Dear Kim:

We are getting ready for our year-end major donor drive.  Our team of ten volunteers has sent out personalized letters to all our current and former donors, asking them to renew, come back or upgrade.  While the content of the letter is the same, each letter has a personal note and we’re thinking through what to ask each donor.  We are now ready to do follow-up calls and wonder how much to push our donors to keep giving?  We want to be sensitive but we don’t want to make the classic mistake of hearing “no” when the person isn’t saying “no.”

~Do You Hear What I Hear?



Dear Hear What:

As you may have realized, you have asked a very important question to which there is no right answer.  First, this year more than ever, it is critical that all the people on the major donor team make their own gift, and that their gift is significant for them.  At your team meeting, ask people to share why, in light of all the places they could give, and in light of probably feeling anxious financially, they have chosen to continue to support your organization.  Each solicitor will then be able to share with the prospects their own experience in deciding on a gift.  Second, let me repeat the obvious platitudes of ‘be sensitive,’ ‘be sympathetic,’ and ‘be a good listener.’  But the last one is the most practical, and let’s look at some ways this might play out:

The prospect says, “This has been a really tough year.”

Trying to be sensitive, our instinct might be to say something like, “I understand.  Anything you can do to help us will be appreciated.”  However, if we really listen we realize the prospect did not say, “This has been a tough year FOR ME.”   The prospect stated an observation, but how much this observation applied to him or her we don’t know.  So we say, “That’s so true.  And we feel very fortunate that many of our donors are still able to give, and even donors who have to cut back are still supportive of our work.  Are you able to help us with $____ this year?”  Then, if the year has been tough for them, they can easily be in the group of donors who are supportive but can’t give as big a donation, but if the year has not affected their finances, they are still invited to give.

The prospect says, “I have to help groups that help people in immediate need.”

This may mean the prospect is not going to give your organization as much as usual, but again, that wasn’t what was said.  Try saying:   “I understand what you mean.  Let me just share my experience:  the first thing all of us volunteers do when we get ready to call donors like you is to make our own donation.  We know we can’t ask people to give if we haven’t given ourselves.  So, I really thought about all the lifeline organizations that I support and I will help them as best I can, but I gave a major gift to this organization because (fill in why)…  Can you see your way clear to help us again, AND help these other organizations?”

Of course it is hard to think of what to say on the spot, particularly when the prospect says something that is really unclear, such as “I’m just not sure how to think about this,” or, “I just can’t seem to figure out my giving this year,” or the really obtuse, “There are so many causes right now.”  Remember you can always say NOTHING.  Just be silent and wait for the prospect to continue.  The silence will seem very long because you are anxious and time passes slowly when you are worried and anxious.  But time is passing at a normal rate for the prospect.  When you don’t respond, the prospect will feel a need to clarify what he or she meant, which will usually be helpful:  “I want to help everyone but I can’t afford to,” or, “I think I can help again, but I can’t give more than I have been.”

You get the idea.  Respond to what the person SAYS, and avoid adding meaning to what they say.  Share your own experience—this is helpful, not pushy.  Wait and make sure you have given the prospect time to say all that they want to say to your request.

Good luck with your year-end campaign, and congratulations on having a willing committee!

~Kim Klein