3 Mistakes You Make When You Meet Prospects

If you’re like most fundraising professionals, you make three costly mistakes whenever you meet with prospects and donors.

That insight comes from Robert Fogal, PhD, ACFRE, CAP, Founder and Principal of Fogal Associates and creator of StyleWise™. Below, Fogal identifies those three common mistakes and shares his ideas for how you can avoid making them.

Communication by Len Matthews via FlickrIn addition, Fogal will share further advice in his seminar “Achieving Effective Interpersonal Relations: How to Lead Others by Managing Ourselves” at the AFP International Fundraising Conference (Baltimore, March 29-31, 2015). If you can’t make it to the AFP Conference, you can purchase a recording of the session following the Conference.

Fogal will also lead a Spring 2015 Program involving two six-hour workshops and five one-hour individual coaching sessions to help fundraising professionals benefit from the StyleWise™ system. The StyleWise™ Program balances conceptual learning with practical application so you can be “wise” about knowing and using your “style” of personality. Fogal designed the Program to help you more effectively motivate donors. You can learn more about The StyleWise™ Program by clicking here.

So, what’s the thinking behind this and what are the three mistakes you’re probably making now? Here’s what Fogal tells us:


The comment on the evaluation form for the AFP chapter presentation on person-centered communication went like this:

Maybe I’ve been in the industry longer than most (30 years), but I feel that a good development officer has already found this out by hard knocks or is very intuitive on their [sic] own.”

There’s a lot of truth in that statement. And that’s how our field operated for most of the 20th century. (One wag suggested that the reason why we ask for “X” years of experience in job postings is that we want candidates to have made most of their mistakes on someone else’s payroll.)

Most organizations, however, no longer allow employees to learn primarily through hard knocks. It takes too much time, and is too costly. Yet, we all know (supposedly) that effective relationships, which take time, lead to the gifts most meaningful to both the donor and the organization.

So, caught in a difficult situation, we too often commit cardinal errors in relationship building.

1. We don’t listen very carefully to prospects because we talk too much.

We’ve known for decades how easy it is to overwhelm someone in a conversation — especially when we’re nervous or stressed, or super enthusiastic. The old saw is true — the person who talks the least is the one who manages the conversation. But, more important than controlling the conversation is the reality that when we talk too much, we communicate that what the other person has to say isn’t important.

I am acquainted with some fundraisers who rightfully advocate how the case for support is central to successful fundraising. Their problem, however, is that they overwhelm prospects by reciting the case — the whole thing, sometimes — in their eagerness to interpret their causes.

This leads me to the second mistake.

2. We don’t listen very carefully to prospects because we don’t know what to listen for.

Most fundraisers I know are good at accumulating data about prospects’ families, community involvements, interests, and more. In addition, prospect research adds to this storehouse of information.

However, good listening goes beyond information gathering to grasp how people’s brains function. That may sound bizarre, but neuroscience is discovering (among many other things) how people’s mental preferences, often referred to as their hard-wiring, inform how they learn and how they make decisions. That’s important to relationship building. Here are some examples:

  • Does the prospect talk about what he experienced, or does he express “gut instincts”?
  • Does the prospect like things that are practical and useful, or does she enjoy ideas for their own sake?

In another vein:

  • Do you hear the prospect speaking in analytic and logical terms, or in ways that express empathy and sensitivity?
  • Does your prospect affirm strong principles, emphasizing what for her is “the truth,” or is she more likely to be tactful and considerate of others’ feelings, even if she has to bend her own values somewhat?

These kinds of questions take us to the work we have to do to fully engage prospects.

3. We don’t connect very well with prospects because we don’t know how to express our mission in the ways that are most meaningful to them.

When we “hear” the information provided by the above kinds of questions, we can articulate a case in terms that are most meaningful to a prospect and that can result in more substantial gifts.

In the above questions, the first pair contrasts how people take in information. The people that recount past experience and like things practical and useful will respond to a case that is more concrete, specific and present-oriented. The contrasting style of learning that relies on “gut instincts” and likes to explore novel ideas appreciates more a future-oriented, big-picture case.

The second pair of questions focuses on decision-making. A prospect who is logical, analytical and prefers abstract standards and principles bases decisions on goals, objectives, metrics, and well-reasoned arguments. In contrast, a prospect who expresses sympathy for others and resonates with people-oriented values responds more to how a case responds to people’s needs and how outcomes will affect people.

