At breakfast in a hotel lobby not long ago, I watched a CEO, a sales director, and a project manager talk through the day ahead over oatmeal and watery coffee. Traveling alone most of the time, I am always interested in group dynamic among colleagues. This group was together to pitch some gigantic contract involving networked gadgets of some complexity (it is always about computers) and they appeared relaxed and confident in advance of their meeting.
Not taking anything for granted for the pitch, the CEO was all business with his subordinates and laid out, in detail, a scripted plan for the meeting. Who would say what, and when. He asked each colleague to rehearse aloud their part of the presentation, listening intently and offering feedback and encouragement. The group wrapped the session with a list of possible questions and answers that might come from the prospect, and who would say what in the close.
I have every confidence that this group won their big contract and, are at this moment, installing routers all over Eastern Nebraska. Good for them. It was a large enough piece of business that the CEO flew in at considerable expense, along with two senior staff managers. So they didn’t talk football at breakfast. They prepared, precisely and carefully, for the day’s work.
When was the last time your fundraising office was this prepared for a major gift solicitation? When did you last rehearse the actual words everyone would say to a prospect at an upcoming meeting? When was the last time you asked a Board member to take her fundraising responsibilities with as much seriousness as a major contract at her business?
As Fundraisers, the most challenging part of our job is engaging board members and senior staff in the process, and especially in the Ask. Soliciting major gifts is challenging work, and most of us aren’t naturals. Increasingly I see a lack of focused, thoughtful preparation in these efforts. We are much too casual in preparation for the most difficult and nuanced conversations. What is the result of an ill-prepared, unconfident solicitor? Too often, we blow the Ask, relying ultimately on an emailed written proposal to do the heavy lifting for our best ideas, because we aren’t committed to a well-executed personal solicitation.
What can help? Preparation. Rehearsal. Reinforcement.
It is time we quit assuming our Board members and volunteers are fundraising naturals. They aren’t. I am done listening to fundraising staff whine about their Board’s efforts when there has been no coaching or preparation for their work.
Instead of complaining about their efforts on our behalf, let’s prepare them for success. Let us script our prospect meetings in advance, detailing who plays what role. Let’s rehearse our meetings in advance, roleplaying the scenario, the script, and the possible outcomes, including overcoming potential objections.
Everyone gets weird about roleplaying in front of others. No one wants to look silly making pretend solicitations. But practice works. By practicing, through guided rehearsal, the task becomes easier. The talking points become more natural. The pause we should take after a financial ask is made becomes effortless.
What’s the easiest way to encourage volunteers to practice? Volunteer to go first. Show them the way. Before anyone goes asks on your behalf, prepare a written solicitation plan outlining roles and talking points. Rehearse, in person if you can, in advance of the meeting. If its important enough to ask for personally, it should be a no-brainer to meet in advance to prepare. Ask your volunteer to take their fundraising responsibilities as seriously they would their very own business.
An acting teacher shared some wisdom once:
Your talent and your face is out of your control. Are you handsome enough for the role? You may or may not be. This is not the Actor’s concern. Instead, focus on what is fully yours – your focus, your attention, your committed effort, and, most of all, your preparation.
Will the Donor give the $1million?
Our Case can be meticulous, dialed in to the Donor’s interests and sincerest desires to help build a better world.
Our Timing can be immaculate, aligned with a period of intense cultivation and appreciation, drawing our prospect closer to our mission week by week.
But if we screw up the ask due to a lack of preparation, none of this matters at all.