5 Steps to Asking Better Qeustions

Effective questioning is a key skill of successful development officers.  In addition to being the most efficient way to learn about someone, asking beautiful questions and actively listening to the responses evidences an authentic interest in the other person and helps to build trust.  All of which leads to increased gifts.

But while expert questioning is key to development success, I find many gift officers are not exceptionally skilled in this area.  This finding should not surprise, though.  We are not taught how to question in school.  We are not taught how to question in professional development settings.  We are taught to answer questions, not craft them.

Questioning, though, can be taught.  In their book, Just One Change:  Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions, Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana provide a blueprint for how to teach the art of inquiry.  And here are the steps you can use with your team to sharpen their questioning skills:

  1. A team leader develops a “question focus.”  This is a short statement that may be provocative and is designed to stimulate thinking and discussion.  The “question focus” is not discussed or explained, it is just a short statement to be used for this exercise.  For instance, you might come up with something like:  “Giving is good for the donor.”
  2. Team members develop questions.  Based on the “question focus,” team members are tasked with writing down as many questions as they can create.  There is no debating the merit of questions or answering the questions being posed.  Instead, everyone simply writes down all the questions that come to mind when thinking about the statement, “Giving is good for the donor.”  Any and all questions are to be captured and all statements need to be turned into questions.
  3. Team members improve their questions.  Next, each person assesses the questions they have developed.  Some will be written as open-ended questions (beginning with “why” and “how” for instance).  And some will be written as close-ended questions (can be answered with a “yes” or “no” for instance).  Team members are to rewrite each of their questions to make the closed ones open and vice versa.  The purpose here is to better understand that the way we phrase questions can elicit vastly different answers.
  4.  Team members prioritize their questions.  Instruct the team members to come up with their top 3 questions by order of importance.   Then, the group is to share and compare the priority questions produced by each person.  Ask team members why they consider these to be the most important questions. This process helps the participants understand that some questions are more productive than others.
  5. Team members reflect on what was learned.  Share the lessons that were learned with the group.

Gift officers are called to strengthen relationships with donors.  To do that work well, they need to be master question-askers.  If we start teaching this skill regularly, I am convinced that gift officers will engage more donors in meaningful ways and they will raise more money.

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Answers or Questions

It used to be that answers were power.  If you had the answers, you had the advantage.  You would get the best scholarships to the best universities.  You would get the best jobs.  And you would get promoted faster.  All because answers weren’t easily and readily available.  You had to work for them.

Today is very different.  Today, answers are a commodity.  They are easily accessible and most everyone can retrieve the same answers very quickly.  If we want an answer to just about any fact-based question, we ask Google.  And with mobile technology, we have access to cloud-based answers from just about any location through multiple platforms.  Answers, truly, are everywhere we want them to be.

In addition, these computer-constructed answers are getting more sophisticated and wide-ranging every day.  In 2011 the IBM computer, Watson, accurately answered questions faster than Jeopardy! champions on TV and won $1 million.  Today, Watson is helping healthcare providers make decisions about the best possible cancer treatment.

So, if answers are becoming ubiquitous and the playing field to access those answers is almost completely flat, what will separate the successful from all others in the future?  I would argue that the ability to ask insightful questions will be more important for tomorrow’s success than knowing the answers.  Especially, in our field, the more capable we are at asking thoughtful and meaningful questions of donors, the more money we will raise.

But the importance of learning how to ask good questions isn’t getting its due.  Our schools still largely teach students to memorize answers in preparation for standardized tests.  And in our workplaces, we are still conditioned to believe that the person with the “right” answers should be the boss.

Let me suggest, though, that the future will be won by those we are able and willing to ask important (and sometimes uncomfortable) questions.  If you are interested in starting a new program or assessing how to make a current program better, ask questions that begin with “why.”  Such as, “why this and not that?”  or “why are doing this at all?”  If you are looking to assess alternatives, ask questions that begin with “what if.”  Such as, “what if we decided to host this event in conjunction with Homecoming?”  or, “what if we were to increase our solicitation goal?”  And, finally, if you are looking to implement one of the “what if” alternatives, ask questions that begin with “how.”  Such as, “how can we increase our total solicitations with the same number of gift officers?”

