I am having a conversation with a potential donor. I love the initiative I’m fundraising for, but the meeting is not going particularly well. It isn’t my first meeting with this person, but I don’t feel like we are connecting today.
I spent a ridiculous number of hours prepping for this meeting because I thought this guy would have many questions for me. Nope. Nada. Zilch. And I had a whole script prepared, but it doesn’t feel right anymore.
I suspect I’m losing his attention. His cell phone is face down on the table; he hasn’t picked it up yet, but he’s looking at it longingly.
Even seasoned fundraisers can have rough meetings, meetings where our plans to present our worthy work go off the rails. Coaching skills can help during these difficult situations
Our culture seems to agree. Coaching skills are suitable for anyone who manages people, leads teams, and … is on the frontline of fundraising.
There are three skills that make you a better fundraiser (and leader).
At their essence, coaching skills are relationship skills. They help us connect and pay attention to how people are engaging – or how they’re not. They allow us to flow with a donor’s interests and not make pesky assumptions that come back to haunt us. They help us help our donors have a better experience.
Here are three skills that make you a better fundraiser:
- Learn To Listen at Every Level
This skill is a nod to the many layers in a conversation – and how all those elements inform where the conversation goes.
In every conversation, there are three levels from which we can listen. First, there is chatter in our minds. It’s where we offer back our parallel stories into the conversation: “You’re telling me about your travel nightmare? I have a story about that too!” This first level of listening is also where we might assess or judge what is being said, where we might wonder what’s for lunch. It’s the way we are sometimes technically in conversation, but more accurately in our heads. It’s is a place we all spend some time. There is nothing inherently wrong with it; it’s just not a place of connection. If you notice you’re drifting in your mind, can you pull yourself back into the conversation?
Second, there is the content of the conversation: the actual words that are being said. Many of us have practiced listening intently on this level. One tool to get us from level one to level two listening is to mirror our conversational partner silently.
Here’s where the coaching skill lives: on Level three. There is also tone, body language, facial expressions, and the timbre of someone’s voice in any conversation. At this level, live the things you know if you pause to let yourself know them. And, of course, there is the ever-important noticing of what’s not being said. It’s a place where we empower our intuition to connect on a deeper level.
Using this skill as a fundraiser means tuning in on all those levels when in conversation. It’s is a core skill to create connection and deepen a relationship.
2. Donors are Whole and Complete – Just The Way They Are
The primary building block for all relationships with donors (or anyone else) is this: they are whole and complete – just the way they are.
When we see a lot of dread in our fundraisers, sometimes the absence of this building block is at heart: they don’t trust their donors to be honest or say a clean no if no should be the answer for that donor. Then, they worry that the donor will avoid them or be seen as pesky or aggressive somehow.
Here’s something worth remembering: There is nothing wrong or broken with your donors, and there is no need to “convince” or “persuade” them of anything. Your job is to trust them to be in choice, either that they want to be part of your work – or that they don’t.
You do not have to deliver a pitch. You do not have to tap dance. On the contrary, your role is to ask powerful questions that invite possibilities. And to see your donors as having the ideas and values, they need to be collaborators.
At Fundraising Leadership, we believe that extraordinary fundraising stands on the foundation that donors are naturally creative, resourceful, and whole. Together with the fundraiser, they can co-create opportunities that support the organization’s needs and donors’ desires.
When fundraisers ask powerful questions that allow donors to reveal what they love and fear, what motivates them, and what holds them back…then magic happens.
When donors choose a project that inspires them, they follow through with action and larger gifts than the fundraiser would never have imagined.
3. Dance in the Moment, also known as “Agile and Nimble Are Better than Stiff and Scripted”
Fundraisers have a choice: to be stiff and scripted or be agile and nimble.
Sometimes we believe we need all the answers. We must be an expert, leading to inauthentic canned responses rather than determining what donors want.
When fundraisers are agile and nimble, they listen. They dance in the moment. They go underneath the words a donor may be using. They go beyond content or logic.
By all means, be prepared – prepared to be flexible. Use those listening skills described above. Hold that your donors are capable of creativity and resourcefulness. And trust yourself as a fundraiser to respond to what IS rather than how you HOPED the conversation would go.
When a fundraiser is open and flexible (instead of closed and stiff), they stay present. They adjust to the conversation. This way of being calls for a willingness to drop any plans and to accept ambiguity or uncertainty.
This dance means noticing and accepting when things aren’t going as planned – and not panicking or freaking out. It means simply finding a new dance move. Instead of marching on with a pitch that’s falling flat, what would happen if you paused and asked a question instead?
It can be liberating – for the fundraiser and the donor.
Every comment from a donor provides information about where to go next with the conversation. Ditto their body language and level of engagement or boredom. This awareness of the shifting currents becomes second nature for experienced fundraisers. They sense what is needed in the moment and choose a question or comment based on what shows up.
Being agile and nimble is like improv – there are no scripts!
When we use this coaching skill, we take responsibility for holding two things: How can we both collaborate with a donor AND move the conversation ahead?
Margaret Katz Cann is a Professional Co-Active Coach (CPCC). She specializes in executive fundraising coaching, board training and consulting, Margaret works with nonprofit executives to stop tripping over their ask, to connect to passion and leadership – and step into the world of compelling fundraising. Margaret is an experienced and joyful fundraiser, having spent 22 years at the Community Foundation Boulder County. She is passionate about the intersection of coaching with fundraising, and the way leaders who are willing and wanting to up their game can step away from anxiety and dread and step into their leadership as fundraisers for their organizations. Her nonprofit clients include executive directors, board members, and development staff, where she works with organizations to plan and then adds coaching to make the plans become reality.
David Langiulli is an experienced leader, fundraiser, trainer, and a certified professional Co-Active coach (CPCC, PCC). David uses all of his courage, compassion, and wisdom to help leaders and their organizations flourish and thrive. As a coach, he’s been described as: “gently-fierce!” David loves helping nonprofit leaders clarify what’s essential and important so they can effectively lead their teams, and achieve results for their organizations. As a trainer, he helps teams, working groups, and boards build trust, engage in healthy conflict, and create cultures of accountability, candor, and integrity. His professional background spans both the nonprofit and corporate sectors for over three decades. ?Fun Fact? David is currently on a 10yr quest to be a black belt in the martial art of Jiu-Jitsu.