“Whatever Makes You Feel Good”

In all the years I’ve flown through Denver airport, I can’t recall ever having my shoes shined there. Earlier this week, though, I had a long layover and realized that my scruffy dress shoes were in desperate need of help.    As I waited my turn at one of the chairs, I looked around but couldn’t spot a sign showing the prices.   I didn’t think much of it, and watched as the shine ahead of me was completed.

As the customer left, the shoe shiner invited me to climb into the chair.  He came over a minute later, smiling broadly, introduced himself as James, and began my shine.  He turned out to be a great conversationalist.  He asked questions about me and my family and shared parts of his story with me.  I found myself liking him and our interaction.

After what turned out to be one of the most thorough shoes shines I can recall receiving, I popped down from the chair, reached for my wallet, and asked James, “how much do I owe you?”

Without a pause but with his big smile he said, “Whatever makes you feel good.”

“No really, how much?

“Whatever makes you feel good. . . really.”  He responded.  So, I chuckled and followed his instruction — opened my wallet and gave him an amount that made me feel good.

As I walked away, I smiled at what had just transpired.  I had heard of these, “the buyer decides the amount” financial transactions before, but James’ choice of words resonated deeply with me — “whatever makes you feel good.”

He was offering me the opportunity to set the price, of course.  But, he could have done that by saying, “it’s your choice,” or “whatever you think my shine is worth,”  or, even, “whatever amount you think is fair.”  But he didn’t make any of those statements.  Instead, his “whatever makes you feel good,” approach inserted a wonderfully pleasant assumption –  that exchanging money for his work would make me “feel good.”  He was suggesting that our interaction was much more than a simple economic transaction.  And I appreciated him because of it.

Later on the plane, I thought about how his simple, yet powerful language choice shaped my response to James and, I believe, shaped his behavior as well.

You see, James was never selling me a shoe shine.  In fact, he wasn’t selling me anything.  He was trying to make me feel something.  And he did so – expertly.  From his frequent and bright smiles, to his artistic use of inquiry, to his approach on price, James was creating an experience which boldly communicated,

“I care more about you than I do your money.”

As advancement professionals, I wonder how consistently and effectively we communicate this message to donors.  How often do we genuinely seek to understand them as whole people as opposed to checkbooks?  How often do we miss opportunities to ask questions about their lives and family?   How often do we launch into rehearsed “pitches” focused on our institutional needs before learning about their interests and giving desires?  How often do we fail to pay attention to how they are feeling?  Probably far more than we would like to admit or even realize.

James reminded me of something else:  Asking for the gift is never about taking something from someone.  Or convincing them to give you something.  Instead, it is about reminding them – with all that we do and say –  that their giving will, in fact, make them feel good.  When we invite donors to give, fully believing that giving is good, we will be far more successful in triggering their generosity.

I know James triggered mine.  I gave him more than I’ve ever paid for a shoe shine.  And, he was right.  I felt awfully good about it.

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