It may seem that the person who asks questions is ignorant or even obstinate (or both!).  But, if you want to grow your influence with donors and with those on your team, mastering the art of asking insightful questions will be a key component of your success.

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Why Do Other Donors Give?

Ask a Board member, an Advisory Council member, or other engaged major donor why he gives to your institution.   Almost universally, you will hear how he believes in the mission of the institution.  Or, how the institution made an impact on his life or on the life of someone dear to him.  Or, how he believes in the concept of giving back.  Or, how he was touched by a story of an individual, family, or community positively impacted by the work of your institution.

Now, ask the same person how you can best encourage others to make significant gifts and you are likely to hear a very different perspective.  Specifically, you may hear something similar to the following:

  • “People give to institutions that can communicate clear outcomes,” or,
  • “People give to institutions that are efficient and can prove that they get results,” or,
  • “People give to specific projects,” or,
  • “People give to name something,” and, of course,
  • “People will not give to the annual fund.”

When donors reflect on their own giving, they will regularly frame their motivations in terms of personal meaning, mission, and relationships.  The impetus for giving is pure, more altruistic, and more emotional.

However, when donors surmise on the giving motivations of others, they regularly frame their responses in more transactional terms.  The giving motivations of others are identified as more self-interested, more business-like, and more rational.

This should not be surprising, of course.  Social scientists have told us for years that, in a variety of settings, we attribute the most socially-attractive motivators to explain our behavior and less socially-favorable motivators to explain the behaviors of others.  For instance, I simply didn’t see the woman whom I cut off driving down the road.  But the guy who cut me off moments later is arrogant, self-absorbed (probably texting!), and, should have his driver’s license revoked.

People make significant gifts because their beliefs, experiences, and personal relationships trigger them to do so.  They give meaningfully because they are moved emotionally and personally to be generous.  During hundreds of interviews with major donors, I have never had one say, “I researched a bunch of institutions and made the decision to make a significant gift to this one because they were the most efficient – their cost-to-raise a dollar was the lowest.”

You should be far less interested in what your major donors think about the giving motivations of others.  Instead, find out why they give themselves.  Dig in to their motivations.  Then, implement the strategies that encourage the types of personal relationships and experiences that motivate their generosity.

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Where Is The Money?

The most important component of what we call “prospect research” is not finding those individuals, families, foundations, and corporations with money.  It’s not even finding those individuals, families, foundations, and corporations with money and an interest in your mission and vision.

In most instances, you already know who has the money.  Sure, there are modest-living alumni, friends, and others who surprise you with significant wealth.  But they only surprise you once.  After that, you know they have resources.  Additionally, it usually isn’t too difficult to find out more about a prospect’s funding interests.  For foundations and corporations, this information is readily available online.

Instead, the most important aspect of prospect research is identifying the key relationship-holders who possess the ability and interest in linking prospects to your institution.  Those influential business leaders, civic leaders, professors, church leaders, alumni, friends, etc., who hold key relationships with your prospects and others.  Engage those relationship-holders and ask for their guidance on how best to approach those with the resources.

We spend too much time focused on looking for wealth and not enough time identifying and engaging the people who can give us access to it.

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5 Things Successful Advancement Pros Don’t Do

Over the years, I have worked with, provided counsel to, or simply observed thousands of advancement officers.  The good ones stand out, mostly because they behave in ways that less effective advancement officers don’t.  For instance, the best advancement officers ask more questions.  They listen more.  And they genuinely like learning about people more.  To put it succinctly, they are more engaging.

