How to Probe More Deeply in a Major Donor Conversation

Post by Dr. Kathryn Gamble

In our consulting and coaching practice, we are asked almost daily, “What do I say to a donor?”

Mostly, we hear this with a tone of frustration. Our clients want to learn a special magic word or phrase to say that will help us find out everything.

Wouldn’t it be nice if such a thing existed – a magic word that would unlock your donor’s full potential of giving!

While there isn’t a magic word, there is a way of conversing with your donor has magical results.

What you want to create is a friendly, authentic relationship with your major donor – one where you are free to probe more deeply.

Try a classic donor-centered conversation approach with your major donor.

This means you continually ask for feedback and clarification as the conversation progresses.  And, you listen deeply to what the donor says.

Why? Because they are telling you everything you need to know.

So, let’s say you are having a conversation with a donor who gave your organization $1,000 last year and you are pretty sure they could make a larger gift.  How would you make your next conversation donor-centered?

First of all, you start the conversation politely by thanking the donor for her time.

Then, say something like:

Thank you, Mrs. Donor for your generous gift last year.  Would you share with me how you came to make such a generous gift to our organization?

Now, sit back and listen because Mrs. Donor is going to tell you a lot.

These are two possible answers to your questions:

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I have a friend who volunteers at your organization and she told me more about what you do.

This tells you something about who the donor knows and how they are connected to your organization.  You can build on this by asking if you could share a little more about the program and what your volunteers do.

My family has a tradition of giving back and I feel your organization serves our community needs.

An answer like this allows you to ask more about the donor’s family.  You may learn there was a family owned business or possibly a family foundation.  You can learn more about other charities the donor and the donor’s family support.

Why is information like this important? It helps you understand more about your donor’s potential and what may motivate your donor to give.

Our clients also try to decipher a conversation with a donor. They will ask us, “What did the donor mean when they said….?”

Our response to that question is usually, “Did you ask the donor what they meant?”

This is why the donor-centered conversation approach is so important.

You are always seeking feedback and clarification through gentle and polite questions.

This allows the donor to talk about themselves, their situation and their values. And this, in turn, allows you to learn all you need to know.

Back to the example above.  Let’s say the donor responded saying they have a family tradition of giving and you politely ask if the donor would share a little more about their family.

Then the donor shares they have two children – one in college and one in private school.  Continuing on, the donor says almost as an aside that they just sent in the tuition payments.

In your mind you are seeing big tuition payments so they can’t make a gift because you think isn’t that what the donor is saying?  Is it?  Did you ask?

No, not ask if they can afford a gift.  Again, the polite, way is to respond and find out more.  Ask something like:

Which college does your child attend? Why did they choose that school?

For example, you may find out there is a family tradition of attending that school.  Or, the child has a partial scholarship.  Or, they support the school philanthropically.

The point is that you can’t assume that what the donor says is an objection or barrier to their giving until you have sought more feedback and clarification.

In other words, until you have a fuller understanding of the donor’s situation.

BOTTOM LINE: Here’s how to probe in a gentle, donor-centered way.

This type of conversation will help you build meaningful and productive relationships with your donors.

And, we promise, this can easily lead to major gifts for your organization.

Now go out there and make a little magic!