Do You Make Any of These Mistakes When Speaking with Donors?

[PUBLISHER’S NOTE: Michael J. Rosen, CFRE will be presenting “How to Launch and Market a Planned Giving Program at Your Nonprofit,” a webinar for the Fundraising Authority on July 25. A podcast will be available following the webinar. To learn more and to register, click HERE.]


When you speak with prospects or donors, on the telephone or in person, do you know how to make the most of the conversation? Or, do you inadvertently make some mistakes that could be keeping you from securing greater levels of support for your organization?

Tripping Hazard Sign by Jeffrey Beall via FlickrBelow, you’ll find a number of common conversational missteps that fundraising professionals make all too often. See how many mistakes you make or avoid in a typical contact. If you manage to consistently avoid all of the potential problems that I identify, I congratulate you and encourage you to give yourself a well-deserved pat on the back.

On the other hand, if you find you’re making some mistakes, don’t feel too badly. Just work on improving. Know that by practicing and doing better, you’ll engage more supporters and secure larger donations than ever before.

Here’s what got me thinking about how we communicate with prospects and donors: I recently received a telephone fundraising call made on behalf of a nonprofit theatre company. My wife and I have attended the theatre company’s performances and have donated money from time to time.

The call was TERRIBLE! But, I realized that the caller’s mistakes are not blunders limited to phone campaigns. The caller’s missteps can apply to any phone or in-person conversation:

Mistake 1 — Not Being Ready. When my phone rang, I answered it and said, “Hello.” Actually, I said “hello” two or three times before the caller finally came on the line. Based on experience, I knew that I was the recipient of a telemarketing call that utilizes predictive dialing technology. I was annoyed that I had to wait for the caller, even for just a second or two. Instead, he should have been ready and waiting for me.

When a prospect or donor is ready to talk to you, be ready to talk to him. If a supporter calls you, recognize that the call is not an interruption of your work; it is your work. While speaking with the person, look-up her record and quickly familiarize yourself with it.

If you are the one initiating the contact, prepare yourself in advance. Review the person’s record. If his name is difficult to pronounce, practice saying it. Know what you want to accomplish during the conversation.

Be ready. Stay focused and do not let yourself be distracted.

Mistake 2 — Not Obeying the Law. At the beginning of the phone conversation, the caller did not identify himself as a “professional solicitor,” as required by Pennsylvania law. While it’s possible I missed the disclosure statement, the caller should have been sure to mention his status and the name of the company employing him. And he should have done it in a clear fashion.

While a nonprofit organization’s fundraising staff does not have to identify themselves as “professional solicitors,” there are other laws that must be followed. For example, unless the organization is exempt, it must be registered to solicit in every state in which it is going to solicit. It’s not enough simply to register in one’s home state.

Comply with the law and make sure your organization does so as well.

Mistake 3 — Plowing Ahead. After introducing himself and mentioning the name of the theatre company, the caller plowed ahead with his pitch. He did not ask for my permission to proceed.

When calling a prospect or donor, greet her and request her permission to speak asking something like, “I’d like to speak with you for a few moments, is that ok?”

There are a number of potential benefits to asking permission to speak. First, rather than metaphorically barging into someone’s home or office, you’re seeking permission to enter. That’s just good manners.

Second, by asking permission to speak, you’ll distinguish your call from most “junk” calls someone will receive.

Third, by asking permission to speak, you give the other person a dimension of control that will make her feel more comfortable and at ease. In other words, she’ll be more receptive to what comes next.

Fourth, if you’ve called at a truly bad time, the person will not be receptive to the call. So, why plow ahead? At best, he’ll be distracted, or he might even become annoyed. Instead, if you ask permission to speak, you’ll find out if the person is able to focus on your conversation or not. If not, you can arrange an appointment to call back or visit at a more convenient time. And, when you do contact the person again, he’ll not only be receptive, he’ll appreciate your flexibility and follow-up.

My mother was right. Good manners are important.

Practice good manners.

Mistake 4 — Talking about What Interests You. The caller started talking to me about the theatre company’s educational programs and a new challenge grant that will match donations. He never asked me if I had heard about either. He never asked if I had gone to any shows in the past season. He never asked me to name my favorite show of the past season. He never asked if I have any interest in the educational programs, or whether I simply care about the stage productions. In other words, he never bothered to learn what interests me.

When speaking to a prospect or donor, it’s easy to focus on the needs of our organization and its programs. However, we must remember that we are not beggars. Instead, we are philanthropy facilitators. Simply put, our job is to match our organization’s needs with the donor’s philanthropic interests. But, you can’t do that unless you take the time to learn about the donor and her interests.

In the context of the call I received, the caller could have inquired about my interests. If I was interested in learning more about the educational programs or already seemed to know a lot about them, he could have dynamically branched into talking more about them. By contrast, if he had learned that I’m more interested in quality production values, he could have dynamically branched into a discussion about how donor support impacts play selection and the quality of the performances.

Find out what interests the person you are speaking to, and then speak about what interests that person. Be donor centered.

Mistake 5 — Droning On. The caller representing the theatre company droned on and on. He read a monologue. He did not make a single attempt at engagement.

You’re smart and passionate. I get it. You know your organization and the wonderful impact it is having. You’re full of facts and figures. You probably even have some great stories. You want to share all of this with others. Resist.

If you’re like most folks, you can probably benefit from the wisdom of Epictetus, the ancient Greek philosopher, who said:

We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”

Listen more. Talk less.

Mistake 6 — Speaking After Asking. The caller who contacted me finally finished his monologue, sort of, and then asked me for a contribution. Then, he kept talking.

