This is a story about clay pots. It’s also a story about learning and perfection. I’ve shared it a lot and it seems to really resonate with people so here you go:
The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work-and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.
If you are new to fundraising my advice is to go make as many pots (read: visits and asks) as possible. I think we spend too much time waiting for the perfect time to visit and the perfect time to ask, or the perfect time to make the perfect ask. Visit and ask a lot. You will learn and you will outperform any benchmark that can be found.
If you’re not new to fundraising my advice is to go make as many pots (read: visits and asks) as possible. Even with a top-shelf portfolio of prospects we have to stay sharp and make the best asks of the best prospects. Find a way to visit and ask a lot — whether that’s through more time with your top prospects, or identifying and engaging new prospects.
Finally, quantity is relative. For some organizations this might be 10 visits (instead of one PERFECT visit). For other organizations this might be 1000. The point to drive home is that we can’t wait for perfection or you’ll end up with the philanthropic equivalent of a pile of dead clay. Related content: As it relates to building up new team members and getting visit repetitions, this is another reason why we love the Leadership Circle as an entry-level-major-gifts-concept; it’s a great way to build talent.
Across thousands of visits, we have learned that — above preparing presentations and scripting visits — the most valuable preparation is usually the time preparing the fundraiser’s mindset: how to think about the prospect, the visit, and the ask. This mindset is the invisible construct, guiding the conversation. The mindset influences the words we choose, and dictates our tonal quality. It is the lens through which we interpret the prospects’ words. (Our mindset even influences our physical posture!).
I want to bring awareness to mindset. Without attention to this, so many fundraisers, and so many organizations, just have one mindset (for better or worse). I want us to ask ourselves, “What mindset do we want to bring into this conversation?” In doing so, I hope that we have more range (through more mindsets) and more effectiveness (by choosing the right mindset for the right moment). Choosing our mindset is the greatest contributing factor to fundraising success within our control.
Whether we view our plan as a hypothesis to be tested, or an imperative worthy of the greatest pursuit.
If you’re not 100% certain your organization can deliver on the plans, you are not alone. This is one of the biggest hesitations we work through. Focus your mindset on your convictions (toward attempting the impact) instead of our uncertainties (in the plan). So many times I’ve said to a client, “I don’t need to believe that this plan will succeed. I need to believe this is worth attempting!”
Whether we believe we’re asking for money, or presenting the opportunity.
The first brings a cautious and sometimes apologetic tone. The second removes mind games to focus on the impact that needs to happen.
Whether we’re here to make a pitch, or solve a problem (for the funder).
Instead of focusing on how our deck flows, let’s focus on asking the right questions.
Every funder has a challenge: to give away the money in a way that will ACTUALLY have an impact. Very few fundraisers lead with a listening-ear toward finding the funder’s true problem. Instead, we tend to think we have something to prove and present accordingly.
Whether we’re asking for advice, or aligning key stakeholders around a vision.
Ask for advice and we’ll get advice. It can be more powerful to say, “Follow me! We have a vision to change the world and I want to bring others along so that we can make this happen!”
For Impact (our name) represents a “master mindset.” The conversation we’re having with a funder is about impact (not income); if we do a great job engaging around the impact then we can present-the-opportunity to invest toward that end. From there, there are infinite possibilities for framing a conversation with a funder. These are your ask mindsets. To name some that we use in our preparation:
Assumptive Mindset. You start by assuming the prospect is ‘in’ — the ensuing discussions are simply to work on the mechanics of the commitment.
This mindset has a lot of utility, but it’s most used when we don’t want a conversation to go backward. Example: The prospect said they would fund this project but needs time to think about the specific commitment. You don’t need to circle back to ask them if they’re still in. Keep moving the conversation forward! Remind yourself that the commitment has already been made. Now the conversation is about mechanics: timing, commitment-level, cash-flow, etc.
Leadership Mindset. This is literal. You focus the conversation (framing and tone) around where you want to lead the organization: the vision. This is very much about inspiring or asking someone to follow.
