The Illusion of Understanding

Recently, an annual fund officer was talking to me about making calls on past annual fund leadership donors who had not given in the last two years.  This list of donors was not that long, but it was still troubling.  All of these past donors had given at least $1,000+ annually until the 2012-2013 year.  A few of these donors had given consecutively for many years and then . . . nothing.

As we talked about the calls he was going to make, I asked him about his script.  “What are you going to say on these calls?” He replied that he was going to thank them for their past giving and ask them to consider continuing their leadership-level annual giving by making a new commitment.

“I know you want them to make that commitment,” I said, “but I would reconsider your strategy of asking them for it directly.  Do you know why they stopped giving?”

He looked at me quizzically.  I asked him, “If you gave at the $1,000+ level for a number of years and then just stopped, would you want someone to call and ask for your gift, or would you want the opportunity to talk about why you stopped giving?”

The annual fund officer re-wrote his script to focus on two key points.  The new script read:

“First, I want to thank you for your past leadership-level support.  Second, I noticed that you haven’t given during the last two years and I wanted to see if there is anything we could do to win back your support?”

With that simple invitation to share their stories, these past donors opened up to him about a host of issues that impacted their ability and desire to give over the last couple of years.   A number of their concerns had nothing to do with being upset with the institution.  Personal financial issues had made giving difficult. Other concerns shared by these donors did involve the institution but were relatively minor and the annual fund officer was successful in encouraging their renewed giving.  And some concerns were more complex and it was clear more work needed to be done.  “Had I asked for the gift outright like I was planning to,” he told me later, “I’m convinced I would have had a bunch of difficult phone calls that ended with only a few gifts.”

Because he didn’t ask for the gift outright and instead invited their stories, he was able to learn and understand far more about why they had made decisions to stop giving and what could be done to get them to give again.  He gave himself the space to hear their stories, learn and understand more about them, and respond appropriately to their concerns.  In other words he treated them like a valued human being.

When we fail to ask a previous donor about her story, about the thinking behind her giving to your institution, we operate with an illusion of understanding.  We don’t really understand her but we appear as if we do.  Or,  we appear as if we don’t care to know her story.  Either appearance is bad.  Because when we appear to understand when we truly don’t, our capacity to encourage the next gift is significantly diminished.


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