Donor Conversations: What’s Often Missing (and Needn’t Be)

Why Donors Give - Image of a Growing Plant

“We are responsible for building meaningful relationships and for moving those relationships towards transformative, impactful, or participatory philanthropy. Simply visiting with someone is not enough.” Here’s what we need to be doing.

The following article is an excerpt from Kathy Drucquer Duff’s popular new book Productive Conversations with Donors: A Handbook for Frontline Fundraisers. Watch a video interview with the author at the end of this article. You can also learn more from Kathy Drucquer Duff at our upcoming conference Frontline Fundraising: Essentials of Gift Solicitation.

As fundraisers, we have many responsibilities that, when allowed, will get in the way of our primary function: building authentic relationships with an aim of enhancing philanthropic support for our organization.

When staff members walk into my office and share that they are experiencing a lack of enthusiasm for our work, are burned out, or are getting caught up in the smaller details of their jobs, I always ask the same question: “When was the last time you were on a donor visit?” The answer usually lists all of the other things that they have on their desks. And yet, I know that when we are inspired by our philanthropic partners, that inspiration allows us to be the very best in our roles.

Being in the field, visiting with our donors and prospects, and listening to the ways individuals want to make a difference for our organizations is the best pick-me-up we can find (and that is a critical element in being a high performing gift officer!). I have yet to meet a committed fundraiser who does not enjoy time with our organization’s friends and prospects. Building, growing, and enhancing relationships that lead to philanthropic giving is our highest-priority work, and the greatest contribution we make to our institutions.

To truly be high performing, we need to not just cultivate and solicit, but to strengthen the relationships between our prospects and donors, and our institutions. This requires discipline and focus.

Yet, this discipline is often lacking. We as fundraisers talk about over-cultivating or under-qualifying, and we wonder what else we can do to prepare a prospect for an ask. In my book, I suggest that perhaps it is not about under-qualifying or over-cultivating, but rather about not making the very best use of our time with our prospects and donors. Often, we think donor meetings are about being “nice,” but we are not in the business of building “nice” relationships. We are responsible for building meaningful relationships and for moving those relationships towards transformative, impactful, or participatory philanthropy. Simply visiting with someone is not enough.

Our institutions have charged us with a role that creates one of the best returns on financial investments for our organization. When we do our jobs right, we assist in building and earning trust that can lead to lifelong partnerships for our institutions.

How Probing Questions Make Us Better at What We Do

Some of the greatest tools we have for building authentic relationships are storytelling and the use of probing questions that will simultaneously inspire our donors and educate us. A few good questions, such as ‘How did you learn to be generous?’ or ‘Is giving something that is important to you and your family?’ can reveal a roadmap for moving forward, and that can ultimately result in a lifetime of giving.

Probing questions are a tool to help you understand your donor’s backgrounds, values, beliefs and motivations. They are questions that allow you to put pieces together, better understand what your donors hope to achieve, and the answers to these questions give you a road map for building a meaningful relationship between the donor and your institution. By way of example, consider this list of probing questions to use as an opener for a small salon event or on other occasions where your goal is to rekindle the fire of a donor’s passion for their alma mater:

  • What was it like to attend [University X] when you were a student?
  • What is your fondest memory from [University X]?
  • What do you think of most often when you reflect on your time at [University X]?
  • Where on campus did you spend the most time?
  • How do you feel about your degree from [University X]?
  • Who from campus do you consider to be your greatest mentor(s)?
  • How did he/she shape your campus experience?
  • What organizations/clubs were you involved with as a student?
  • Do you stay in contact with any classmates or advisors from those organizations?
  • What are/were your favorite campus traditions?
  • Would you recommend [University X] to a friend or family member? Why or why not?
  • What are your perceptions of what it would be like to be on campus today?
  • Do you stay in touch with anyone from [University X] today?

These are just examples. The use of a few deliberate questions takes what would have been just a “nice” meeting and creates in its place an encounter that allows us to build a meaningful and engaging strategy, so that we can give our donors the vehicle to enhance, inspire, and transform the organizations with which we work. These probing questions allow us to be more accountable and more purposeful in our roles.

Often, a core part of these conversations involves educating individuals who are new to giving about how their support is philanthropy, and that gifts of every shape and size make a difference. Many think that philanthropists are only those about whom they read in the paper, the ones who make multi-million dollar gifts. Philanthropists are more than the dollar amount given: philanthropists are change agents, cheerleaders, visionaries, or champions for our organizations. They are people who care deeply about the causes they support and intentionally choose the organizations they see as the best vehicles for fulfilling their passions.

Talented development officers understand that we not only provide prospects the opportunity to be donors, but we also provide the vehicles to turn their passions into inspiration. Through the use of probing questions, we learn about our prospects’ views on charitable giving, their definition of philanthropy, and where in their lives they learned to be philanthropic. This is important to know, as generations tend to give differently. Understanding the different motivations (both generationally and values-based) allows you to find the right match for the donor and the institution.

As philanthropy continues to evolve, donors will continue to be more direct about the impact they want their gifts to have, and the way they hope their giving will be valued. We have an opportunity to share with them that their participation is deeply valued, and that their loyalty and support transform our mission and our programs. We are in the role of creating philanthropic champions, and that is a role that gives to both the giver and the institutions that we serve.

We know that people who are curious are some of the highest performing gift officers. The ability to ask questions in an authentic way, listen for cues, and then add additional questions to the conversation allows us to identify the beliefs, desires, and dreams of our prospects. With this knowledge, you can determine fit, build strategy, and find that match between your institution’s vision and your donors’ desire to make a difference. But it is not just about being curious; you have to be inquisitive in a way that is also organic and genuine. Building a relationship that is built on trust and shared goals is critical in the work that we do.

Take a Deeper Look at Probing Questions

I discuss probing questions comprehensively in my new book Productive Conversations with Donors: A Handbook for Frontline Fundraisers. This book provides fundraisers with new approaches for being inquisitive and persistent in an authentic manner. Learn how to use probing questions to:

  • Thank a consistent donor
  • Engage new prospects or “never donors”
  • Engage young alumni
  • Re-engage lapsed donors
  • Discover what motivates the “sometimes donor”
  • Expand your network of connections

Included are specific strategies for guiding donor conversations to inspire major gifts, planned gifts, and gifts from parents. I hope you’ll take a look.

Get Kathy Drucquer Duff’s Book


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Our upcoming workshop:

  • Immediately impacts fundraising results
  • Provides a more strategic and successful approach to identifying prospects and cultivating donors
  • Is highly practical and skills-based and can get those new to philanthropy and frontline fundraisers up-to-speed fast