October 2015 – Gonser Gerber Bulletin on Advancement

Tom Gonser, one of the founders of Gonser Gerber, stated over 60 years ago,

“Fundraising is not about asking for money, it is about educating the prospective donor.”

While this is a quote our firm still finds to be true, the notion of “educating the prospective donor,” has, in many instances, been misunderstood.

For too many, “educating the donor” has come to be defined as a one-sided conversation in which the advancement officer is undeterred in making her pitch for support.  She has the well-crafted case for support memorized, or ready to present in a spiffy color-coordinated folder, or quickly accessible electronically via her tablet.  She has practiced pro-actively answering the questions of what the request is for, how the program or initiative in question works, and why the prospect should care.  She is fully-prepared with most every conceivable answer and is ready to teach the prospect.

But, think back to your most engaging and meaningful educational experiences.  For most everyone, when we think back to our school experiences, the teacher or professor who made the biggest positive impact on our life wasn’t someone who talked at us with all the answers.  It wasn’t even necessarily the passionate teacher who lectured and had the impressive intellect.  Instead, almost universally, when we think back on those educators who made a difference in our lives, we think about those who took the initiative and the time to get to know us.

Master teachers know that real education happens first (and only) when you begin with the student and understand their goals, capacities, interests, and desires.  If you’ve ever seen a master teacher in action, you know that their process of education is different.  Names are memorized immediately (sometimes even before the first class) so that each student feels valued as an individual.  Academic assessments are taken early and in a variety of ways to understand where the student is today.  And more questions are asked than answers provided.

If your goal is to advance your institution in significant ways through authentic donor engagement, you will want to embrace the difference between “understanding and emphasizing.”  To exceed your goals, you will want to move toward becoming a more skilled “understander.”  Below is a short chart that compares how “understanders” and “emphasizers” are different:

2015 October E-Bulletin

“Understanders” start first by being curious about others.  They ask open-ended questions and listen attentively to responses so that, when the appropriate time comes, they can craft a gift proposal that makes sense to the donor.  Questions are, in fact, a big part of the “understanders” approach.  And the questions they ask have specific characteristics.  Below are 5 characteristics of questions that lead to more understanding.  They are:

  1. Open-ended.  Questions that cannot be answered with a “yes” or “no.”
  2. Questions that dig a bit deeper, such as, “That is interesting.  Why do you think that is the case?”
  3. Neutrally-worded.  Question that don’t give away an answer, such as, “How did you like it?” As compared to the less neutrally-worded question that encourages a certain response, “How did you like that fantastic seminar?”
  4. Personal without seeming “stalkerish.”  Questions that show your interest in them as people, such as, “How long have you been vacationing in Italy?” after the topic has been brought up.
  5. Questions not asked because you are afraid it might sound as if you don’t know something are the worst kind of questions.  Most people enjoy the feeling of being an expert and suggesting you are new to the topic can be flattering to the prospect.

In his timeless best-seller, “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen Covey states that one such habit is to “seek first to understand, and then to be understood.”  We would amend that statement just a bit for highly effective advancement professionals:  “Seek first to understand the donor, and then to help them understand how your institution meets needs.”