How to Help Your Wealthiest Supporters Solicit Themselves

What results in a bigger gift?

A) Being convinced to give
B)Deciding to give on your own?

Your job as a fundraising gift officer isn’t to ask for gifts. It is to plant the idea to give in the minds of your prospects so they decide to give on their own. We call this approach appreciative inquiry. This involves asking questions (socratic fundraising) and listening carefully in ways that help someone make ‘an idea’ (or ‘your idea’) become ‘their idea.’

When you succeed at this, the need for persuasion, convincing, and addressing objections mostly goes out the window. The donor wants to give because it was ‘their idea.’ Then, all that remains is to work through the logistics and challenges associated with giving larger gifts, and particularly gifts of assets such as stock options, real estate, and retirement accounts.

This was the idea behind the movie Inception, in which operatives attempt to plant ideas in the minds of people while they’re dreaming. When they wake up, the person believes they came up with the idea on their own.

In the real world, how do you do appreciative inquiry? We’re going to look at the key characteristics of it in this article, which is based on the research and life’s work of Dr. Russell James, who was inducted into the National Association of Charitable Gift Planners Hall of Fame in 2021.

If you want the most complete understanding of appreciative inquiry and Dr. James’ teachings, you will want to take our signature online course – Donor Story: Epic Fundraising – which is based on his experimental research and explorations into many facets of major giving.

Why Appreciative Inquiry Works

As Blaise Pascal wrote all the way back in 1660, “People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the minds of others.”

It’s like Captain Hook in the movie Hook, if you’re ‘young’ enough to remember it. His assistant pitches the idea of befriending Peter Pan’s kids as a means of spiting and demoralizing him. Then Captain Hook announces he has a great idea, and it’s the exact same one his assistant just described. But he claims the credit for it himself.

As gift officers, you want the donor to claim credit for their idea to give.

If you try to give donors reasons to make a gift, that’s just your opinion, to them. But if they come to the same conclusion based on their own reasons, it is fact.

Planting the Idea to Give – How It Looks

Planting the idea to give using appreciative inquiry is a relatively simple concept. In a nutshell, you can express it in just two words: Ask questions. You’re not asking these questions for you to learn something. You’re asking so the prospect can learn for themselves.

Ask Questions

When you ask a supporter the right questions, their answers become the facts. Their answers are what they believe, so they are not just answering you. They are giving themselves reasons to keep the conversation going and eventually give. They are convincing themselves to give.

Asking questions helps supporters explore their past, their values, and their feelings about your organization. It helps them discover how meaningful your organization has been in their lives. It helps them align with a vision for their future that integrates with your cause in some way.

Neil Rackham presents research in his book Spin Selling which found that asking lots of questions during a customer’s decision-making process was by far the most influential cause of successful sales. They found a clear statistical connection between asking questions and getting results.

This is why MarketSmart has written so many articles about different types of questions to ask in different scenarios. And it’s why our Donor Story: Epic Fundraising course is loaded with hundreds of questions, many of which have been tested in research.

Be Genuine

For appreciative inquiry to work, the supporter must perceive your reasons for asking to be sincere and genuine. You have legitimate reasons for asking these questions, and you care about the responses.

For instance, if you ask a donor about a past experience with your organization, you’re doing this to help them tap into their identity as it relates to your mission. You really want to know their story, and they must feel that from you. But you also want them to discover their story for themselves.

If your questions imply the supporter should respond in a particular way, the question fails because the supporter will feel pressured or coerced. Ending questions with phrases like “right?” or “don’t you?” is a hallmark of agenda-driven questions.

Avoid Asking for a Gift During Appreciative Inquiry Phase

You should also never ask for a gift during this part of your relationship with a prospect. That signals to them that you aren’t interested in their input, experience, or perspective, and that this is all just a ploy to get their money.

It’s Not Research

Appreciative inquiry is not research. True friends don’t ask questions so they can put the answers in graphs and charts, or gather testimonials for a website. You’re asking questions to help this person feel valued and important, and to help them advance their donor hero story. This is the most important role a fundraiser plays in the life of a donor, according to Dr. James.

Fundraising using this approach is about helping the donor find meaning in their life.

It’s Not Small Talk

With appreciative inquiry, you are trying to help the supporter make their own decision to give. You’re not asking about their values, experiences, people they care about, or interests just to make conversation or to be polite. These questions help clarify and reveal the donor’s original identity – why they care.

Giving ultimately advances that identity, once they decide to give as a result of what you’ve helped them discover about themselves through your questioning.

You want to help them visualize their own story – their autobiography – and then connect that story to whatever goal relates to their decision to give.

Many Meetings and Conversations

Sometimes a lot of time passes between your conversations with a supporter before they make a gift. That’s why you must always remind them, at every conversation, why your cause matters to them. But you do this by asking questions, every time working to strengthen the connection between their identity and your mission.

Eventually, they will develop a goal in their own mind, and this will lead to a deep desire to take action and make a gift, so they can find greater meaning in their life. When that happens, the idea to give that you worked hard to cultivate has taken root and is ready to sprout.

How NOT to Do Appreciative Inquiry

If you send out surveys, and in the survey you include a gift request, this “delegitimizes the questions,” according to Dr. James. And you can make the same mistake in conversation.

Making the donor feel ‘set up’ by your line of questioning makes the prospect believe you are not interested in their actual life or story. It is the opposite of the purpose for which you’re asking these questions.

Without trust, there is no financial transaction. This is true in any relationship, not just fundraising.

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