The Right Words

In five years, where does your organization want to be? That’s a question every nonprofit should be able to answer, but I suspect that for most, if they’ve considered the question at all, the answers they’ve come up with are sketchy at best.

It’s not that these organizations don’t have the ability to envision, or the desire to plan. They do but so many of us are completely focused on keeping our heads above water and getting to land that we don’t bother to think about which part of the beach we’d like to land on.

Fundraising ends up being a lot like that, too. We may consider how much we need to get through the year, but we don’t consider what it will take to allow us to do what we want to do next year.

This focus on survival rather than vision and growth may be why so many volunteers have a problem fundraising. No matter how you couch it, asking someone to help you keep the doors open feels a lot like begging.

”Give me a script,” Board members say, but it’s not about the right words. It is about clarity on what the call is supposed to accomplish.

For years, I sold insurance—life, health, disability. In order to sell insurance, of course, I had to get in front of people and talk with them about my product line. I had no natural constituency, so I spent a lot of time cold calling. I knew the odds were dismal—I could count on one in every hundred becoming a client. And it wasn’t one for each 100 calls I made, but one, over time, for every hundred. So sometimes I would make literally a thousand calls before I hit pay dirt.

As any sane person would, I hated it. But my kid really did need new shoes, so I persevered. And I discovered a few interesting things. The main one was the odds were about the same whether I used the professionally prepared scripts my agency offered, talking about building wealth and security and such, or whether I simply cut the chase and said, “Hi, I sell insurance.”

Along with that, I discovered that the appointments I did get were much smoother when we—the people with whom I was meeting and me—were on the same page. When they knew I sold insurance, it was easy: that’s what they were interested in and why they had agreed to the meeting. There were no misunderstandings or crossed wires.

Fundraising is not insurance. And you may not be calling to get an appointment. You might not even be cold calling. So, who am I calling? And why?

Is this a friend—to me, to someone on the Board, to the organization? Am I calling to thank them for past support, invite them to something, or yes, ask for an appointment? What outcomes I am hoping for? Do I simply want to make them feel good, introduce myself, begin cultivation, connect them a little more closely to us?

The who, why and what will tell me how I will approach this person.

Remember, when you call, you have literally seconds to get someone’s attention. That’s why when I trained students to call alumni I would recommend that their first sentence be “Hi, I am a student at (Your Alma Mater)” and then say “my name is….” Their name would not mean anything to the alumni, but the fact that they are a student and the name of the Alma Mater would grab attention.

So, “Hi, it’s Janet,” to my friend assures that I will get my say; “John Jones suggested I call you,” will reach John Jones’ contacts, and “I’m calling from (the organization you care about)” will push the person you are calling to listen.

But if this call is to a person who I know about but they don’t know me, my organization, or anyone else involved with the organization, this may be a very cold and difficult call indeed.

In these cases, I try to use what information I may have about the person to get the person’s attention. Generally, I make the first contact via letter or—increasingly—email. In the letter, I explain who I am and why I am contacting them. And then I tell them what I want and close with the comment that I will be calling in the next few to days to arrange for a meeting.

Here, especially, keeping the doors open to an organization they are not tied to is not terribly compelling. Nor, frankly is letting us continue to do what we are doing at the same level we have been doing it. If that’s all you want, you don’t need new supporters.

Rather than offering your Board members scripts for phone calls or face to face meetings, engage with them in a conversation about where you want the organization to be next year, the year after that and the year after that. If you did get there, what would that mean? How would the world—the world that your organization impacts—be changed? How many more people would benefit from the good you do?

If you dream enough—and then make concrete plans to make those dreams come true—believe me, you won’t need scripts to get your passion across. And since you won’t be asking people to dig deep to help maintain the status quo, you may very well find that whatever words you use, as long as you convey the mission and the goals, you will be as articulate as necessary.

Janet Levine is a consultant who focuses on increasing productivity for nonprofit organizations, their staff and volunteers. She can be reached at Gets Grants!, an online grantwriting class is is available at