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Conversational Asking: Building Donor Relationships

communications donors fundraisers fundraising major gifts relationships success Jul 17, 2023

"So if you aspire to be a good conversationalist, be an attentive listener. To be interesting, be interested. Ask questions that other persons will enjoy answering. Encourage them to talk about themselves and their accomplishments.” 

This quote from Dale Carnegie holds profound wisdom, especially for fundraisers. Active listening, being interested and asking interesting questions should be top of the list for any successful fundraiser. 

And these are some of the key components of conversational asking. As fundraisers and nonprofit leaders can transform fundraising conversations into engaging and fruitful exchanges with the simple method of opening discussions with a question that allows the supporter to be in the driver's seat of the conversation. Conversational asking empowers the supporter and fosters stronger relationships, leading to better fundraising outcomes.

Conversational asking shifts the focus from the fundraiser (the asker) to the donor or prospect (the recipient).

Rather than making direct inquiries, we offer choices that center on the recipient. I find that including permission-based phrases help ease these conversations - 

For example, instead of saying, "I'd like to find a time to discuss your gift," try asking, "Dana, is now a good time to talk about your gift?" It invites conversation and empowers the donor to engage and immediately sets up a back-and-forth conversation.

Using open-ended questions and follow-up with questions conveys genuine interest and builds relationships. Conversational asking builds on this by opening dialogue with phrases like: "Have you..."  "Might you..." "May we..." "Would you share with me..." create a sense of engagement and encourage donors to share more.

I've found that engaging supporters in conversations about their passions, legacies, and goals uncovers where their values align with the mission of our nonprofit. Discovering values and how they align with the mission of our organization. allows fundraisers to craft more compelling and meaningful proposals or gift conversations. Conversational asking makes these talks with supporters or prospect so much easier.

Of course, another key component to conversational asking is active listening. Responding attentively builds trust and strengthens relationships. Creating a dialogue, rather than a one-way pitch, forges lasting connections and secures long-term support.

Conversations with permission-based openings might sound like: 

  • "May I share with you the progress on the project you funded?" 
  • "In our meeting today, might we also discuss a new opportunity for support?"
  • "May I send you the proposal that we discussed... 
  • "With your permission, I would like to set a meeting with you and our new Executive Director, who is looking forward to meeting you"
  • "I would enjoy hearing how you built your business - would you mind telling me the story?"
  • "Would you consider a gift of $10,000 for four years to support students?"
Conversational asking is a powerful tool for moving conversations to secure donations and major gifts. With it, we can build relationships that lead to meaningful giving and lasting impact.

Best of all - research supports shows how of asking questions (and more questions) increases relationship building. Studies have shown that individuals who ask more questions, particularly follow-up questions, are better liked by their conversation partners. This emphasizes the importance of focusing on the other person rather than yourself.

As you prepare now to navigate gift conversations, use conversational asks for better results. By empowering donors, engaging them with thought-provoking questions, and actively listening, you'll foster rapport and strong relationships with your nonprofit. And that leads to more giving and more donor loyalty. 

Using best practices and smart methods - like conversational asking to ensure you'll have successful year-end outcomes.  

(Note: The research mentioned is based on the study "It Doesn't Hurt to Ask: Question-asking Increases Liking" by Karen Huang, Michael Yeomans, Alison Wood Brooks, Julia Minson, and Francesca Gino published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 113, no. 3 (September 2017): 430-452.)

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