Talking Themselves Into A Gift

When I first began facilitating trainings, my audience--like me--were mostly boomers. Learning, we believed, came from lectures given by experts. And, I confess, I loved being the expert. At first I followed the time honored procedure: lecture then time for q&a. Soon, however, I encouraged questions as they came, and my trainings became far more lively. Sometimes things did start to go in directions not anticipated, but typically the questions allowed me to really get to their issues, as opposed to merely the ones i assumed were theirs.

Over time, participants wanted more, well, participation. So I would throw questions out to the audience, instead of giving all the answers myself. But soon it became clear that I was still "the expert" and younger groups, particularly but not exclusively, felt that they had lots of expertise to offer. I started doing a lot more small group exercises, asking them to share with each other what they were doing, what worked, what didn't. What I discovered was that the more I pulled them into the training, the more learning that went on. And the less I talked, the more they did and the more involved and invested they became.

This is also true when you are cultivating donors. If you are the only one talking, it is YOUR show and you are the expert. But you can't be the expert at what the prospect wants--that is their bailiwick. They know, far better than you ever could, what matters to them.

The more you give your prospects the space to tell you what they are thinking, the more you will learn, and the better you will be at crafting a cultivation and an ask that will resonate with the person who will be making the gift. You may even find, if you give them enough space, that they will talk themselves into that gift—and when they do that it will be a much more generous gift than you could ever get by asking.

Giving them space happens, of course, when you stop talking. But silence alone won't get you the information you need. That comes from a give and take.

Yes, open-ended questions are great, but so also can be sharing of information. For example, if I want to find out about a prospect's family situation, talking about mine can a great way to discover things that asking questions simply will not.

Sometimes you find that you share experiences that can lead to wonderful bonding, but beware--you are not trying to be their friend, just their trusted fundraiser. Make sure you know where boundaries need to be. You also have to be cautious not to end up loving the telling so much you forget your purpose.

Another way prospects can be like my workshop participants is the expertise they do -- or sometimes just think they do -- bring to the table. If you want money, as the old saying goes, ask for advice, but don't ask if you are going to discount it. And don't be afraid to tell a donor that while you value what they are saying, it really won't work for you, or doesn't fit with what you are trying to do.

The thing my students tell me they value most is transparency. They want to know that if I say I know something, they can bank on what I say. And if I don't, I am unafraid of telling them and asking who among them might have a good answer.

Your supporters may also have some good answers to questions you need to be asking. At the very least, just as my students frequently do, they can help you to look at things from a slightly different angle, and that can give you an idea that will change things for the good.

Janet Levine works with nonprofits, helping them to increase fundraising capacity and build stronger boards.  Visit her website,  While there, sign up for the free newsletter.