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For Impact | The Suddes Group

Daily Nuggets: A For Impact Blog

Discovery Questions, Alignment Questions, and Closing Questions

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.

(See also Elevator Pitch vs. Elevator Engagement

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) 
  • See other closes. (audio)

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’.

Engagement Has a 12-Hour Half-Life

I’m constantly trying to get people to think about what it means TO ENGAGE! I think we’re taught how to present, but we’re not always taught how to engage.

I define engagement as a dynamic within a relationship that holds attention, heightens interest and motivates action.

Think about a movie or a performance you’ve attended where you were engaged and left with that feeling of being present and excited. Think about how that engagement consumed your mind! Now think about how you felt the next day.

I believe engagement has a 12-hour half-life. That is, if we could measure engagement in some way, it seems to dissipate by half every 12 hours.

This means that within 24 hours of your visit the prospect has an engagement level at 25% of what it was after your visit.


As salespeople, we need to be making engaging presentations and asks. And, more importantly, we need to pounce on timely follow-up. It’s better to follow-up immediately, even if it’s 60% of your best effort, than it is to wait three days. At three or more days you’re just working to recapture engagement.

(Read more on the 24-Hour Follow Up Rule here.)

Artifacts of Your Funding Conversation

The definition of an artifact is any object made – or altered! – by human beings, where the alteration gives it new meaning or purpose.

Followers of this blog and our publishing will be familiar with the concept of an engagement tool. We advocate for having a simple message and simple tool (1-2 pages, ideally).

More than that, it should feature a lot of white space so you can WRITE and DRAW on the tool with a prospect!

Think about the last time you were in a meeting and someone started drawing as a means of communication. One of you probably tried to keep the indecipherable scrawls (because they captured the experience of the idea sharing).

When you are finished, the marked-up engagement tool becomes an ARTIFACT of the conversation. Your drawing… your scribbling… gives the tool new meaning.

(It’s a hallmark of a good visit when a prospect asks, “Can I keep this?”)
Image of Marked-up Engagement Tool / Artifact
(see this example video @ 7:00 mins for an illustration)

The Most Important Story is the Story You Tell Yourself

The most important story in the world is the story you tell yourself!

Before a visit or an ask, take time to shape that story!

  • My story is: They are not really being ‘asked’ by everyone in town; they’re being invited to every gala in town.
  • My story is: The reason they haven’t given $1M is that no one’s ever ASKED.
  • My story is: They’re NOT tired of giving money. They’re FRUSTRATED at not having a big enough impact.
  • My story is: They’re LOOKING for meaning, purpose, and a way to have a bigger IMPACT.
  • My story is: They’re WAITING for us to ASK!

Engage and Then Plan

Andy Grove was the co-founder of Intel. More than an ‘executive,’ Mr. Grove was a teacher. He taught people how to think. He taught an industry how to think!

When speaking of Intel’s strategy, he often said, “We had to engage and then plan.” And, “Understanding comes from action.”

At For Impact | The Suddes Group we harness the power of these words when it comes to visiting with prospects. You can only do so much planning… so much research. On the whole, the ‘social sector’ is paralyzed by prospect planning. Sometimes we need to ENGAGE AND THEN PLAN.

The 10-Minute Rule

We spend a lot of time studying, practicing, and teaching the art and science of human engagement. It’s essential to communicating, selling, and leading.

We define engagement as: a dynamic which holds attention, heightens interest, and motivates action.

Think about a meeting where you were engaged, and then think about a meeting where you were checked out. In the first instance, the circumstances captured your attention, created interest, and generated more action.

A person’s attention span starts to dissipate after ten minutes — unless you do something to change the form of engagement.

When you’re one-on-one it’s easier to keep their attention. Just get the other person talking. This requires active engagement. (Note: Very few salespeople understand this simple, simple, idea!!!)

But what about when you’re leading a meeting? Or giving a speech? All you need to do is shift the form of (brain) engagement every ten minutes.

