Donor Relationships: More Than ‘Yes’ or ‘No’
One of my greatest strengths is to get right to the point. It is also my greatest weakness.
Getting to the point saves time and clarifies the path quickly. And that is why I like it. I can usually get to the point of any conversation or presentation in minutes vs. hours or days. And I feel quite impressed with myself until I realize I skipped over the most critical points of relationship, which is what really makes things work.
It is one thing to understand “the points” in any discourse, negotiation, debate or relationship—it is quite another thing to turn that understanding into a meaningful and profitable exchange among all the parties involved.
Let me explain.
My wife approached me over the weekend about a particular topic and said, “You don’t listen to me, do you?” I had to admit that on that topic I hadn’t listened at all. I grabbed the point and then, in my mind, moved on to another topic, quietly dishonoring her and our relationship, so I got the point and hurt the relationship. Plus, as it turns out, I really didn’t get the point at all—as there were other nuances I had missed since I was “somewhere else” at the time.
So, did my “greatest strength” really do me any long-term good in this situation? Nope, quite the opposite—I learned less and I hurt our relationship. Thankfully, my wife is a generous person, so things are fine, but it was a helpful learning experience.
A colleague of mine wrote me that learning for her in major gifts is how to keep a focus on the flow of the relationship and conversation vs. just the “yes” and the “no”; this was an interesting insight.
Think about it. You are a major gift officer (MGO) and your likely primary focus is on the “yes”—how to get a donor to say “yes”—everything you are thinking about and doing is to secure a “yes.” What this practically means is this:
- 1. You really aren’t ready or even willing to hear a “no.” Maybe a good "no" is in your future with this donor. Why wouldn’t you look forward to it and embrace it? Because you are obsessed with the “yes.” And, therefore, you miss a critical relational milestone. Remember, a “no” is a doorway to a “yes.” If you avoid the “no” you may never get to the “yes”. And this is not some mumbo jumbo thing I am talking about. It is about the cadence of relationship. I used to be so adamantly opposed to any “no” in my life that I actually missed out on all the wonderful possibilities behind each of them. Now I rush toward them and embrace them.
- 2. You aren’t working on keeping the conversation going. Your major objective with a donor is to keep the conversation going and build a relationship. A relationship is secured through understanding, and understanding is secured through sharing ideas and information through having a conversation. A continuing conversation with each donor on your caseload is the primary objective of every good MGO. It is not getting the money; the money is a result of a good conversation—a good relationship.
- 3. You’re cutting yourself off from learning about the donor. It is in the flow of the conversation where possibility happens and where the donor feels heard. It is important for the donor to be heard because that is how learning and understanding happens. And from that platform of understanding is where mutuality occurs and agreements and decisions are made. This is a very counterintuitive thing, I know, but it really works. When you really connect with the donor, something mystical happens, and this “something” is important and critical to your success.
- 4. You really are slowing down your journey towards a “yes.” As I mentioned above, the journey to a “yes” is about mutuality and relationship. It doesn’t happen any other way. It is true that all of this takes time, which is why my approach of trying to get to the point right now doesn’t work. It just gets in the way.
When you fully embrace what I am talking about here, you learn to focus on relationship and conversations versus getting distracted by the “yes” and “no.” You learn to take your time and nurture things along, to really value the donor and to really listen and care.
This approach works far better in any relationship.
Several months ago, I was in a meeting with a very special group who represent the top law enforcement people in the country. I was working with them to shape the focus of the foundation they had formed. I did my thing in the meeting, helping shape their direction and strategy. Right in the middle of a very exciting, thrilling and jumping-for-joy moment, I got a “no”—a “no” to my wonderful, strategically correct, value-adding idea.
I had to stop and think, like I am asking you to do here. I had to think about this “no” that had found its way into our conversation. I had trouble with it for a moment, which is normal. But then, using the very skills I am asking you to develop, I moved toward the “no” and embraced it. And where we eventually landed, all of us, was exactly where we needed to be. It was a great experience—I felt listened to; they felt listened to and valued; trust was built; and we moved on.
This is what you need to do with each of your donors. Value the conversation; value the journey; value it more than the destination. And this will lift them up and honor them. By doing that, you will be closer to where both of you want to be, and that will be good.
If you’re hanging with Richard it won’t be long before you’ll be laughing.
He always finds something funny in everything. But when the conversation is about people, their money and giving, you’ll find a deeply caring counselor who helps donors fulfill their passions and interests. Richard believes that successful major-gift fundraising is not fundamentally about securing revenue for good causes. Instead it is about helping donors express who they are through their giving. The Connections blog will provide practical information on how to do this successfully. Richard has more than 30 years of nonprofit leadership and fundraising experience, and is founding partner of the Veritus Group.