Questions are the most powerful tool in a fundraiser’s toolbox. More than anything else, asking good fundraising questions will build trust with donors, allow them to connect the act of giving with their own identity, and make possible an authentic conversation, as opposed to a manipulated one.
At first this may not seem as profound or essential as it is. Most gift officers naturally ask a lot of questions, and it doesn’t blow anyone’s mind to tell them how important questions are. But it’s not that simple.
You need the right types of questions.
You need the right order of asking those questions.
You must know how to phrase your questions.
You must know which questions to avoid, and why.
And it will be a bit different for each donor.
In this ultimate guide to fundraising questions, we’ll go through six of the major types of questions, in the order you should ask them. You’ll walk away with a complete blueprint for how to structure your next meeting with a potential major donor.
Here are the six types of fundraising questions we’ll be looking at:
But first, let’s look at how not to ask questions.
Some questions are manipulative.
The comedy film Office Space shows a great example of this, when the manager of the restaurant asks Jennifer Aniston’s character, “You do want to express yourself, don’t you?” He’s trying to get her to decorate her tacky work attire with buttons and pins to make it even more tacky, but he couches that expectation in the form of a manipulative question that makes her feel bad for not wanting to “express herself” in a way he has already pre-defined. Who doesn’t want to express themselves, after all, right?
We laugh when it’s a movie.
But then we turn around and do the same thing, asking donors things like, “You want children to be happy and healthy, right?”
Come on now – who could say no to that?
Questions that guilt-trip people into feeling obligated to give don’t work. It’s possible you might get a gift, if you’re really lucky and dealing with a pushover. But it won’t be nearly as large a gift as it would have been had you used a more authentic and sincere line of questioning. More likely, you’ll get no gift at all, because people hate feeling set up.
So, to restate it, the best kinds of fundraising questions do three things:
The six types of questions you’re about to learn about are not designed for use at the beginning of your relationship with a donor. Before you get to use these, you need to have already succeeded in a sequence of critical tasks, including:
This all happens before you get to your first meeting, and the questions below are for that meeting. Hopefully this is clear, so you know where these fundraising questions fit into the overall process of major gift fundraising.
And we don’t say this lightly. Identification, qualification, and cultivation are where many nonprofits fail in the major gifts fundraising process. So much time gets wasted chasing bad leads, burning out gift officers, and angering people who were never going to give.
The problem is, these processes are very hard to do well. They take lots of time, attention, and skill, and it’s hard to keep up with so many people on your caseload. The secret to effectively identifying and qualifying a prospect is to use automation. Automated emails, surveys, and other forms of communication empower donors to self-identify as having interest in deepening their conversation with you.
Once they do that, the questions below will come into play.
How do you automate the identification and qualification steps? That’s what MarketSmart does, and we do it so well that we offer a 10:1 ROI Guarantee to all new clients. Your organization will make at least ten times more than you spend on our software in new donations and planned giving pledges.
Want to see how we do it? Schedule a free demo and find out.
Now, let’s get to the six types of fundraising questions.
Yes, this is what it sounds like. You should ask a donor prospect for permission to have a conversation about giving.
Why? For one, it’s respectful. Just like you hate it when salespeople just jump right in and presume you want to buy their products, donors don’t like it when fundraisers approach them as if giving is their only reasonable decision. Not everyone is ready to give. Some want to, but aren’t ready now. Others aren’t sure they want to give at all but are willing to talk about it.
By asking for permission to talk about giving, you show the donor that you mean it when you tell them they will not feel pressured, coerced, or guilt-tripped into making a gift.
Here are three great permission questions you can use:
As you can see, all three of these achieve the primary goal of a permission question – deepen and extend the conversation. They are giving you permission to have a conversation with them.
You may have also noticed these aren’t even phrased as questions. Doesn’t matter. This is a conversation, not an interrogation. Learn more about these very effective permission questions.
The biggest charitable gifts happen when a donor connects their identity to the act of giving, what Dr. Russell James calls “advancing the donor’s hero story.”
Once you’ve gotten the conversation going with a permission question, you want to spend considerable time allowing the donor to explore their identity as it relates to giving. This is about values, experiences, people they admire, beliefs, and motivations.
Asking identity questions helps you get to know the donors on a very deep and personal level. But you don’t ask these questions only for your benefit or to deepen the relationship. You ask them to help the donor get to know themselves better, and really feel the emotions related to their identity and the things they care about.
Here are a few identity questions, under various categories, that you can explore. You’ll also find more identity questions in this article and more in-depth exploration of the topic.
