Season 2, Episode 33

In today’s podcast, Amy and Andrea discuss why you should talk with your largest donors before you’ve finalized your plans and developed your materials. They give pointers on how to have early conversations with these largest donors.

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This episode was recorded as part of a live webinar held Monday, April 4, 2022. To participate in future webinars, register at ToolkitTalks.com.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
The topic today is advice visits. One of my very favorite topics in this whole business. What I found, having lived a fairly long life, is that when I get myself in a mindset of asking people for advice, the world opens up.

Amy Eisenstein:

Advice Visits Aren’t Just About Fundraising

Andrea Kihlstedt:
I mean, this isn’t just about asking for money. It isn’t just about fundraising. The minute you start asking people for advice and saying, “You know, here’s what I’m up against. Here’s what I’m thinking about. How would you advise me to think about this? How would you think about this and what suggestions do you have for me?” It changes the relationship you have with people.

It invites people to be on your side. It puts you in a framework of having identified challenges or puzzles that you may be wrestling with, whether they’re fundraising puzzles or otherwise. It gets you to be open to what other people might say. There’s nothing like that sort of openness to relay the groundwork for a constructive conversation.

Amy Eisenstein:
Yeah, I think that’s so important. I mean, I just think back to when I was a brand new fundraiser, and I really thought it was my job to tell everybody everything I knew about the organization I was working for, and it didn’t get me very far. Once I started listening and asking questions and asking advice and hearing other people’s perspectives, that’s when the money started to flow in. But I think you’re right, it goes way beyond fundraising.

When I was just listening to you describe it, I thought, “Oh, that’s networking done really well, or networking on steroids.” Asking people questions, asking for feedback, listening, and then you can have a mutually beneficial conversation, relationship, partnership, work agreement, whatever it’s going to be, but that’s what sprung to mind when you were describing it.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Yeah. It’s even things like dinner table conversations with your partner. If you go in having dinner and there’s something that you’re wrestling with, you have some options. You can keep that in the back of your mind and not talk about it and get through dinner. Or, you can say, “Well, here’s what happened today, and here’s what I’m wrestling with? What do you think about that, and how would you wrestle with this? What approach would you take?”

All of a sudden your dinner table conversation with your partner becomes pretty interesting. It’s interesting how it goes through every facet. I mean, I was telling Amy, and I’m going to stop being on this personal mode, but I think it’s important that we understand the width and breadth of the power of this idea.

One of my grown daughters is spending a couple of nights with us. This morning, she got a little annoyed with me and I realized that I could have turned that around so easily by saying to her, “Gee, here’s the situation. Carla, how do you think I should handle this?” Well, all of a sudden she wouldn’t have been annoyed with me. She would’ve been engaged in solving the problem I happened to be working on, right?

It’s a matter of mindset. Everything is how you turn things around in your mind to be open to other people as partners in helping to move either an idea or a project or a fundraising opportunity forward, and that’s such a powerful concept. If you can somehow find the triggers that would let you have an open frame of mind that invites other people to participate with you in having conversations, robust conversations, about things.

Amy Eisenstein:
I know that lots of fundraisers worry that when they’re asking for advice of donors, that if they can’t take that advice or don’t want to take that advice, then they’re left in a pickle. But I think that you can frame the conversation that you’re asking a few people for advice, and you’re going to wrestle with what they suggest. Sometimes you can do what they suggest, and sometimes you can’t, or you don’t want to.

I think if you frame it in a way that you’re really listening, you’re really considering it, you’re collecting ideas and that maybe there’s a group making the decisions. You’ll get back to them with what you decided. I don’t think, in most cases, it’s a problem when you don’t go with their initial idea. You can present it as brainstorming, right? Yeah.

Creating the Context to Ask People for their Opinions

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Creating what you just said, I’m just going to restate it slightly, but it’s so powerful, which is really creating the context for asking people for their opinion. It’s one thing to go to one person and say, “I would really value your opinion on this, on X, Y, or Z.” Now, if that person happens to be an expert in X, Y, and Z, then it might be appropriate to go to them. If that person is a real estate broker and you are interested in their thoughts about how they would identify a piece of real estate in this neighborhood, then maybe you go to one person.