If you’re sharing a lot of information, stop and tell a brief story to weave it all together. This activates the emotive part of the brain. Or, stop and give your audience a chance to process information with a partner. There are many ways to reset attention spans every ten minutes. When you do this, the engagement holds, learning increases, and people take more action.

Crowdfunding is the new Yellow Bracelet

Every few years there is a new fad in fundraising. For the past 2+ years (at least), it’s been crowdfunding (think: Kickstarter campaigns).

I am asked about these at least once per week and here’s my reply: “Crowdfunding is the new yellow bracelet.”

When Livestrong sold the yellow bracelets, it became fashionable for every cause to have a rubber bracelet.

I’m often asked about the ice bucket challenge, specifically. That’s a phenomenon, not a (repeatable) funding model.

I believe social media is a big medium for communications. It should factor into how we build relationships — but it’s a tool, not a funding solution.

Though the specific advice varies for each organization, here is what I shared with one team last week:

“If you’re trying to build a movement and you want to incorporate crowdfunding, go for it… but you would be justifying it (to me) by bolting the funding onto something with a different end (goal). If you’re trying to add crowdfunding as a core part of your funding strategy then it’s my belief — based on seeing actual numbers at organizations — that you’re going to spend 80 cents to raise a dollar AND it won’t be a sustainable source of funding. On top of that, you have an opportunity cost; you’re putting resources into crowdfunding when you need to be putting more into 1:1 sales first.”

A Different Way to Think about ‘Just Ask’

Just Ask.

This is a core tenet of the For Impact message.

If you don’t ask, you don’t get.
People can’t GUESS what you need.

When we share this message people tend to process it in one of two ways:

Most of a room will see it for clarity and simplicity.

“Oh, it can be that simple.”

“Now that I think about it, that $25,000 we received was because we asked for $25,000.”

A second part of the room will see it as slightly aggressive.

For the second group, I would offer this reframe. Don’t think about this as ‘asking aggressively,’ think about engaging your prospect around your impact in such a compelling way that she asks, “How can I help?”

This CAN happen on a first visit.

(Or, at a minimum, you should aim to make it happen by a second visit. Read: People Cultivate Because They Can’t Communicate)

And if you’re asked that question, you need to have a clear answer! That answer needs to be more than a superficial next move. It needs to address exactly what it will take to make the impact happen (in terms of resources, connections, or funding).

Using Brain Science to Engage Prospects

Humans seek order. In a very primitive sense, we’ve evolved to recognize faces (the ‘whole’) over features (the ‘parts’). In a cognitive sense, we learn new things by associating them with existing concepts in our brain… so all communication and learning is a mapping exercise inside our brains.

Gestalt theory emerges from these scientific underpinnings.

Think about a time when someone explained something new to you. In particular, think about a time when this explanation was coming from a subject matter expert — a real geek! Think about what it was like to catch — and comprehend — all the jargon coming at you! You likely felt overwhelmed. You likely missed concepts because you were devoting mental resources to sorting out one or two ideas in particular.

This is gestalt in action: Gestalt explains that feeling of WORKING to understand the other person. You were working to create order in YOUR mind.

Let’s contrast this with the presenter’s perspective. Everything is in perfect order for the speaker! She is explaining the concept as it makes sense in her head.

Great sales and effective 1:1 communication begins with the ‘order’ (or mental skeleton) as it ALREADY exists in the prospect’s head!

Instead of presenting your ‘frame,’ or concept, start by asking questions. Then, build your presentation on the prospect’s EXISTING mental skeleton. This has several effects:

  • It increases the amount of information EFFECTIVELY communicated. EVERY PIECE of information coming in has a category, or a place, in the prospect’s mind. Rather than making the prospect ‘work for order.’
  • Drawing on more neuroscience, it actually bypasses the fight-or-flight region of the brain. Think about your first impulse when a department store representative walks up to ask, “Can I help you?” For most people, our most immediate impulse is defensive!We can bypass the fight-or-flight (defensive) center when we are continually responding to a prospect’s concept.
  • You use words that make sense! This other mode of engagement requires us to LISTEN. Not only are we building on the prospect’s mental skeleton, but he is also sharing with us the key WORDS (concepts) that resonate.