However, there also are things that the best advancement officers don’t do that under-performing gift officers do more regularly.  Below is a list of 5 seemingly small (but I would suggest significant) things that the very best advancement officers do not do much, if at all.  The most effective gift officers don’t:

  1. Check Their Phones Incessantly – you simply don’t see them engaging with their phones that much. They keep their phones in a pocket and focus on the people around them.  They will check their phones in the restroom or in other places out of sight, but when they are with people face-to-face, they keep their phones hidden.
  2. Dress Too Casual – this is not to say that the best advancement officers always wear suits and ties – they don’t, of course. However, you almost never see the best advancement officers underdressed for the occasion.  Instead, they almost always are dressed just a notch above the socially-suggested and mostly unwritten code.
  3. Talk Religion, Politics, or Other Combustible Topics – the best advancement officers are like chameleons on the big issues of life. Yes, they have opinions just like everyone else.  But they recognize that it is more important to find out the opinions of donors than it is to communicate their own opinions.
  4. Arrive Late or Leave Early – for all of us, time is our most precious asset. Unlike money, once it is gone, you can never get it back.  The best advancement officers make it a habit to be on time and to stay for as long as the occasion suggests.  In these ways, they convey a sense that other people’s time is honored and important to them.  To ensure that they can arrive on time (or early) and not have to leave early, the best advancement officers pay careful attention to their schedules and rarely get over-booked.  They appear busy, but not harried.
  5. Fill An Awkward Silence – it can be uncomfortable to ask a question (or ask the question) and wait.  The silence can be deafening.  But the best advancement professionals get comfortable with that silence and allow others to respond.  From my experience, this practice is important not so much because of the “whoever speaks first loses” concept (by the way, I didn’t know we were in a competition with our donors).  Instead, giving others the time needed to respond thoughtfully is simply a practice of good manners.

I can’t say that removing these behaviors from one’s professional life will result in immediate advancement success.  I can, however, state with a high degree of certainty that regularly behaving in these ways will reduce significantly a gift officer’s effectiveness.

Success in our work is related directly to how authentically we honor people and what they value most.  That’s what the best advancement officers understand.

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Advancement as Teaching

Recall the one teacher in your life that made the most positive and lasting impression on you.   Perhaps you remember a teacher from your earliest years.  Or perhaps it was a university professor that made the impact.  Although I’m no gambler, I would wager that this teacher engaged you far beyond the content of the class and displayed an interest in you as a unique individual with gifts and graces.  It wasn’t only his expertise or her intellect that made the difference.  It was your teacher’s authentic care for you.

Contrast this memory with what occurs in so many advancement programs today.  In so many instances, gift officers focus almost exclusively on their message.  They focus on their talking points, their content, and the institution’s case for support.

So many spend the bulk of their time prior to a donor visit preparing to “tell and sell.”  Or to use a crasser phrase, to “show up and throw up.” The conventional wisdom is that our job is to influence, to sway, to convince, and “to close the ask.”  At best, it’s as if our job is to do something to someone.   At worst, it’s as if our work is to hawk the philanthropic equivalent of a damaged used car on an unsuspecting prospect.

But what if we view ourselves as teachers of philanthropy and our work as facilitating the learning of the joy of giving?  What if we remind ourselves – from our own experiences – what our very best teachers did with and for us?  And what if we pattern our advancement efforts after those exemplars?

We would seek to understand our donors first and educate them on our needs second.  We would ask more questions and spout fewer facts.  We would show more concern for them and less concern for our institution’s goals.  We would engage them more and solicit them less.

About education and teaching, the noted Irish poet, William Butler Yeats is quoted as having said,

Education is not the filling of the pail, but the lighting of a fire.

Whether it is teaching or advancement, we shouldn’t worry ourselves about “the filling of the pail” (neither theirs nor ours).  Instead, we should seek to light the fire.

 

 

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Let’s Finish This Campaign Quickly! – One Phrase, Two Meanings

Case Study #1

A president who is new to campaign work and has found that she genuinely enjoys working in the philanthropic vineyard was in a meeting with the vice president for advancement and me. She said, “I’m so excited about what this new facility will allow us to do for our students and for our community.  We are so close to having all of the funding to finish it.  Let’s go get it.  Let’s finish this campaign quickly!”

