In 1998, a Robert Redford movie introduced the term “horse whisperer” into common parlance.
In 2010, we are well past due for introducing the term “donor whisperer” into not only our fundraising vocabulary but our practice as well.
First, a quick turn to Wikipedia to get our term on the table:
A horse whisperer is a horse trainer who adopts a sympathetic view of the motives, needs, and desires of the horse, based on natural horsemanship and modern equine psychology. The term goes back to the early nineteenth century when an Irish horseman, Daniel Sullivan, made a name for himself in England by rehabilitating horses that had become vicious and intractable due to abuse or accidental trauma.
Sullivan kept his methods secret, but people who managed to observe him noticed that he would stand face to face with the troubled horse. They seemed to think that he must be saying something to the horse in a way the horse could understand and accept because the horses were quickly gentled by his mysterious techniques.
No less mysterious today: A development officer who adopts a genuinely sympathetic view of the motives, needs, and desires of the donor.
Lesson one for aspiring donor whisperers:
Listen more than you talk.
Gail Perry’s Guidestar piece on increasing donations by 39% by calling (or, better yet, notes Gail, having board members call) to thank donors is a great post. But the best part of the post comes midway down the text and will be missed by many readers:
If your board members are adventurous, they can ask the donor why he/she chose to make this gift. They can pull out the donor’s story—and the donor will be even more pleased and honored.
For tips on effective listening, check out Simon Sinek’s recent post on the subject:
At its most effective level, however, listening goes far beyond simply paying attention. Becoming a “good listener” is a skill that requires practice. At this level, listening means trying to find meaning in what you hear. It is not simply about concentrating on what is being said to you; it is the active pursuit of understanding.
Trying to find meaning in what you hear–that’s a profound command for those of us working with donors. Sinek suggests that one of the best practices in enabling us to find meaning in what we hear is asking specific questions:
Don’t simply ask, “What do you mean by that?” after every statement someone makes. That’s frustrating for the person talking to you and it still relies on them to find the right words. Ask questions specific to the things they say. For example, if someone says, “I want to be a doctor,” instead of asking why they want to be a doctor, ask them what kind of doctor they want to be. When they answer, ask them what it is about that specialty that interests them. Very quickly you will get a much clearer picture of the kind of person this is and what their strengths are just from listening closely and asking pointed questions.
I like to do role playing with executive directors and development directors. One of my favorite role plays is “Call the donor”. I play the donor, and the ED or DD places the call. Since they’ve previously received coaching from me on asking questions to donors, they try to put that into practice right away. Challenge is, when I-as-donor respond, no matter what I say, the ED/DD will usually respond by saying, “Great, great. That’s great.”
Why does this happen?
Nerves, likely. Lack of practice is undoubtedly part of it.
But I think an even more likely explanation is that we lack a deep and abiding curiosity in our donors. We aren’t prepared to encounter them as fascinating people who are on a journey to make meaning, working out certain things in their life as they seek to make a difference in and for themselves, the world, God, their families, and those they meet.
If we felt that way, we’d ask questions quite naturally. And we’d listen intently to what our donors say in reply.
This is why nearly as long as I’ve been in fundraising, I’ve chosen not to start a thank you call by saying thank you. Instead, I say, “Hi, Mrs. Jones. Eric Foley at Seoul USA. Just wanted to let you know we got the check you sent in the mail. And I had to ask: What were you thinking???”
Seriously. That’s exactly what I do. This causes the person to laugh nervously at first, but I’ve never had anyone hang up or be offended.
I have, however, had nearly two decades and counting of fascinating conversations with donors as a result.