A few months ago, by a fluke, I found myself sitting at the head table of a fundraising dinner next to the keynote speaker, National Public Radio’s legendary journalist Susan Stamberg. In her address that evening, Stamberg explained that her approach to interviews was simple: to ask people to tell their stories. She emphasized how she felt that everyone’s personal story was interesting, if you only give them the chance to share it, whether they were a prime minister or a shoe peddler.
I realized that that’s exactly how my dinner conversation with Stamberg had gone earlier that night. I had asked her questions about herself, but she answered them without elaboration, instead turning the focus to my own much less glamorous life story. I’m not shy about talking about myself, certainly, but I probably spoke more about my upbringing and history over dinner that night with Susan Stamberg than I have over the last decade with my closest friends. In the process she gave me the impression – and I had the strong sense that it was genuine – that she honestly was interested in my grandparents’ dry goods store in Brooklyn, my parents’ poultry farm in Connecticut, and my life as a consultant, husband, father, and Red Sox fan in New Hampshire.
On my way home that night I had a flashback to when I was coaching a nonprofit client several years ago about how best to engage with donors. My client understood from all the literature and training that it was critical to build one-on-one personal relationships with his donors. As a new CEO, he told me that he was excited to have scheduled three visits to the homes of supporters in the upcoming two weeks. Then he looked me in the eye and asked, with both a sense of candor and a touch of panic, “So, what do I say when I get there?!”
It was a good question.
I responded that it’s helpful to begin by engaging in some – though not too much – small talk. (If you are small-talk-phobic, feel free to review my earlier piece, “Schmoozing 101.”) I like to ask about family photos, or the history of the donors’ home. But soon the donors, like you, will want to get down to business. They want to know why you’re there. Time is precious. You’d better get the main conversation going.
And I have found that the very best first question is something on the order of: “I’m relatively new at the job. You’ve been such a strong supporter of our work. I’m really interested in how you got connected to the organization. Could you share that story with me?”
Or, to paraphrase Susan Stamberg, “Tell me about yourself… and how you began your relationship with us.”
I have found that 90% of time when I ask that question, donors will thoughtfully pause and reflect on their first moment of connection. Often, they’ll recall, it was because of a friend, someone who might have been a board member of the organization and who first made them aware of the work. The donors might remember an introductory lunch with the then-CEO, or a visit to the facility, or a public event, and perhaps a memorable phrase or moment that stuck with them all these years later. They often get animated in telling the story.
They might then shift into talking about why they have continued to make contributions. And if they don’t get into talking about their financial support, that suggests a good second question: “There are so many good charitable organizations out there. You’re such a strong supporter of ours. May I ask why you’ve chosen us?”
By the end of this bit of conversation – it may take ten minutes or it may last over an hour – the donors have, yes, shared with you how they got involved and why they continue to contribute. That’s good information for you to have. But, more importantly, the donors in the process have reminded themselves of how and why they care. In telling their story to you, they are reconnecting emotionally with your work. They are essentially convincing themselves why they need to continue to donate. They are selling themselves on your organization. And they are, in the process, connecting with you individually – someone who cared enough to ask.
One of the truisms of being a good conversationalist is that it’s really important to do more listening than speaking. That’s particularly true in speaking with donors to your charitable organization.
But let’s remember why this approach works for Susan Stamberg: She thinks each person’s story is interesting. Fascinating, in fact! It’s not enough simply to go through the motions of asking your donors about themselves. You need to care. If your interest is genuine, the donors will know it. And if it’s not, well, they’ll know that, too.
Copyright Alan Cantor 2019. All rights reserved.
Al, another good reminder to come prepared, keep it simple and listen! Thanks for sharing your experience and wisdom.
Great blog and oh so true! I offer “Tell me more” to keep the listening going.
Yes — a good idea, Doreen!
When do you get to utter those words “Would you consider a gift of _____?”
Well, Laura, probably not in the meeting scenario I set up here. There’s cultivating and stewarding a relationship, and then there’s soliciting a gift. I wrote a piece called “Naming the Number” a while back. You might enjoy that.
Hope you are well!
How true, Al, oh, how so true. A good example of what you are talking about is Terry Gross, host of “Fresh Air” for a very longtime (almost 45 years?)…the finest host/interviewer I have ever had the pleasure of hearing…because she has learned her subject well, keeps the interview moving along and asks intelligent questions in as few words as possible and then…voila…sits back and listens! I can still remember her interview with the producer of the movie version of “The Name of the Rose”…conducted in 1989. So…in a nutshell…ask the question, then shut up and listen!
Yep! You’re right, Woolsey!
Had an instructor in journalism school who advised us, “Get comfortable with silence.”
Sometimes speaking during a silence is interrupting, it just doesn’t sound like it.
That’s a great line, Adam. And when you’re in a meeting with a donor where you actually ask for money, you have to become REALLY comfortable with silence. You ask for a gift. Silence. You have to fight the temptation to fill the air with noise. Let the DONOR say something.
For more on the importance of keeping silent after the ask, I just saw this from my friend Andy Robinson: http://trainyourboard.com/ask-for-the-gift-then-be-quiet/
Ok, blah blah blah, loved the piece, but dinner conversation with Susan Stamberg!! Oy, I thought I was gonna die already. When my daughter toured NPR last year, she brought me the Susan Stambag, with a Lichtensteinesque version of her on it! That’s how much I love Susan. Your brilliance aside, I am eternally jealous that by happenstance you found yourself sitting with one of my idols at dinner. Please tell me more about it.
I can try to imagine, Loretta, that Susan’s friends are dying of envy that she got to sit next to Al Cantor at dinner! Right? RIGHT?! 🙂
Thanks for the share, Al. This is insightful and well-written, as always.
Thanks for your kind words, Andy!