If you watched Leonardo DiCaprio portray Jordan Belfort in the 2013 film, “The Wolf of Wall Street,” you probably recall the scene in which DiCaprio’s Belfort asks the stockbrokers on his team to, “sell me this pen!” In the movie, the stated purpose of this exercise was for the stockbrokers to hone their sales pitches so as to create a sense of urgency in the minds of prospective buyers.
However, not too long ago, the real Jordan Belfort explained the “sell me this pen!” activity a bit differently.
According to Belfort, the purpose of this selling exercise was never to come up with the most compelling attributes of the pen itself. It was never to talk about how the pen could write upside down, for instance. Or, how the ink would never dry up. Or, how your pen was rated as having the most comfortable grip of any pen on market today. In other words, the point of the exercise was never to “sell the pen.”
Instead, according to Belfort, the only rational next step when asked to “sell someone a pen,” is to begin by asking questions that help you, the seller, understand what the prospective buyer’s values, needs, and concerns are. Only then would you be able to articulate the most compelling reasons why your pen addresses those specific needs, values, and concerns.
Here is the connection to our donor engagement efforts: If your aim is to raise more money in support of your institution’s mission, you must first begin by learning about your prospective donors. Why is your institution important to them? Why do they value your mission? What specific areas of your institution are they particularly interested in supporting (if any at all)? Have they made other gifts in the past that were especially meaningful to them? And, if so, why?
If we don’t consistently begin by understanding more about our donors through a process of asking thoughtfully-crafted questions, we are missing innumerable opportunities to raise more money in support of the causes we serve.
And the connection between “selling the pen” and our work with donors goes one-step further. Belfort reminds us that if you start by telling the prospective buyer all about the fantastic attributes of your pen, you are conveying that you could not care less about the buyer, their story, and what they need. Instead, you are communicating that you only care about selling the pen and meeting your goals.
In my experience, the number one mistake most unproductive gift officers make is to believe that their job is to “sell the pen!” They believe they need the case statement in their hands for donor visits. They believe they need the list of naming opportunities to share. They believe they need all of the program updates and the most recent institutional data in order to “tell our story” to donors.
When, in fact, it isn’t “our story” that matters. . . it’s the donor’s.
Belfort offers one final perspective on selling that, I believe, has great resonance for our work with donors: An effective salesperson understands she is not trying to sell to everyone, only to those who are looking to buy.
Similarly, our role is not to try to get everyone to give to our institutions. Instead, our role is to find those who are interested in giving to our institutions, engage them more deeply, and invite them to make the biggest impact possible.
PS: You can find a somewhat brief (3:30 minutes) video of Jordan Belfort explaining the “sell me this pen!” exercise to students (in full transparency and as you might guess if you know anything about the movie, there is a limited amount of adult language being used in this clip).
PPS: If you’ve read Jason’s Blog over the years, you know that I have made many arguments focused on the belief that our work with donors and charitable giving in general is “not selling,” such as here, and here. To be clear, my belief that engaging donors is different than engaging customers has only grown over time. Having said that, Jordan Belfort’s points about how to “sell a pen,” should remind even the seasoned advancement professional what effective donor engagement looks like.