beliefs that the only way to accomplish something is to "pick up the phone and call."
Tracy Vanderneck is president of Phil-Com, a Florida-based training and consulting company where she works with nonprofits on fundraising, board development and strategic planning. Tracy has more than 20 years of experience in fundraising, business development and sales. She holds a Master of Science in management with a concentration in nonprofit leadership and a graduate certificate in teaching and learning. She is a Certified Fund Raising Executive and an Association of Fundraising Professionals Master Trainer. Additionally, she designs and delivers online fundraising training classes and serves as a Network for Good Personal Fundraising Coach.