Philanthropy origin story questions
Life history questions
Questions about people who inspire the donor
Personal values questions
Remember – the idea with all these questions isn’t just to get to know the donor. It’s to help them know themselves better, and begin to see how important giving is to them.
You want them to feel why giving matters so much to them.
With their motivations for giving now aroused and their emotional desire to give now growing, the next stage of fundraising questions helps the donor clarify and define the impact of their gift.
You can use fundraising impact questions to help the donor define victory.
The important thing here is, this isn’t just a generic victory such as providing scholarships to 25 students. These questions are meant to help the donor see why this victory will be so meaningful to them personally.
Identity questions clarify the desire to give. Fundraising impact questions define why and how the impact of that gift will matter so much – to the donor as well as to the recipients of the gift.
Let’s look at some examples. You can also find more fundraising impact questions in this article that expands on the topic.
Those questions can be adapted to any context – schools, hospitals, countries, communities, cities, and even to issues such as race relations, poverty, and veterans. You’re asking the donor what they wish was different in the world, but within the context that your organization influences.
A disaster relief organization would ask these questions differently than a youth mentoring organization. But they can both ask the questions for donors who are drawn to their missions, and you will already know why they’re drawn to you because you’ve asked the identity questions prior to this.
Fundraising impact questions can also be more personal:
You can also try an approach that gets a little more specific, where the person really is close to making a gift, but needs clarity on the kind of impact they want to have:
These questions allow you to tailor their gift to benefit a program within your organization that has the most meaning to them.
Throughout your discussions with a donor, asking good follow-up questions will help continue the conversation, and demonstrate your sincere desire to understand the donor and their motivations for wanting to give.
But as you get farther into the process, you will want to use these follow-up questions more and more. Especially when people give short answers where you can tell there is more to the story. Don’t just brush over things so quickly.
Remember – the goal here is to help the donor understand themselves and connect the act of giving to their identity. You want to help them advance their hero story through giving. The better they feel about giving, the bigger the gift will be.
Follow-up questions play a powerful role in elevating the donor experience. You can find ten outstanding follow-up questions in this article. Here are a few examples:
Great follow-up questions are usually highly contextual. But it requires you to be listening well, and detecting when there is probably more here than the donor has shared yet.
Reflective summary questions show the donor you have been listening. Any good conversationalist will use these frequently, but they matter a lot and have a powerful effect on people.
The way you know this is true is that you can always tell when someone is NOT using reflective summary questions. You just aren’t quite sure if they got what you’re saying. Many times, a reflective summary just restates what was just said.
Doing this makes the donor feel heard and important.
The idea is to summary, restate, and reflect on what the donor has just said. Since giving is about identity, every time you repeat or rephrase what the donor just said, you are validating their identity.
Reflective summary questions are somewhat like a sports replay. We get to see the same play again, but from different angles. We get a fuller picture of what just happened. We can see more clearly. Reflective summary questions have the same effect on the person you’re talking with. Here are a few:
Again, depending on the context, any of these might make sense for the moment. And you can probably think of others. But as much as we may do this in conversations, we also don’t do it most of the time. And not just in fundraising.
In any situation where communication plays a critical role, restating what the other person has said makes the conversation go better because it assures each person that they have been heard AND understood correctly.
Confirmation questions are somewhat similar to reflective summary questions, and they serve a comparable purpose. The difference here is that you don’t actually restate or reflect back to the person what you heard.
Sometimes, it works well to combine these. You might rephrase what the donor said using a reflective summary question, and then cap it off with a confirmation question. Here are examples of confirmation questions:
Suppose a donor has just explained why giving to cancer research is so important to them. They told a story about a family member who had cancer and shared something of the emotions they experienced during that time.
You might say, “So, it feels like you care very much about other people who are suffering from cancer because you’ve been through that too and you can relate to what they’re going through, does that sound right?”
That sentence begins with a reflective summary question, and it ends with a confirmation question.
This guide and the other resources it connects with give you a great foundation from which to improve and implement an effective question-driven approach the next time you meet with donors.
Even better, if your organization employs multiple gift officers, you can train them all using this approach.
And if you want more where this came from, this is just a tiny sample of what you’ll learn in our signature eCourse, Donor Story: Epic Fundraising, which is based on the research and teachings of Hall of Fame researcher Dr. Russell James. The course is worth 20.5 CFREs, and your whole team can take the course for a price just a tiny bit more than the cost for one person to take it.
We want your whole team to benefit from what you’ll learn, so we’ve made it easy and cost-effective for everyone to take the course.
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