It’s easiest to contrast the Leadership Mindset with a Permission Mindset, or Advice Seeking Mindset (see below). In those mindsets you’re trying to get permission to make an ask. The Leadership Mindset allows you to be a little more forthright, “I’m sharing this funding plan with you now because I am hoping you will be a part of it.” Or, “I’m sharing this with you now and hoping to bring you along with us. We think we can make this vision happen and we need 4-5 funders on board to help us get there.”
Discovery Mindset. This is a little more passive. The orientation is about learning (and using that information to help qualify or engage the prospect). I’m against discovery as a visit-goal but am okay with a discovery mindset and posture (from time-to-time) especially when we don’t know the prospect’s interest or capacity.
Advice Seeking. This mindset needs to be named just so that we can shift away from it! Too often fundraisers glom onto some maxim: “Ask for advice and hope for money.” To the extent that that works at all, I think it could be narrated alternately as: creating engagement under a false pretense but also hoping to make the prospect feel important enough that we’re invited in for funding.
Advice is a natural byproduct of dialogue. There are times when we genuinely want advice, but as an ask mindset this can be very, very limiting.
Solution Selling. This is really powerful, especially as you start to work on larger gifts and partnerships. Every funder has a problem – every funder is trying to have an impact – if we think about giving them the solution to this problem then we hone in on listening and ‘needs analysis’ and then we can present our impact, or organization, or project in the context of their needs.
Nonprofit leaders often use this phrase as a way of saying that they want this ‘fundraising thing’ to work in some reliable, resilient, and aligned-way across all stakeholders.
To get to this place let’s think about ‘culture’ and what it takes to build this desired culture.
We define culture as: how you work. It’s the system of behaviors that you define, encode, and reinforce. With this in mind, we often describe ‘culture’ as an operating system.
To build a culture, you need to:
Define the work (model);
Hire/train/align the right people for that way of working; and
Support that way of working with the proper tools.
These building blocks can be applied to various cultures (project management, engineering, outcomes/OKRs, community organizing, customer service).
Let’s apply these to build a ‘culture of philanthropy’:
Commitment is the first step. The commitment points your team in the same direction.
Through our training and coaching, you hear us say, “Commit to sales!” What we’re saying is, “Commit to a model that is focused on building and maximizing relationships.”
Define principles with your team. The sales process will be imperfect in the beginning. And, in truth, the process will always be imperfect, but the team can use principles as big trustworthy guideposts.
Start defining processes and routines. This can be as simple as, “Go engage! Share the story and present the opportunity!” It can also be more complex as you grow to include things like weekly sales team meetings and monthly prospecting workshops.
Link talent to the model. Too often organizations try to ‘solve’ fundraising and culture through hiring alone. As the visual illustrates, that is critical, but it’s not sufficient. You have to hire talent into an explicit model OR make the key leader(s) responsible for defining the model.
Training and coaching (or at least ‘alignment’) of the model is ongoing and constant. This is true in any defined culture and model.
Tools support people — in the model. They can reinforce behaviors and/or they can just be functional things that someone needs to work in the model. Some of the important tools we highlight in the sales model:
The funding story and funding rationale. Think of these as the messaging and the product you’re selling (in the model). And we support this with an engagement tool.
Sales dashboard. This is a tool that highlights key behavior and drives accountability.
Finally, keep in mind that a culture is always a work in progress. I think of it like health, you need to put in work every day or the culture will slide away from your desired state. And, no matter how healthy you are, there is almost always room for improvement. As Ben Horowitz says, “Our aim with culture is to be better, not perfect.”
The Team Selling Framework is a powerful visual that helps define roles and responsibilities within the Sales Process. In this framework, roles are color-coded: Blue, Red, and Green. Everyone on the team has a role to play, but not everyone is responsible for ‘asking’.
TEAM SELLING FRAMEWORK
Important note: Think of these as ‘roles’; they are not necessarily ‘jobs’. If you’re a smaller operation you might wear ‘hats’. There are times when you wear a blue hat and times when you wear a green hat. As an entrepreneur, you start out wearing all three hats!