Case Study #2

At another institution, I was in a meeting with the vice president for advancement and the Advancement Committee of the Board of Directors.  The institution was nearing the end of a successful (and relatively short) quiet phase of their campaign and one of the Board members asked a question about the projected length of the public phase of the campaign.  The vice president spoke up, “I don’t want to be in the public phase any longer than we need to.  I’m worried about donor fatigue.  I want us to finish this campaign quickly!”

In the first case study, the president communicated enthusiasm for the cause.  She was excited and her passion was infectious.   But more than communicating authentic delight, she was communicating that giving is good and that being part of the giving process is fun.  In essence, she was saying, “let’s go spread the message and invite even more people to experience the joy of giving to such a worthwhile project!”

Meanwhile, in the second case study, the vice president communicated a sense of negativity about giving.  His message was clear:  That the campaign was something to finish as quickly as possible because it was grueling and difficult.  That giving leads to fatigue and donors have to take a rest from the onerous task of being generous.  That giving isn’t joyful, isn’t fun, isn’t good and that we should get it over with as soon as possible.

The kicker:  Both of these episodes happened during the same week.

Guess which institution actually finished their campaign quickly?

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.001 Seconds Do Matter. . .Sometimes

It seems that Bode Miller, one of the winningest downhill skiers of all-time, is focusing on becoming a thoroughbred race horse trainer.  In making the transition from ski slopes to horses, Bode made an interesting observation.   To his mind, the field of horse racing is not as technologically-advanced as skiing.  And Bode understands technology and gaining a technical edge wherever possible.  At the Olympics in Sochi, he replaced a rubber goggle strap with a plastic strap because his research suggested it would decrease his time by .001 seconds.  He happened to take the bronze medal by .001 seconds.

So, doing the research and looking for the small tweaks that provide an edge are important aspects of top performance.  For instance, other world-class athletes such as swimmers and runners will shave their bodies to decrease their times.  And the research suggests it helps – in some cases dramatically.  Who would think that a little leg hair would be the difference between winning and losing!

But, here’s the caveat:  the small tweaks that provide .001 or less of an advantage are only really helpful once all of the foundational and underlying basic skills are mastered.  In other words, there is little use for a recreational skier who wishes to go faster down the hill to change her goggle strap from rubber to plastic like Bode Miller did.  Instead, if she wants to decrease her time, she should work on mastering how to get consistently in and out of her turns faster and more efficiently.  Mastering the fundamental skills of skiing will decrease her time far more rapidly than will adjusting her wardrobe.

The concept at play here, of course, is the Law of Diminishing Returns:

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This law states that 20% of the effort will yield 80% of the results.  The final 20% of the results comes from small tweaks that can take a lot of time, energy, and money.  So, for instance, Bode Miller, took the time and spent the money to figure out that rubber straps decreased his speed and increased his time.  That’s a lot of effort for a .001 second reduction in time.  But for the elite in any field, the reward is worth it because they already have mastered the fundamentals.

The problem comes when people want to skip the basic underlying fundamentals that make up the first 80% of success and jump right to the small tweaks, or “silver bullets,” that they believe will drive success.  But as it turns out, all success really is built on mastering the fundamentals and consistently performing them.  So, today, ask yourself and your team, are we doing the advancement fundamentals consistently well?   Have we mastered them?  For instance:

  • Are we training our student phonathon callers thoroughly enough?
  • Are our major gift officers making enough calls to secure enough visits?
  • Are our institution’s leaders fully living into the strategic plan by holding up our aspirations regularly?
  • Are we practicing the best approaches with our direct response efforts?
  • Are we engaging our Board appropriately in our work?
  • Are we providing the kind of leadership to our volunteers that energizes them and makes them want to do the work that needs to be done?

These questions – and others like them – represent some of the advancement fundamentals that need to be mastered and consistently practiced if we are to be successful.  If we aren’t working each day to master these skill sets and activities, it won’t matter that we’ve added a new module to our database that allows us to track event attendance.  Master the big foundational skill sets first and, then, the little tweaks that make you .001 seconds faster will matter.

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The Right Answer vs. The Best Answer

We are taught to seek out the single, right answer.  And we are trained to learn the formula that leads us to the single, right answer in most all circumstances.

