In the days before omnipresent and mobile internet devices, I once sat in a 100-person theatre-style classroom at Harvard University’s Management Development Program and watched in awe as a master-teacher recognized each student by name and by job-title. This faculty member had never been with our group previously and, yet, knew almost everyone’s particulars.
A student would ask a question and as a way to keep the other 99 students involved, this professor would turn and point to another student and say, “So, Ms. James, you just heard what Mr. Carey asked. You lead the Admissions Program at XYZ University, right? Tell us how his question might be answered at an institution like yours.”
This technique kept all students on their toes and engaged in every part of the learning. Additionally, everyone walked away feeling as if they had been provided a superior educational experience. “We just experienced teaching greatness!” And, “students can’t get this kind of experience everywhere!” were common refrains from those of us in the room that day.
The power of personalization is immense. It makes people feel special. It creates a positive and memorable experience. It makes people want to be in ongoing relationship with the personalizer. People are drawn to those who show an interest in knowing them.
Advancement professionals today have all kinds of technologies and tools with which to personalize our services – from simple mail merges which (should) banish the tired “Dear Friend” direct mail letter, to more sophisticated predictive modeling analytics for major donor prospects. But we typically use these tools as tactical instruments for a specific task and then put them aside. This is ok, but it misses the bigger point of how we might create truly meaningful interactions with donors and prospects.
I stayed after the master-teacher’s session that summer day at Harvard and asked a simple question: “How did you do that? Not having ever seen us or been with us before?” The answer was simple and shocking.
“I can’t teach well, if I don’t know the students. So, I spent time over the last week memorizing the head-shot photos each of you provided and testing my memory on the information in your application materials. I have to do that to tailor my pedagogy to who will be in the room.”
Simply put, he put in the work. We were important enough for him to devote hours to learning who we were before he met us. He memorized. He tested himself. He did his homework on each of us. The reason we all walked away from that session feeling impressed and a bit special was because his efforts prior to our meeting signaled that he believed we mattered.
Yes, of course, we should be using technology and personalizing as much of our work with donors as possible. But even better is to put in the time to get to know your donors or prospective donors even before you meet and to continue learning about them as you get into relationship with them.
Take the time to show them that they matter.