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Ask, Don’t Tell: Three Types of Power Questions That Build Donors for Life

Resource Center - Foundation

By Jerry Panas

(March 6, 2012) Giving is a deeply personal experience. When you ask someone to invest in your organization, you have to reach their heart and soul. That’s especially true these days. Even in spite of a sluggish economy, donors are giving generously but only to those organizations they really care about. And whether you’re a professional fundraiser or a volunteer, it’s your job to forge that kind of “heart and soul” relationship.  

Right now you may be wondering: What should I say to a potential donor to create a deep personal connection with him? Actually, there’s very little you should say—but there is plenty you should ask.

Strategic questions are powerful and help expose the heart and spirit of the person you’re talking with. Penetrating questions breathe life into a person’s deepest dreams. When you arm yourself with the right questions, you develop a totally engaged and productive relationship with the other person.

Sure, you need to talk about your organization and the people it serves. (How else will the donor know if your mission resonates with her?) But what truly motivates her to give is asking a few thoughtfully chosen and crafted questions…and truly listening to her answers.

Listening is the single most important skill in our field. Yet you can’t listen if you aren’t asking the right questions. That’s why the book I have co-written, Power Questions: Build Relationships, Win New Business, and Influence Others, is so important.

To write this book, I collaborated with the nation’s leading authority on client relations, Andrew Sobel (author of Clients for Life, among others). Both of us know how to connect with people, listen, and ask powerful questions. Buying a product or service may be a cerebral process. Giving is most often a visceral one. But in the case of both, it’s the relationships that make people pull the trigger.

Power Questions isn’t really about business, or philanthropy for that matter. It’s about relationships. The book presents a radically different perspective to engaging others and forging powerful ties that stand the test of time. And the questions we propose are successful because they get straight to the heart of what matters most to people. The right question helps you get to know the inner-most soul of the donor and what matters most to him.

There are three types of power questions that everyone in philanthropy must master. Most people in the field have already mastered the first type. They’re often far less familiar with the other two.

1. Giving questions. These are informational questions to help you understand someone’s giving habits and history. For example:

  • Before making a gift, what do you want to know about the organization?
  • What are the elements and factors that go into your decision about making a gift?
  • Has there been any gift that has disappointed you—in what way?
  • When did you start your philanthropy?

If you ask these questions, you’re well on your way to getting the gift. But you can’t stop there.

With these questions, you’re laying the foundation for the rest of your conversation. If you listen closely and ask the right follow-up questions, you’ll be able to advance the relationship. If you don’t, you won’t. It’s that simple.

2. Passion questions. These questions get at what people are truly passionate about in their lives. For example:

  • What has been the happiest day of your life?  
  • What in your life has given you the greatest fulfillment?
  • What is the greatest achievement in your life?

These are the kinds of questions that unearth the truth about what makes someone tick. When you’re able to access the person’s passion, energy, and excitement, it creates a powerful connection between the two of you. It’s very intimate. You’re inspiring him to want to take action, while simultaneously making him feel comfortable enough to want to invest in the organization.

I tell a story in Power Questions about approaching a donor on behalf of his alma mater. Because he had graduated from the school’s engineering program, I assumed he would want to make a gift to it—but I was wrong. My assumption, and the abrupt way I had presented it, alienated the donor and almost cost the university a gift.

Only after I asked for permission to start over, approached the conversation the right way, and asked the proper question did I discover that he actually wanted to give to the theater program. That was where his true passion lay, but I had to ask the right questions to find out.

3. Legacy questions. These questions help you expose the recognition the person might want and the legacy she wants to leave behind. For instance:

  • What are your dreams? What else would you like to accomplish?
  • How would you like to be remembered? What would you like people to say about you and your life?
  • If you knew you had only three years to live, what would you hope to achieve personally and professionally?

These kinds of questions have a way of forcing people to cut right to the heart of what matters most. Nothing motivates us to act so much as being confronted with the reality that we are mortal. This reminder, coupled with the fact that the donor has the power to make a consequential difference, puts her in a giving frame of mind.

Giving is at times and with some people fraught with psychological and emotional undertones. Often, you function as a philanthropic therapist. You must ask the probing questions that help the donor reach into his own deeply held feelings and channel them into action. 

You have heard the old saw “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.” Well, you don’t “lead” a donor. You can’t and shouldn’t make them do anything they don’t want to do. Your job is not to make the donor “drink.” Your job is to make the donor thirsty. You do that by asking power questions.

Jerry Panas is coauthor with Andrew Sobel of the new book Power Questions: Build Relationships, Win New Business, and Influence Others (Wiley, February 2012). He is executive partner of Jerold Panas, Linzy & Partners. He is also the author of 13 popular books, including the all-time bestsellers Asking and Mega Gifts.

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