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Conference Coverage: Fundraisers Can’t Be ‘Tone Deaf’ To Events

Fundraisers need an “authentic relationship” with donors and you get there by having conversations. Fundraisers must know how to show donors the impact of their support and stay attuned to new areas of concern around the globe or risk “appearing tone deaf.”

When meeting a potential donor for the first time, bring curiosity and open-ended questions and ditch pre-conceived notions and attempts at interrogation and invasive questioning. 

Those are a few of the “conversations” consultant Michael J. Buckley, CFRE, had with his audience during the recent Association of Fundraising Professionals international conference, AFPICON, in Las Vegas. During his session titled “Listening to and Talking with Donors: Applying Research to Reality,” Buckley drew upon non-fiction books, 20th Century history and current social habits to underscore his points.

Buckley, the founder and managing partner of Boston-based The Killoe Group, told The NonProfit Times during a recent interview that “Building authentic relationships with donors, how we talk to them, is at the heart of what we do.” Buckley said during an interview with The NonProfit Times after the event.

When meeting a potential donor for the first time, bring curiosity and open-ended questions, ditching pre-conceived notions and attempts at interrogation and invasive questioning. Don’t fidget, turn off the cell phone, and immerse yourself in the conversation, he said.

The wisest fundraisers listen during the conversation for areas of common interest and gradually build a rapport, Buckley said. They genuinely try to get to know and “experience” the person rather than sizing them up or probing ideas and subjects to confirm what they already think they know about the donor.

Many people enjoy believing they have an innate ability to know whether someone is sincere, telling the truth or lying, he said, using as an example former United Kingdom Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s initial impressions of encounters with Adolf Hitler just prior to the outbreak of World War II. Chamberlain initially believed Hitler’s vow that all he wanted was a part of Czechoslovakia, and had no designs on Poland or the rest of Europe.

Chamberlain believed Hitler, in part, because the German dictator gave him a double handshake that he reserved for especially friendly encounters, Buckley told his audience.

He used the forceful historical reference to point out a simpler premise: Fundraisers cannot be quick to read too much into friendly overtures by potential donors, such as being invited to a meal or for an outing, he said.

“I always have to laugh when an executive director or board member thinks they’re getting special treatment from a prospect and they think that’s a sign that they want to give a gift,” he said.

Buckley cited Malcolm Gladwell’s nonfiction book “Talking to Strangers” as a primer on honing the ability to deeply listen. The book’s conclusions, he said, are that humans overestimate their ability to read what people are thinking or feeling and humans naturally default to believing that others are telling the truth and are incapable of telling when someone is lying.

Buckley used another book, Kate Murphy’s “You’re Not Listening” to illustrate how much people don’t hear when they interact with others from strangers to friends. “While certainly relatable during the qualification and cultivation phase, I think our ability to listen during all steps in the prospect development pipeline is invaluable,” Buckley said. 

“The right way to talk to strangers is with caution and humility,” he advised, before referring to the “Truth Default Theory,” or the automatic tendency of many to believe by default that people are telling the truth and assuming that’s so until they have evidence otherwise. 

In developing rapport, he said, avoid the common tactic of using “shift responses” in reacting to donor’s stories or reasons for support. An example of shift response is replying “Our dog is always digging under the fence so we can’t let him out unless he’s on a leash” to the comment “My dog got out last week and it took three days to find him.” The better, supportive response would be “Oh no. Where did you finally find him?”

Support responses encourage other people – including donors – to elaborate, thereby giving the respondent a chance to gain greater understanding of the speaker, Buckley said.

“So, of course, when it comes to donors, do we shift or support?,” Buckley asked rhetorically. “The reality is that people like to appear knowledgeable. They ask questions that suggest they already know the answer. I think we should admit that when we are talking with donors and listening to donors, we want to appear knowledgeable. But is your attempt to appear knowledgeable about organizations and the donor to build rapport, adding a roadblock?”

Never underestimate the value of in-person visits with donors. The use of Zoom, Skype, Facetime and other remote meeting sites can result in savings and travel time but in-person visits are valuable for non-verbal signals, feelings and attitudes that can be missed through remote communication.

People can often learn more by closing their mouths and listening. Listening is often viewed as “talking’s meek counterpart” but it is actually the more powerful position in communication, Buckley said.

He returned to the basics of effective communication at the end of his presentation, advising fundraisers to turn off electronics or removing Apple or other smart watches so distractions are minimized when meeting with donors. He asked: “When you’re with a donor one-on-one, are you always pinging, buzzing or catching a quick glance at your phone or watch?”

People remember and are gratified by close attention, Buckley said. That goes even for Henry David Thoreau, who is quoted as saying: “The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought and attended to my answer.”

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