This is the Core Sales Team responsible for driving the sales process with prospects, including strategy, asking, closing, and follow-up. The Green Team needs to be out-of-the-office making visits.
Green Teamers are Relationships Managers (RMs) assigned to prospects.
There can be only ONE Relationship Manager assigned to each prospect.
The RM is accountable for that prospect’s strategy.
The RM is always a member of your Green Team!
The Red Team supports the sales process. One simple way to think about this is to define the responsibilities of the Red Team around ensuring that the Green Team is out-of-the-office more.
The Red Team helps with setting up visits, especially with phone follow-up and callbacks.
Using this definition, a grant writer is often a member of the Red Team.
Blue team members can be brought into the process as needed/directed by the Green Team. For example, a few years ago I worked on a gift that took 18 months to close. During the process, more than 20 Blue Team members were brought into the process at some point. However, ALL of that activity was coordinated through and by the singular Relationship Manager on the Green Team.
The Blue Team is not accountable for ‘asking’. The implications here are big! It means the model does not default to board members asking their friends for money (see: no more peer-to-peer solicitation).
That being said, the Red/Green Team NEED Blue Team members! They play a crucial role in TEAM selling. The Blue Team members provide context, connection, and credibility in a way that a Green Team Members often cannot.
Blue Team Members can be engaged before, during, or after the visit. Example: Use your ‘Blue’ Team to help with a predisposition, opening doors, and even setting up or requesting the visit.
As fundraisers, we’re in sales! We are selling the vision or the impact.
We train and coach executive directors, board members, and development staff around a sales model and process; the goal is to build a true and sustaining sales culture. Before we dive into model and process, we anchor the culture with PRINCIPLES.
Here are some For Impact Sales Principles to get you started with your team:
Maximize relationships at this given moment. Development professionals often fall on one of two extremes. The first extreme is too transactional — always about the next gift. The second extreme is so focused on relationship-building that an ask never happens. When we think about maximizing the relationship at this given moment, we are able to drive the focus toward both the human connection (relationship) and the urgency and specificity of how they can help, right now.
97/3, 1:1 and (Top) 10 (The Focus Principle) 97/3 is like Pareto’s 80/20 rule on steroids. Over time, an organization focused on strategic philanthropy will generally observe that ninety-seven percent of funds come from three percent of its funders. We focus on that top 3% – building relationships, strategies, and asks accordingly. (Build communication and mass-engagement strategies for the other 97%.)
1:1 means to focus on one-on-one relationships/visits/asks to build and maximize relationships.
And prioritize your focus around your Top 10 prospects every year. They will deliver the greatest return-on-energy and greatest return-on-investment (in dollars and connections), year-over-year.
“Spend more time with better prospects.” – Brian Tracy
Plan around Prospects, not Programs. Build your funding (action) plan around your top prospect strategies and a routine that maximizes the time you spend in front of prospects.
This is very different than building your plan around traditional development functions – like the annual event, or a mail campaign.
Drive to the ask. Drive to the commitment. (JUST ASK!) When will we make the ask? Pick a date! When we simply say, “It’s not the right time to ask,” we’re letting the strategy happen to us. Instead, create the strategy to make the ask happen. Then continue that strategy, focus and persistence to get the commitment.
Don’t make decisions for your prospects. This is another principle about ATTITUDE. Present the opportunity to prospects. It’s not our job to decide whether or not the prospect wants to change and impact lives, and our society. It’s our job to show them how we have an impact and show them how they can help.
“Engage, then plan.” When asked what made Intel so successful in the 1990s, retiring chairman Andy Grove said, “We had to engage, then plan.” This is a perfect principle for strategic philanthropy. The ask is dynamic and responsive to the prospect’s messaging/interest. We’ll never really be able to finish the strategy until we engage the prospect.
Through 2020 and coming into 2021, we collected many fundraising success stories from clients and friends who had to work very hard to stay focused while balancing many realities:
The pandemic (and there is not much to say about that).
