The Fundraising Executive

GREAT CONVERSATIONS: The Foundation of Great Donor Relationships

By Eddie Thompson | May 4, 2016 | Donor Communications

two men talkingIn previous posts I’ve talked about the importance of regular and meaningful conversations with donors. All those thoughts are a result of the one sure thing I know—great donor conversations are the essential foundation of great donor relationships. Rarely does the latter occur without the former. It’s that simple.

Nature and Nurture
Conversations are easier for some fundraisers because of their natural temperament. Like all artists and athletes, effective conversationalists begin with some inherited ability. However, your decision to turn pro (i.e. to become a professional fundraiser), significantly raises the bar, and you can’t continue to simply rely on your natural abilities. If your goal is to have a long and successful career as a fundraiser, then the focus of your professional development should be to become an expert conversationalist. Yes, it is important to learn about gift planning options, about donor pyramids, presentation techniques, etc. But if you don’t learn to build relationships through great conversations, you’ll never reach your highest potential as a fundraiser. As I wrote in a previous article on Career Struggles, “If you can simply master the art of one-to-one donor relations, you’ll have a successful career and never be without a good job.”

If your goal is to have a long and successful career as a fundraiser, then the focus of your professional development should be to become an expert conversationalist.

Below are a few thoughts on developing your skills as a conversationalist.

Learning the Hard Way
I’ve written before (see Managing Development) about my first fundraising job and the large stack of lapsed-donor files that landed on my little desk. I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing and wasn’t given a lot of instruction. However, I felt that I needed to be doing something to justify my salary. So I busied myself by visiting and talking with the lapsed donors. I learned a lot about being a good conversationalist by simply having hundreds (and, eventually, thousands) of conversations with donors.

What I learned was that a lot of those donors were lapsed because they were simply taken for granted. I don’t mean that their previous gifts were unappreciated but that their relationships with the organization were assumed. Many of us have had the same experience—assuming a donor’s commitment to the organization, only to discover they had found another who didn’t take the relationship for granted.

We all have relationships with people we haven’t spoken to in many years. The basic relationships are unchanged, but they’ve become stale and inactive. Lapsed donors come from lapsed relationships which come from lack of contact. Quality conversations keep your mission on their radar and in the back of their minds.

The Pain of Relearning
Many of those lapsed donors came back. One in particular made the biggest gift in the history of our organization (see The Power of Story). You’d think that would be a lesson I’d never forget. However, I eventually got promoted, got involved with lots of administrative tasks, and got so busy that meaningful conversations with donors—the building blocks of ongoing relationships—occurred less frequently. Donors became increasingly distant, and donations declined correspondingly. It was a rude, mid-career awakening that caused me to push the reset button and get back to the essential principle of successful fund development—great conversations build great relationships.

The Most Interesting Man in the World
People are interested in talking with other interesting people. As a professional conversationalist-fundraiser, you need to make it an ongoing priority to be well read. Of course, you have to know your own field extremely well, but can you converse intelligently on a wide variety of topics other than fundraising and your own organization? In other words, don’t be one-dimensional.

Last month a client organization asked me to meet with an extremely wealthy businessman on their behalf. I was also warned, “He’s tough, cranky, and very busy. It’ll be difficult to get more than a few minutes with him.” The implication was that I shouldn’t waste time but get to the point as quickly as I could.

On the appointed day and time, an assistant escorted me into a palatial office decorated with all the symbols of access and importance—Indian headdresses and other rare artifacts from his travels, photos of him with dignitaries and on famous golf courses all over the world. It was like meeting with “The Most Interesting Man in the World” (from the beer commercials for Dos Equis).

The organization leaders were surprised the meeting went on longer than expected and even more surprised that I walked out with his business cards. Apparently, both were quite unusual.

Meeting Notes
I’ve been thinking about how and why that particular meeting went so well. In this case we just began talking about common interests. He knew why I was there, but most of the conversation had nothing to do with the work of the organization. We connected on some books we’d read, some people we knew, some places we’d been—on flying, fishing, and “filosophy.” In my way of thinking, having a great conversation and establishing the relationship was far more important than securing a gift commitment. Eventually, the gentleman began asking about what I did for the organization.

Before I got out of the office, he had offered to pay my full retainer for the organization and personally endorse my charitable estate planning presentations to all the other organization’s donors—a greater gift than anyone in the organization could have imagined.

The best fundraiser-conversationalists spend a lifetime acquiring cards and learning how to play them effectively.

More Cards to Play
Conversations are lot like playing cards. With some donors it’s hard to keep the game or the conversation going with only a handful of nonprofit cards. If all you know about is your nonprofit work, then what do you say when that topic is exhausted? In my early days as a fundraiser, I often found myself in a game or a conversation without any trump cards in my hand. And so, when it was my turn to play (to contribute to the conversation), I had to pass or play a relatively weak card. The best fundraiser-conversationalists spend a lifetime acquiring cards and learning how to play them effectively.

You may be thinking, “That all sounds great, but I’m just a rookie fundraiser, trying to figure out how the donor-relations thing works. I’m not that well read, haven’t traveled the world, and don’t have a lot of experiences that would interest people like that gentleman with whom you met recently.”

Don’t worry; everyone starts from somewhere. And if you do something long enough and frequently enough, it’s hard not to get better at it. As a young fundraiser, I probably couldn’t have pulled this off either. I would have gone in (like I did so many times) talking non-stop about what I thought he needed to know and what I wanted him to do. And I would have quickly exhausted my time and/or his interest. It’s important to realize that your knowledge and experiences will get deeper and broader as you as you get older. And your skill at donor relations will increase—IF THAT IS, you’re committed to becoming a great conversationalist and the most interesting person you can be.

Eddie Thompson, Ed. D.
Founder and CEO, Thompson & Associates
Copyright 2016, R. Edward Thompson