Pitching or Listening: What’s Your Style?

Written by: Susan Holt

Written by: Susan Holt

If you’ve been involved in fundraising for a while, whether as a volunteer or staff, you’ve learned just how important it is to tell the story of your organization and its impact.  If you’ve done your homework really well, you’re able to talk about the institution’s vision, its history, its impact on your community or even the world. And, you’ve probably got lots of facts and figures memorized and even internalized.

In my 30-plus years in the profession, my VPG colleagues and I have participated in countless prospect review and gift strategy sessions. Usually, sitting around a table with my colleagues or with Board or campaign committee members, we’ve looked at the prospect’s giving history, their philanthropy to other organizations and certainly his or her wealth.  And, we’ve conjectured on what that prospect will support at our institution.  We’ve rated; we’ve talked about propensity; and we’ve tried to get into the prospective donor’s head and heart.  Oftentimes, though, a conversation with that prospect has yet to take place.

I’ve sat through almost as many strategy meetings when well-meaning development officers have spent a lot of time trying to settle on the right project and the right ask amount to pitch to a prospect.  But, still, little or no conversation with the prospect had yet to take place!

Now, don’t get me wrong!  It’s important to have as much information as possible before striking out on that first conversation.  But we will be very poorly served if we think with that our information alone will predict the prospect’s interests and position to make a gift to our institution.  Data is only part of the story when it comes to understanding the prospect’s life position.

So, how do we figure out the right approach?  Is the way we tell the vision and mission the answer?  Or, is it the facts and figures about the numbers of people we serve?

Well, that’s part of it.  But, it’s only one part of the story.  What’s the role of listening?  We think it’s huge!

The questions we ask our prospective donor, how we listen, is just as important as pitching the vision and mission!  I’ve found that expert development officers and campaign committee members are usually quite good at telling the story.  Oftentimes, unfortunately, pitching comes at the expense of asking the right questions and listening to the prospect!

Since we’ve seen how often the art of listening is overlooked, we’ve started incorporating approaches to listening into our art of Bold Askingseminars.  We all probably appreciate the importance of going into every prospect conversation with an outline and expectation for what we want to achieve. A list of the questions that you intend to ask are just as important. The outline needs to include the role of each participant in the meeting.  How does the President lead off the conversation? What is the one most important question the President should ask to help set the stage for the conversation that follows? When does the development officer support the conversation with other important questions?  How do these meeting partners “play” off each other and support the direction of the conversation? 

Susan explores active listening during our  Bold Asking  ™  seminar with the Centerstone Foundation.

Susan explores active listening during our Bold Asking seminar with the Centerstone Foundation.

We recommend practicing your outline and the questions you plan to pose before every meeting.  Don’t skip this important step!  Think about what the response might be and how each of you will respond.  Everyone gains more confidence and expertise through the right kind of practice and getting ready for a prospect or donor meeting is no different. 

Ultimately, you want to understand your prospect’s story.  What does he or she value?  What motivates him?  What, if anything, has brought her close to your organization?

We developed a list of questions to help you get started.  (Read more)  These are just a jumping off point.  We recommend that you develop a list with your colleagues that are unique to your organization and your leaders and volunteers.  Together, you can encourage and support each other as you become more effective, active listeners!

Watch for the VPG blog on practicing before donor meetings!  Coming soon…..