In our boot camps, we do an exercise to illustrate gestalt and these learning points. We ask attendees to find a partner and — in two minutes’ time — communicate ONLY what is needed for the prospect to understand the organization in such a way that it could be communicated to someone else.

Most people are pressured by the ‘two-minute’ constraint. They start puking information. You can watch the room and see the prospects’ eyes glaze over. Prospects are overwhelmed with the information coming at them.

We then ask each partner to start over. In the second instance, we instruct the sales person to start the two minutes with an open-ended question… and then to follow-up with at least five more questions during the two minutes.

The exercise is used to show that you can actually communicate MORE by asking questions, and then responding…. by building your message on top of the prospect’s EXISTING mental skeleton.

Here is the example I use to illustrate this point. I communicate what it is that we do at The Suddes Group/For Impact.

(You have an advantage in READING these words. Imagine LISTENING to them.)

Scenario 1: The Suddes Group provides fundraising help. Unlike a lot of consultants, we also focus on organizational development and team development. We focus on the storytelling, the team, AND the funding implementation. We’ll do whatever it takes to help you move the ideas into funding. Often, this means we go on visits WITH you. We have a sales process, a funding road map, and a relationship-based funding model….

Twenty seconds into my ‘spiel’, I’ve lost the room.

Scenario 2: (I pick ONE person — Lisa — and engage in a dialogue.)
Me: Lisa, what is your greatest funding challenge?
Lisa: Trying to figure out what to say to get people to give the money.
Me: Is it that you don’t know HOW to ask? Or that you don’t have a succinct message for the organization?
Lisa: I think we’re pretty succinct in our message. In fact, we’re GREAT storytellers. And, I think we have prospects, we just don’t seem to be able to convert any of them to big gifts.
Me: Do you feel like you have a reliable process to follow?
Lisa: Actually… no… maybe that’s it. Now that you ask the question, there are practices we probably don’t know about to make the ask easier. And then I would say we lack the confidence to ask.
Me (communicating WHAT we do in response form). Lisa, this is what we do. We help teams with those two obstacles. We help them figure out what to say, and how to ask, AND we help them build a process so that they can do this again and again.

The goal of the exercise is to communicate what you do in a way that the other person could communicate with others. In the first scenario, I was forcing the prospect to mentally categorize all sorts of new concepts – most of which weren’t interesting or relevant to the prospect. In the second scenario, we were successful by building questions and then building relevant associations for the prospect.

In 1:1 engagements, you can COMMUNICATE more effectively by asking questions, and then by RESPONDING with relevant concepts.

Key Funding Points for Social Entrepreneurs

I’ve been spending a lot of time ‘in-the-field’ the past few weeks coaching some remarkable social entrepreneurs from Mulago, StartingBloc, and (nonprofit graduates of) TechStars.

Here are simple reminders we come back to with almost every social entrepreneur.

  • 97/3. Especially as it relates to start-up / scale-up capital, 97 percent of your funding is going to come from 3 percent of your ‘list’. This is about a few key prospects (not kickstarter, or 1000 requests).
  • Own your 30,000′ Message. Social entrepreneurs tend to geek-out on WHAT they do. You know WAYYY too much. Focus on the WHY… the ‘TOWARD WHAT END’, or you’ll lose me!
  • Have an ask. Create SALES TOOLS. Social entrepreneurs create a lot of plans, materials, etc. Show me what you’re going to use to help you get ‘numbers on the table’.
  • JUST ASK. You don’t have time for extended courtship; neither does your funder.

    If this feels too DIRECT, think about it in this way: Your goal is to get the prospect to ask, “How can I help?” And then you need to have an answer. I challenge you to get them to ask this in the first meeting!

  • (At this stage) You are the Chief Sales Officer. If you don’t like fundraising you’re going to hate managing a fundraiser even more.

    Don’t hire a director of development. Instead, hire someone to take things off your plate.

  • Believe in yourself. Don’t pitch a hypothesis. Pitch a vision.