Whenever you ask for a donation, immediately shut up. Do not say another word. You might have to endure what feels like a long period of silence, but be patient. When you ask for a gift, you need to give the other person time to think about what you have just requested. If you keep prattling on, she won’t be able to think. As a result, she’ll probably say one of two things: 1) “No,” or 2) “I need time to think about it.”

After you ask for a donation, stop talking.

Mistake 7 — Not Thanking the Person. Interestingly, the caller never bothered to thank me for my past support to the theatre company. He never bothered to tell me how the theatre company used my previous contribution. He simply asked me for money.

Whenever speaking with a donor, thank him for his past support. When speaking with a prospect, thank him for caring. Do it at the beginning of the conversation and at the conclusion. Thank him again in your follow-up. A prospect or donor should never be in doubt of your appreciation. It cost you nothing.

Show gratitude.

Mistake 8 — Getting Flustered. After initially enduring the terrible call, I could not take it any longer. I’m a phone fundraising pioneer. I helped introduce the concept of professional calling campaigns to the arts world. I had to tell the caller what I thought of the call. While he remained polite and professional, he quickly became flustered and lost complete control of the conversation.

When speaking with prospects and donors, you need to be ready for anything. Whenever you let down your guard, he’ll throw you a curve ball. If you expect the unexpected, you’ll be less likely to get flustered when the unexpected finally does happen.

Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. Expect anything.

Mistake 9 — Failing to Follow-up. After I declined to contribute in response to the caller’s request, the call concluded. That was the end of it. I did not get a letter thanking me for my time and highlighting the upcoming shows, even though I’ve been a past donor and patron. I’m not surprised. Phone campaigns rarely involve letters to those who decline during the call. However, I think they’re a nice touch that are worth testing.

Generally speaking, when you talk with a prospect or donor, you should have a follow-up step in mind. You might send the donor a handwritten note thanking the person for her time, arrange another appointment, mail requested information, etc. Your follow-up actions will help keep the relationship moving forward.

After virtually any conversation with a prospect or donor, follow up.

Mistake 10 — Becoming Defensive in the Face of Criticism. Following my experience with the caller from the telemarketing firm representing the theatre company, I called the organization’s director of development. He could have refused to take my call. He could have been defensive when I aired my complaint. He could have further compromised the theatre company’s relationship with me.

Fortunately, for both of us, the director of development handled my call professionally and with grace. We had a meaningful, collegial conversation. Will he actually take any of the advice I offered? I don’t know. In any event, I felt heard. In the process, I learned more about the theatre company, and the director of development learned more about me.

If the director of development had been defensive and/or combative, it would have damaged my feelings toward the organization, not because of my ego but because it would have represented a close-minded spirit. Instead, by choosing to recognize my criticism for passion and concern about the theatre company, he enhanced my feelings toward the organization.

(By the way, because of how the director of development interacted with me, and because of my support for the organization, I’m not naming the organization in this post.)

Instead of being defensive, be receptive.

I’ve outlined ten mistakes that development professionals can make when speaking with prospects and donors on the phone or during face-to-face visits. Fortunately, it’s really not that complicated. If you simply practice donor-centered fundraising, you’ll automatically be the best possible communicator. You’ll also have happier, more loyal, and more generous donors.

However, this also means you actually need to speak with your prospects and donors. Emailing them or sending them an occasional letter is not good enough.

If you’d like to learn more about how to run more successful phone campaigns, read the definitive book Effective Telephone Fundraising by Stephen F. Schatz, CFRE with Foreword by yours truly. You can also read Steve’s guest post: “5 Things Never to Do in Your Phone Fundraising Calls.”

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

11 Responses to “Do You Make Any of These Mistakes When Speaking with Donors?”

  1. Excellent advice, Michael, and very useful for all forms of fundraising. The points you made are very important. I have faced many of the same issues when taking calls from my alma mater and my daughter’s college. During those calls, I have made many of those same points to the students making the calls.

    • Richard, thank you for commenting. I shouldn’t be amazed, but I still am. It’s 2013! You would think that nonprofits would have figured this stuff out by now when it comes to their telephone fundraising efforts. Well, now when you get a bad phone fundraising call, you can refer the organization to the book Effective Telephone Fundraising.

  2. I think I got the same call – no kidding!

    Thnaks for the good reminders.

  3. Michael, great piece! Your advice at end of each point could be repackaged as the Ten Commandments of Donor-Centered Fundraising.

    You know the original “Ten Commandments” are known by many, but how often does one regularly review and apply in the daily rush of life? Same goes for your list. Reviewing and applying both would make us better people & better fundraisers. That’s what Richard Bray says 🙂

    Thanks for sharing your fundraising call experience and using it in such a relatable way to illustrate your points.

    • Richard, thank you for sharing your thoughts and for the kind praise. Just don’t start calling me Moses. 🙂 For some, what I’ve written might be new. Others know what they should be doing, but aren’t doing it. Still others will learn from this post that they are communicating effectively. I applaud that latter group and anyone who is working to become part of that group.

  4. Loved these tips! I don’t personally do any calling for any of my non-profit clients, but if the opportunity arises, I’m sure I will wish I had this article handy!

    • Merritt, thank you for letting me know you liked this post. While it was inspired by a phone campaign call I received, the lessons learned from it also apply to any one-to-one contact. And, even when we know this stuff, it’s always good to refresh our knowledge every so often. I know I benefit from reminders from time-to-time.

  5. You are such a nice guy, Michael. Why did you stay on the call as long as you did? I’m such a stinker that I try to hang up during the period after the dialer connects but before the caller gets on the phone. ♦

    • Lorri, thanks for commenting. I stayed on the call for three reasons: 1) I wanted to know who was making the call. 2) I wanted to see how good or bad the call would be. 3) I never know where I might learn something interesting, good or bad. So, I stuck with it and was rewarded with a blog post. 🙂 See, even a bad phone fundraising call can serve a purpose.


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