The k-shaped recovery. Some sectors are roaring and as a result, the ‘asset class’ is doing better than ever.
Role reshuffling in organizations. So much of our coaching is trying to help leaders and fundraisers find focus amidst uncertainty (and often change).
That hard work often required repeated affirmation. This email compiles many of the affirmations I’ve used over the years, as well as many developed through coaching clients in recent months.
I’m hoping 1-2 lines speak to YOU.
The Craft: Affirmations for 2021
I am a sales professional. My product knowledge is expressed in impact and vision. My craft is the forging of the human connection. There is not a day I cannot grow.
This craft is important. Engaging is what creates connection. Asking is what unlocks generosity and meaning. On any given day my work can offer the highest point of leverage for our team, organization, and cause.
My craft is measured by productivity. In ‘normal’ times I focus on effectiveness and efficiency. During this time I give myself permission to focus on a different ‘e’ — energy.
Today my ability to connect, unlock meaning, and drive impact is a function of energy. I will remind myself daily to not waste energy on things I can’t control. Instead, I will direct energy toward what I can control: process and perspective.
Connection, meaning, and impact can CREATE ENERGY, if I let them.
I hear of Zoom fatigue but I choose to flip my story: It’s not about the medium, it’s about the meaning. Virtual visits and experiences can create more meaning and impact (in different ways), if I let them.
I don’t know whether a prospect will commit but this is my perspective: I do not make decisions for my prospects. Now is the time to engage. It’s my job to present the opportunity. The opportunity has never been greater.
I embrace my craft. Today. In this unique time and place. I appreciate that I can learn and grow in ways that will benefit me forever; I choose to see this as an opportunity for more connection and meaning… unlocked by engaging and by asking; and I will direct my energy toward this process knowing it will save, change, and impact lives.
Questions are powerful tools to a fundraiser (read: salesperson). Effectively used, they help you learn, connect, lead, qualify, and close.
In our work — preparing clients for conversations with funders — we spend more time drafting engaging questions to ask than talking points to present. As organizations and funders have moved to virtual meetings, the effective use of questions has become even more important because our other norms of learning/connecting/leading are limited or replaced.
Here are the three types of questions you should be prepared to use.
Discovery questions. Discovery questions are used to learn and gather information. We use discovery questions to understand what is in the prospect’s mind… the words they use… their areas of interest… their objections.
“What has been your best investment (in an organization) and why?”
“What do you know about [our organization/project]?”
“I sent a lot of materials to review ahead of our discussion. If you had time to review, is there anything that stuck out to you?”
“You are heavily investing in [insert theme]. We’ve read through your website, but what are your primary aims in the coming year?”
“Why did you decide to join the board three years ago?”
“Our organization is so many things to so many people, I like to ask people, how do YOU describe the organization to your friends?”
After discussing priorities, “Which of these priorities is most important to you? Why?”
Alignment questions. Alignment questions are pretty simple. They are often used to confirm that you are aligned with the prospect, in which case you can continue to navigate forward toward your goals. If you’re not aligned, they ask the prospect to engage and offer valuable feedback.
“Does this make sense?” or “I’ve been talking too much, let me stop and ask you to respond, does this make sense?”
If the prospect offers a rejection or a statement that doesn’t make sense you can check for alignment. “Can you tell me more?” Or simply, “Tell me more.”
“In our discussion today I would love to talk a little bit about our program and see if there is alignment with your interests. And then, if it makes sense, explores ways we might ask for your help. Does that work?”
Alignment questions can also be used to transition the conversation by asking if it’s okay to move on to the next agenda item, or, in our case, as part of the visit-flow.
“Can we talk about how you can help?”
Closing questions. Closing questions involve asking the prospect to do something and they should be able to answer yes or no. (More generally we could also call these ‘action questions’.) This includes making an investment or making introductions to others.
