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Have you ever taken an improv class?

I know it’s an unlikely suggestion, but if you’re in the donor relations part of fundraising, you’d learn a ton of transferable skills. Because the best conversation is always improvised.

Have you ever had a really good, deep, engaging conversation that was scripted? I know I haven’t! Part of what makes those conversations so special is that they are real and in-the-moment, and unpredictable.

That’s what improvising is all about.

Unlock Successful Donor Conversations through Improvisation

Improvisation is real and unpredictable and almost magical. Ideally, that’s the way your solicitation conversations should go. Imagine that you are Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers dancing with your conversation partner.

In an effective solicitation conversation you are attuned to what the donor says and how they feel. In being aware and in-the-moment, you pick up clues about what the donor might wish to do, and you create a sense of trust that facilitates the conversation.

This is even more important during a virtual solicitation. Here’s a story that highlights that fact.

The Problem with a Scripted PowerPoint Solicitation Deck

The other day, I sat in on a practice solicitation. I had been asked to observe and give comments on what worked and what didn’t. Julie was in the role of solicitor and Karen was the donor. We were all on Zoom.

Julie, the solicitor, started the conversation. She greeted Karen and thanked her for her contributions to the organization. Then she said she would share her screen, and up came her solicitation deck.

When she shared her screen, the slides took over most of my screen and the person playing the donor and I became small thumbnails on the right. I’m sure you know what that’s like.

Julie’s slides were well-designed. They were slick and appealing and had only a few words on each slide. Some slides had an effective image as well.

Julie launched into her pitch. She spoke clearly and her words and sentences were well-paced. It was an A plus performance.

So far, so good…

So when did things go awry?

About half-way through the slides — about five minutes in — I found my eyes glazing over. I decided to interrupt her and discuss what was happening. In one of her brief pauses, I said “Julie…” in the hopes that she would stop talking and let me ask me my question. But she didn’t. She just kept on going.

“JULIE…” I said again but louder. And again, no response.

The third time, I clapped my hands and nearly yelled “JULIE!!!” And finally, she heard me and stopped, looking a bit surprised.

The personal connection evaporated.

Julie had been so deeply involved with her script and slides that she had lost all connection with the other people in the Zoom room. She was giving a presentation rather than inviting Karen into a conversation.

Had she gone on for longer, I probably would have started checking my email until she finished and Karen would have done the same.

Beautiful slides and all, Julie’s solicitation was a bust. Not because she wasn’t well prepared; she was. But because she had prepared in the wrong way.

Good Donor Solicitations are Conversations

Julie had prepared a presentation. And good solicitations are NOT presentations. They are genuine, open conversations about the donor and whether and how she would like to help.

What happened to Julie when she talked her way through a slide deck to solicit a gift would be a problem whether she was in person or on Zoom. But the problem is extreme on Zoom where, when the screen is shared and peoples’ images are small, personal cues are hard to discern.

7 Tips to Converse with Donors During a Virtual Solicitation

Here are a number of practical tips to help you make sure that your virtual solicitations are conversations rather than presentations.

1. Practice making a simplified case beforehand.

Review the two or three key points of your case before soliciting a gift just to make sure you know what they are and that you can articulate them very quickly and simply.

Note: This sounds easy, but it’s not. Plan to practice it many times, making it shorter and clearer every time.

2. Trust your ability and ditch the cheat sheet.

Once you have mastered the key points, put away your practice paper and trust that you will find the right words when they are appropriate.

3. Prepare questions rather than answers.

Write down three or four questions you want to ask the donor. Think about the person you are going to solicit and what you’d like to know about that person. Keep the list of questions handy so you can refer to it.

4. Use slides to illustrate a point.

Think specifically about the visual material that might be helpful to clarify a point. Use slides sparingly.

You might, for example, want a slide showing the building plan. Or a map showing the location of your new facility. Perhaps a slide showing your program growth over time. Or you may want the gift range chart on a slide to highlight a giving amount.

5. Create only the slides you might need.

Don’t use slides to outline your presentation. Instead, have only the ones you might need to illustrate something open so you can easily share them if the conversation calls for one  or another.

6. Share your screen only sparingly.

When you sense that a slide would be helpful, share it quickly. Show only one or two slides before unsharing your screen and returning to a direct conversation.

7. Do not read from a script.

It’s easy to read a script on your screen without the other person knowing. But it’s a bad idea as it will impede any real conversation.

If you know your material well, you can simply be in the moment and let your conversation evolve, following a natural flow.

In other words, improvise.

Improvise Your Way to Fundraising Success

The very best conversations are improvised. To do that well, you’ve got to be willing to cede some control to the person you speak with. You’ve got to leave openings and follow their lead.  You’ve got to be present and in-the-moment so you can actually hear what they say and respond.

One key improvising strategy is “Yes, and…”.  Whatever someone says, your should respond affirmatively as in “Yes, I hear you.” Then you can add to what they’ve said with “and…”.  Practice this central improvising technique in all of your conversations.  Let it become a natural part of who you are.  That way, you’ll become a better improvisor. And, the better you get at improvising, the more successful you’ll be. But the first step is getting yourself to let go of the slide deck, be willing to trust your instincts and be fully in the moment.

Solicitation conversations do have a specific framework you can use to shape the conversation. See this post for more information about virtual solicitation and about creating a frame or structure for your conversation.

10 Comments

  1. Susana G Baumann

    Excellent, and it only reaffirms that donors ARE PEOPLE and also , ROR (Return on Relationships). Great post Andrea and Amy!

    Reply
    • Esther Landau

      Yes! One big reason I take improv classes is to have better conversations overall, including with donors. It’s also incredibly fun. 🙂

      Reply
      • Andrea Kihlstedt

        Not surprised you take improv, Esther! Good for you. It is fun though challenging.

        Reply
    • Andrea Kihlstedt

      ROR! I love that. Thanks Susana.

      Reply
  2. Evelind Schecter

    Thank you! good mix of preparation and listening to the donor.

    Reply
    • Andrea Kihlstedt

      Yes, exactly! Hard to find the balance and to relax enough to be in the moment and listen fully.

      Reply
  3. Barbara Barron

    Terrific article Andrea! Love thinking of you in an improv class.

    Thank you for the fresh thinking today.

    Reply
    • Andrea Kihlstedt

      Thanks Barbara!

      Reply
  4. Jane Harrison

    Great post but you dated yourself with the Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers reference.

    Reply
    • Andrea Kihlstedt

      You mean Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers aren’t timeless? If the younger generations don’t know their amazing dancing, they should take a look at some of those old movies. Even today they are magical. That said, I’d be happy for a contemporary suggestion. Any ideas?

      Reply

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