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Enough About Me!

Resource Center - Foundation

By Thomas Wolf

This article is an excerpt from Thomas Wolf's new book, How to Connect With Donors and Double the Money You Raise.

(May 31, 2011) Remember the gag about two people who see each other after many years? The first blathers on and on about the things she's done, her various marriages, her plastic surgery, her pets, her friends and her enemies. After 20 minutes, she says, Enough about me, what about you? What do you think of me?

I wish there were a training film for fundraisers that put this gag front and center so they could see how counterproductive it is. Even those of us who are wise enough to avoid a soliloquy about ourselves can make the same mistake when talking endlessly about our organization.

Isn't that what you're supposed to be doing? Talking about your organization?

Well, yes and no.

As Peter, one of my early mentors taught me, a fundraising call--especially an initial one--is primarily an opportunity to form or deepen a relationship. And ironically, the best way to be remembered is to let your prospect do the talking.

Think about the people you like to spend time with, says Peter. Are they the ones who constantly focus the conversation on themselves or those who show interest in you?

Peter continues: Would that every fundraiser take a crash course in empathy! Call it the art of good listening. It's often the difference between success and failure.

Since it sets the tone and helps to form your prospect's initial impression, good listening is especially key at the beginning of a fundraising call. I learned that the hard way.

As the young director of the newly formed New England Foundation for the Arts, my board wanted me to explore the possibility of raising funds from regional corporations (which we would then redistribute as grants).

I'd never done corporate fundraising so I hired Peter, both to help me raise money and also to teach me whatever special techniques there were to master.

His method was to begin with two informational interviews opportunities to seek advice on setting up the new program. At these meetings, Peter was a master at drawing out each individual, listening to what he or she had to say, and subtly injecting a few timely phrases about how our program might be perfect for addressing the particular corporation's agenda.

Then it was my turn to lead. I boned up for a few hours before our next meeting, preparing myself with facts and figures and accomplishments. And only minutes into the meeting it all came spewing forth.

I couldn't help myself. I was sure I was dazzling. But once we left the building, Peter was furious. So what do you know about Mr. Kerner's corporation? he asked. What would the company be interested in funding? What are Kerner's personal interests? What is he excited about? Who's he going to help you see next?

I had to agree. I left with little more than I'd come with.

Days later it was Peter's turn again. We secured a meeting with Ruth, a long-time giving officer from a storied corporation in Boston. Don't say anything unless I kick you under the table, said Peter. And keep your answers to a few sentences.

We arrived and Peter immediately went over to some photos on Ruth's desk. "What attractive kids! Are they yours?

Yes, said Ruth. They're grown now, but I love these pictures so I keep them here.

And what are they up to now? he asked. Understand, Peter is genuinely interested in people, so there was no guile to his words.

Ruth then launched into a discussion of her kids. One, it turned out, was an educator with an interest in the arts.

That's a coincidence said Peter. That's one of the things we came here to talk about--the arts. Tom's running a program now that I bet is right up her alley.

I got my first kick from Peter under the table and briefly described the program.

Ruth's other child was in the Peace Corps in Africa training local residents in various forms of community building.

Peter again made the connection. One of the things we've found through the program Tom's running is that technical assistance and training can be more valuable than direct grants. Tom, tell Ruth about the ones you're running.

My second cue. I spoke briefly and this time hit pay dirt. Ruth got excited and, heeding Peter's earlier counsel, I simply listened as Ruth spoke. You know, as a giving officer of a corporation that prides itself on professional development, I've always wondered whether we should be funding workshops and training. So many of the organizations applying to us aren't good candidates for our program grants.

This was the magic moment. And over the years I've come to look for and savor those instances in conversations when donors wonder if maybe, just maybe, you can help them solve their problems or carry out their agenda.

The story has a happy ending. Ruth gave us $15,000 to develop training materials and was so thrilled with the result she became an ongoing donor.

This article is an excerpt from How to Connect with Donors and Double the Money You Raise, by Thomas Wolf, published by Emerson & Church, available in the AFP Bookstore. Reprinted with permission.



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