The problem for development leaders, of course, is that there is almost never an unconditionally “right” answer.  Qualitatively complex human interactions are far too varied and nuanced to be reduced to a formula — much less a single, right answer.  Think about the relatively simple questions we ask each day that have no “right” answers:

  • “Who should be involved in the solicitation of John and Ann?”
  • “How should we go about recruiting Jennifer to our Board?”
  • “Who should we have sign the letter for our direct mail solicitation?”

For each of these questions, a response of “it depends,” while perhaps unsatisfying, is usually the most truthful.

The more helpful work, then, is not to seek out the “right” answers, approaches, or strategies, but rather the “best” ones.  When we begin looking for the “best” answers, we recognize that each question and each opportunity comes with its own set of important variables that need to be addressed.  The kaleidoscope of advancement work can be twisted in any number of ways to create a picture of success and effectiveness.  To discover the “best” possible responses to most every development concern, the acronym VIBE can be helpful.  Ask the following questions:

  • Values – What fundamental values and knowledge about our institution need to be emphasized and communicated?
  • Influencers – Who are the influencers in this specific circumstance and how do we involve them?
  • Beliefs – Which core beliefs are serving to motivate these donors or prospects and how do our values align with these beliefs?
  • Experiences – Which experiences will stimulate the most positive and meaningful emotions?

When we incorporate VIBE questions into our strategy-setting efforts, we take significant steps toward generating the “best” possible answers to our development questions.   When we ask VIBE questions, we begin the process of engaging our creative and strategic faculties in the highest interests of our craft.   Artists don’t seek to create the “right” art, they seek to create the “best” art.

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When a Board Asks Questions

“It’s the board’s responsibility to ask questions.  And it’s the staff’s responsibility to respond.”

We were discussing the roles of a non-profit governing board and the relationship between a board and an institution’s administrative leaders, especially as it relates to strategic planning.  The Executive Committee Board member who made this statement is new to non-profit governance, but not new to board work.  He serves on a number of boards that govern internationally-recognized for-profit corporations.  He is sharp, sophisticated, and sincere in his service.  His statement attested to an understanding that has emerged for him after years of for-profit board work.

We were seated next to each other and he looked at me for a response.

“Yes,” I started, “it is the role of the board to ask questions.  But, just as importantly, board members must understand what types of questions will lead to the most fruitful discussions and outcomes.  Some questions are more productive than others.  And some can be  downright unhelpful.”

In my experience, board members – those who are well-meaning and truculent alike – can ask 3 types of questions:

  1. Questions focused on the staff and their work
  2. Questions focused on the institution and its mission, vision, and values
  3. Questions focused on the board and their work

Questions that fall into category 1 can be the most unhelpful.  Questions in this category tilt the psychological gaze of the board member down to the administration and staff.  Unless there is an emergency or crisis or unless a board member is genuinely attempting to understand how a part of the enterprise works, it is the responsibility of the president/ceo/chancellor/administrative leader to focus questions on the team and their work.  Generally speaking, when board members ask category 1 questions, the board can drift into focusing on operational and managerial issues.  Straying from governance responsibilities into operations is one of the most unproductive, unfulfilling, and frustrating journeys a board can take.

Category 2 and 3 questions are types that are much more helpful and appropriate for a board member to ask.  Questions focused on the mission, vision, and values of the institution encourage board members to lift their gaze upward, to dream, and identify the institution’s far edge of promise.  These questions lead to important generative and strategic discussions.  They help the institution understand and embrace its strengths and move confidently toward a preferred future.  From these questions emerge discussions that help determine institutional aspirations.  In turn, administrators and staff can identify meaningful goals and objectives.

Similarly, questions that focus the board’s attention on the work of the board itself are extremely helpful.  When a board looks inward and asks how they can serve more effectively and conduct their business more efficiently, they generate discussion that will lead to enhanced board leadership.  Likewise, when they ask how to implement a “best practice” board evaluation, they are moving toward helpful accountability.

Yes, it is the responsibility of the board to ask questions.  And it is also true that the very best boards know which types of questions to ask.

 

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