Development Dialogue: What Matters Most Is What Matters To Your Potential Donors


By Ron Fredman  

When I begin learning about an organization, I ask its leaders and volunteers to give me their best solicitation pitch. That’s a great way to experience how they engage their donors and prospects. Though quite a few boast compelling arguments, I remain surprised at how many still rely on a variation of the plea, “We need money. You have money. Send it.”

If you are the IRS or sporting a bandanna and six-shooter, that approach might work just fine; other than that, it probably is one of the most ineffective tactics around. Candidly, there are few cases in which a donor is going to respond favorably … or even care that you need their cash if that is all you offer.

What will generate positive response is when you tie your potential donors’ passions to your ability to satisfy it. Focus on the difference that matters to them and demonstrate how you best can help them make that difference. It’s not about you or what you’re trying to fund. It’s about them. 

Put simply, if they say they want to give access to underprivileged children, yet you keep talking about your need to pay the rent, you’re going nowhere. 

Though fundraisers refer to this approach as cultivation or donor intimacy, it’s really a form of consultative selling. When you don’t feel well, the doctor asks you, “Where does it hurt?” When your car acts up, the mechanic asks, “Where’s the squeak?” When you’re buying a new printer, a good salesperson asks about the type and number and quality of copies you’re looking to produce.

And the good fundraiser asks the prospect the very same type of question: “Tell me what interests you the most, the impact you are seeking, for whom and why?”

The orientation is obvious and worth restating: On them, NOT on you. Check out these tips to enhance your fundraising capacity by honing in on what your donors want.

Listen To Your Prospects  

It’s perhaps the most important – and under-rated – skill for any successful fundraiser. Invite your potential donors to tell their story, to share their passions and desires. Encourage them to focus on what it is you do that most excites them. They will tell you what matters. In doing so, they do the hard work for you: They give you the clues as to their interests and the opportunities you should pursue in partnership with them.

Just remember: What matters is what matters to them, not to you. 

Guide the Discussion 

With this valuable insight, highlight programs or services that specifically address their interests. This means you – or your fundraising team, including board volunteers – must have a thorough understanding of the programs and services you offer. How else can you bridge want and possibility when it comes to your company?  

It is not enough to say, “We serve X number of people each year.” That is a feature. People buy benefits. 

Try this instead: Put the word “because” in front of that sentence and “therefore” at the end. Fill in the blank after “therefore” with an impact statement (i.e., “Because we serve X number of people each year, therefore we …”). The “therefore” closes the deal, not the “because.” Know your stuff and you’re ready to engage the prospect in a real and rewarding exchange.

Move to the Close  

At this point, you’ve matched opportunity with priority, and motivated the donor to see the real difference their support will make. All that is left is move to the close. And, if you’ve done your homework and guided the discussion skillfully, that could be as simple as a single-sentence request.

After the Gift

In your post-gift stewardship, be certain to continually provide opportunity to experience how your donors’ support is changing lives and doing the good they identified. Let them see with their own eyes, let them talk with the beneficiaries, give them updates and invitations and notes of appreciation. Let them know not only you appreciate them, but that what matters most to them matters most to you. 

Ron Fredman, chief development officer at Kansas City Ballet, is well known for beyond-the-horizon thinking, deceptively tough questions, nurtured expectations and enthusiastic partnership. He is a passionate fundraiser and dedicated relationship builder. He has enjoyed many years in arts fundraising, including record-breaking seasons as the chief fundraiser for the Kansas City Symphony and Houston Symphony. He joined the Kansas City Ballet as chief development officer in the fall of 2012 and has continued the string of fundraising successes. His background includes more than a decade as a national fundraising consultant with Hartsook Companies, where he last served as executive vice president. He has guided arts and cultural organizations, social services, youth organizations, schools, religious institutions, health care, professional and trade associations, foundations and more. Beyond solid fundraising leadership, he also provides senior-level expertise in management, strategic planning and marketing. 

Ron is a frequent speaker at national, regional and local fundraising and business conferences, where his energy, interactive style and common sense draw strong reviews. He has designed and taught business courses at the corporate and community-college level, and has written for many publications. He began his career as a sportswriter at The Kansas City Star. Ron studied political science at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and served as an adjunct faculty at Lansing (Mich.) Community College. Ron is chair of Dance/USA’s Development Directors & Staff Affinity Group.

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