You Talk Too Much

The first thing I learned when I became a salesperson was that once I asked for the sale, the first person to speak loses. In fundraising we soften that to a simple admonition to be quiet after you’ve made the ask. But I want to make the case for being quiet long before you consider solicitation. Too often, we go out with prospects and talk at them—about our organization, our cause, our project. We tell them what we need, what we do, what we accomplish. And we rarely ask about their lives, their needs, their goals. If we do, we barely let them get a word out before we try to connect a dot. You have kids—we take care of kids...

Over the years, I’ve learned the value of letting the other person hold sway. In my trainings, the less I talk and the more the participants take the lead, the more they feel they’ve learned. My job is to frame the discussion, keep it on track, and add expertise when needed.

It’s the same thing in fundraising.

You don’t want to spend your entire time with a prospect talking about something that has no relation to your task at hand. Yes, you are trying to build trust and yes, fundraising is about relationships—but the strongest relationship should be with your organization and the work it does, not with any individual. And don’t confuse relationship with friendship.

This is not to say that you cannot care about the prospect. Indeed, you should and it is wonderful if you like them as a person. But, frankly, that is not the purpose. Your goal is to connect their hopes and aspirations with what your organization does—and help them help you to accomplish that.

In order to do that, you must what motivates their philanthropy. That often requires deep listening. Just because they have kids doesn’t mean they care about kids beyond their own. To find out means asking open-ended question—and listening to their answers. Then, based on what they said, asking questions that probe ever deeper.

A few years ago, I took a coaching skills class. Our instructor kept talking about the need for the coach to ask powerful questions. That freaked me out until I realized that the power was simply in the space the question provided to the other person. In fact, one of the most powerful questions turns out not to actually be a question at all. “Tell me more,” shows your interest and gives permission to the other person to continue with his or her story.

Asking a prospect how they got involved with your organization or interested in your cause can be powerful. Asking them to elaborate definitely is. So is asking them about their vision, their hopes, and their dreams.

Most powerful of all, of course, is the encouragement you offer to let them talk by not talking over them or shutting off their flow of words.

It’s become a cliché to talk about the fact that we have two ears and one mouth and we should use them accordingly—but it is also true that the more you listen the more you will learn and the more you can then help your prospect become a happy and excited donor.

Janet Levine works with nonprofits, helping them to increase fundraising capacity and build stronger, more committed boards. Learn how she can help you and your organization at or by emailing her directly at