The dynamics of all these processes depend primarily on fundraisers being fully aware of their own communication styles and how they influence others. Stating the obvious, it’s easy to relate to others who are like us. Relating to those who are different, though, requires a high level of self-awareness linked to well-developed skills in self-management.

We can intentionally nurture our self-awareness, and we can cultivate self-management through practice. With such professional development, we don’t have to depend on years of hard knocks to learn person-centered communication that grows authentic philanthropic relationships that will generate more support for our organizations.


That’s what Bob Fogal and Michael Rosen say… What do you say?

15 Responses to “3 Mistakes You Make When You Meet Prospects”

  1. Excellent article! Mistake #1 is all too obvious, put the poignancy of mistake #2, and in tow, mistake #3, is very touching. Thank you!

  2. Beyond understanding your own style, I think it is vital to be able to articulate rationale for giving (case for support) from a variety of perspectives. When marketing toothpaste, there are many benefits, some more resonant than others with a particular potential customer. Our own understanding of the benefits of our NPO’s services are vital, so we can carefully make the connection that can result in a good relationship and donor.

    • Colleen, thank you for sharing your thoughts. You’re correct. We need to understand our communication style AND have the skills to recognize the style of the person we’re speaking with. Then, we can present the case for support in a way that will be meaningful for the other person. In life and in development, one size does not fit all.

  3. Michael,

    Bob is absolutely correct on all of his points. That is the problem when a fundraiser is not donor-centered. Good development officers know that listening and analyzing what a donor tells you will get you far greater results than the person whose presentation is all about the organization.

    As we have both said plenty of times, “God gave us two ears and one mouth, and we should use them accordingly.”

    • Richard, thank you for underscoring the importance of being donor centered. Listening and analyzing what a donor tells us is certainly essential. As Bob tells us, listening and analyzing to how a donor tells us is vitally important as well.

  4. I find the hardest people to read those who say very little. People who appear to be listening intently, but don’t respond to questions except with nonverbal cues.

    • Barb, thank you for commenting. You’re right. It can be difficult enough to understand folks when they’re verbal; when they’re not, it can be nearly impossible. Anyone has ever taken care of an infant knows this all too well. 🙂 The baby cries. It wants something, but can’t tell you. Hmmm. What does she want? When my wife and I babysat our niece, we took notice of her body language to decode what she wanted. It was actually kind of easy. If her tummy was upset, her hands would go there. If she was hungry, a hand would go up to her mouth. If she just wanted to be held, she would thrash about until picked up. Now, I’m not saying that your donors are big babies (though some probably are 🙂 ), but I am saying that body language can helps us better understand what they are saying or even what they are not saying.

      When meeting with a prospect or donor who is not particularly verbal, here’s a tip to draw out the person: Talk less and use silence. In other words, ask an open-ended question. When the prospect provides a micro-answer, remain quiet. More often than not, the prospect will eventually fill the silence with more commentary. If you want to see this tactic in action, watch some interviews conducted by Barbara Walters, particularly her older ones. Walters was a grand master when it came to leveraging silence.

  5. Thanks for sharing this article. I am sure that Fogal’s presentation will be worthwhile for people to attend. I do want to mention, however, that there are lots of fundraisers out there who attempt to share a case for support and attempt to collect information from donors about their feelings toward the group without being able to express an opinion about the most recent accomplishments of the organization or the future implications of work in the community. Seriously, on the topic of listening and responding to body language – one point is to let the donor talk about whatever they want and to support and encourage them in their process. You can always bring them back on point in a second. But, most fundraisers I know do not know how to affirm and support free-thinking donors and provide them with the time and the inter-connectedness that they need in order to bring their attention to what they can do for the organization. I would love to speak to you more about this.

    • Emily, thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. When it comes to inter-personal communication skills, I suspect that most folks think they naturally know what to do because they were born with the skills or learned them over a lifetime. However, the reality is that we need to develop inter-personal communication skills with training and experience. As Bob points out, learning at the school of hard-knocks is time consuming and costly; formal training is a lot less painful.

      I’m happy to talk with you about this. Feel free to contact me.

  6. Good one, Michael! I have not consciously done enough of #2 & #3 lately. Thanks for reminding us!


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