Ask Short Questions…and Hope for Long Answers: The Key to Donor Success

Published on February 7, 2018

Brian Saber

President of Asking Matters
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Ask short questions and hope for long answers. That’s one of my key mottos for fundraising.

We’ve all been in a class or at a conference when someone got up to ask a question and delivered a soliloquy. When they finished we might even have wondered if there was a question!

If you do that in fundraising, you’ll be dead in the water. As you start going on and on your donor’s eyes will glaze over.

One of the biggest mistakes we can make with a donor is thinking we need to share all that’s wonderful about our organization. We think the more they know, the more convinced they’ll be.

In fact, it’s proven that humans generally remember the least of what they’re told (10-25% according to various studies); more of what they say (40-70%); even more of what they discuss (60-80%); and the most of what they do (as much as 90%). Well, there isn’t a lot of “do” in a conversation, but to the extent your donors are doing the talking, they’ll remember what was covered. So, if you want your donors to remember your conversations, let them do most of the talking.

Further, if you do all the talking you won’t learn anything about your donors, and that has two negative impacts. Most obviously, if you don’t learn about them you can’t possibly know what will inspire their giving. You can guess, but you’ll never be sure unless they tell you themselves. If you don’t figure that out, you will never maximize their giving.

Also, if you don’t engage your donors by asking them questions, they won’t feel heard and the relationship won’t deepen. They’ll feel they were “talked at.” You’ll have created a wall of words that serves as an impenetrable barrier. Who wants to have a relationship with someone who thinks they know it all and doesn’t want to hear what you have to say?

As a rule of thumb, your donor must talk at least 50% of the time. 60-65% is great, and anything more is gravy. I hear people say their donors talk as much as 75-90% of the time, but I think in most cases that’s near impossible to achieve for one reason or another. What do you think your average percentage is?

The first key to talking less is asking lots of questions. Questions about your donors’ lives, their values, and passions. Questions that help them articulate why they care about the impact your organization is trying to make. Questions that help them share their philanthropic mindset. One of my favorite questions is, “I’m sure we’re not the only cause you support. With so many charities out there, how do you decide who to support?” Boy, you’ll learn a lot with that one!

The second key to talking less is to keep your questions brief! Ask short questions and hope for long answers. If you’ve got a two-part question, ask the two parts separately. If your question needs context, keep the context brief.

The third key is asking follow-up questions:

Asker: Which of our programs resonates with you most?
Donor: I love the HeadStart program.
Asker: That’s wonderful. What about the program is important to you?
Donor: I think it’s important that all kids get a strong start to life.
Asker: I couldn’t agree more. Is there something personal in your life that helped you develop this attitude?
Donor: I just know how fortunate I was to be given every opportunity and tool to succeed from the very beginning and I can’t imagine trying to make it in life when you’re already so behind the pack by time you’re five.
Asker: I appreciate what you’re saying. Is there anything you’d like to know about our HeadStart program?
Donor: I think I’m pretty set, but I’ve always wondered – can any child be enrolled or are there income cutoffs. . .

You may also notice the asker always acknowledges what she just heard. Asking lots of short questions is great, but it can start to feel like an inquisition if you don’t comment on what you’ve heard!

So, the next time you’re anxious about a solicitation, thinking you have to keep the whole meeting going with your passionate talk of the organization, take a deep breath. You’ll get much further with less talking…and more asking!


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