“Could I ask you to take the lead (on this project)?” (Leadership Close)
Showing a funding plan. “I have no idea what your capacity is, where do you see yourself?” (Clueless Close)
“Assuming that this, this and this happens … would you then be willing to make a leadership investment in this vision?” (Contingency close)
A good dialogue uses an assortment of questions to engage and navigate toward a goal. For instance, in an ask for funding support, you might follow that up with discovery questions and an alignment question to build a ‘roadmap to a close’.
One of the best books I’ve ever read on engagement is Brain Rules, by John Medina. Medina, a college professor, shares simplified neuroscience to keep your brain engaged in order to maximize learning and retention.
This is a worthwhile book for teachers, leaders, and SALESPEOPLE!
One big takeaway from Medina is that the brain processes meaning before details.
“Normally, if we don’t know the gist—the meaning—of information, we are unlikely to pay attention to its details. The brain selects meaning-laden information for further processing and leaves the rest alone.”
Medina, John. Brain Rules (Updated and Expanded): 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School (pp. 114-115). Pear Press. Kindle Edition.
There are a couple of ways in which you can help someone else engage around content with this key idea in mind.
The first is — very simply — to start with the ‘why’. WHY are you undertaking this project? WHY did you found the organization? WHY does this matter? The WHY is the meaning… everything else is the detail. The Altitude Framework starts with WHY; it is organized to present meaning before detail.
And the second reminder is to start with the other person’s WHY. Focus on what is most meaningful to the other person. WHY is this important to them? WHY are they doing what they’re doing?
We’re pretty big on building a value proposition around the impact (of the program, of the investment — hence, our name: For Impact). It’s worth defining other common types of value propositions so that you can illustrate opportunities (to sell impact) within your organization, or so that your team can see how selling-impact compares with existing strategies.
Legacy/Sponsorship: Focused on recognition and/or exposure for an individual or corporation.
Many people don’t think of these as being similar but they both seek to name — or recognize — the funder, whether that’s a family’s name on the side of a building or a local bank displayed on a website banner.
Programs & Capital: Either selling a program, a class, or a school for underwriting. Or, one-time financial raise for capital projects. “Your funding will translate directly to xyz expense.”
Peer-to-Peer: Value proposition (why give) is largely a factor of social currency.Operational: Expressed in terms of an operational need and expresses how the (internal) operation will be improved. Eg. “Help us fund a new position.”
Impact: How the investment will help the organization change, save or impact lives. —— These don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Example: Capital + Impact: “Help us with this bricks and mortar project so that we can impact 300 additional families each year, helping them to escape the lifecycle of poverty.”
So how do we build confidence? Here are some ideas and observations based on our research and coaching:
It’s easier to be confident trying to figure out how to be you than to be someone else.
If you are a junior fundraiser, this might mean learning how to develop your own voice, instead of trying to channel the CEO’s voice.
Practice “self-talk anchored in something that’s real.”
This is a profound insight offered from high-performance psychologist Dr. Michael Gervais. After helping Olympians and business MVP’s alike he summarizes the key to confidence and efficacy.
He says that confidence is a psychological skill. It can be developed just like any other skill, through deliberate practice. In very simple terms, he says we need to write down the reasons why we should be confident about something and then practice reading and adopting those reasons so that they are strong enough to become part of our story. “Confidence comes from practicing self-talk anchored in something that’s real. You have to train to be confident!”
Doing the work and putting in the time to truly strategize what you’re going to say to prospects.
Training around, or committing to, a sales process that you can trust again and again.
Take the focus off yourself.
This is a simple reminder to keep perspective. I don’t think this changes confidence levels, as much as it decreases the effects that can come from a lack of confidence. A few reminders in this regard.
Psychologists estimate that 70% of us suffer from some form of imposter syndrome or another. (I have to imagine it’s more like 100% and 30% of those studied just aren’t honest.)
Justice Sonia Sotomayor frequently talks about imposter syndrome in her memoir (but she is then quick to talk about how it fuels her to work hard and prove herself wrong.)
Focus on the impact. You can transfer the focus on confidence (or lack thereof) to:
Confidence in solving the problem…
Confidence in presenting the opportunity…
Confidence in doing your best – today – to share the story and present the opportunity…