But if you’re asking to have conversations more generally, to establish the context, you would say something like:

You know, I’ve identified four or five of what I think to be the leaders in our community, and over the next couple of weeks, I’m talking to all of them, right? Would you be willing to have a conversation with me as someone who’s opinion we value?

Well, first of all, that person feels great that you’ve selected them among the community leaders. Second of all, they know that they’re not the only person you’re talking to, right? You’re talking to four or five or eight or ten or however many of you’ve said. They know that their opinion is not going to be the only person. As Amy said, it’s not going to be the only opinion you’re going to get, right.

Then when you talk to other people, right, if I’m talking to Amy and to Jessica, right, let’s just make it up. Amy gives me some thoughts about the problem, and then I go to Jessica. I say, “Well, I was just talking to Amy Eisenstein and she’s so perceptive, and here’s what she was thinking. How does that sound to you?”

You could start having these conversations that wind a number of people in together, right? You could then follow up with a final Zoom meeting if you wanted to with everybody and saying, “You’ve all been so gracious and so generous with your ideas. Here’s what we were thinking about. Here’s the gist of the information that you all helped us get to, and here’s what we’ve decided to do.” What a great context, right?

How Advice Visits Apply to Capital Campaigns

Amy Eisenstein:through a feasibility study. We talk about that all the time here at the Capital Campaign Toolkit. But I want to about before the feasibility study and other opportunities throughout the campaign that you might actually go to your donors, or prospective donors, or community members for advice visits, either in formal or informal settings.

I think it’s important to have a broad perspective of how this concept of including your community members, participants, and volunteers and donors in the process of shaping your capital campaign, shaping the future of your programs and services, shaping your organization. Because if you’re a community based organization of any type you should be involving lots of people, and these advice visits are really effective ways to do that.

Sometimes, I think we get lost in the work or we think we know the right way, but really going out very early prior to a feasibility study is a really important tool for engaging people early on in your campaign and getting buy-in. Andrea, what are your thoughts on that?

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Well, yeah. If you look at the feasibility study as the moment in your campaign planning when you’re actually testing a plan, right. That’s what you’re doing in a feasibility study. That means that the whole period prior to that, you’re actually having to develop the plan.

There is no better time to engage people, to engage prospective donors, in the life of your organization than when you are developing a plan, then when things really are still somewhat fluid and flexible. Whether you do it through a strategic planning process, whether you do it through a set of advice visits, right, with community leaders, whether you do it through a series of focus groups or all of those things.

It’s that planning process where the organization is ready to move to the next level and you have some ideas. You’re not going to people and saying, “Well, we don’t know what we’re doing and we want you to tell us.” That’s not what you’re doing, right? You have some idea of what, in fact, would boost the organization to the next level of operation?

But there are still many questions and many ways in which you might do it, and people will have good input. People may know things about what’s going on in the community. They may have other ideas and thoughts than you had previously thought about.

This whole pre-feasibility study period where things really are somewhat fluid is a wonderful time to think about having advice visits, and many people in our organization can do them. It’s not like you’re talking about money. You’re not talking about money.

If you have a good executive director, board chair, right, someone who’s heading up a planning committee of some sort, someone who’s involved in site selections, someone who’s, right? You can actually say, “Why don’t you go and talk to these three or four people? See what ideas they might have about how we should proceed?”

Getting Feedback at the End of a Campaign

Amy Eisenstein:
Yeah. Let me take it to the other end of the campaign where you will want to go to your volunteers, your key donors, your key volunteers, and say, “How did we do on this campaign?” Regardless of whether you hit the goal, you came in a little short, or you went way over.

I’m not talking about money, but how did we do reaching out to the community? How did you feel? Our communication was, this is the campaign debrief, but it’s advice for future campaigns and what could we have done better? What did we do really well? What should we document?

All of these things that you can go to your donors. Let’s look at the other end of the campaign when you’re exhausted and finished, but it’s important to make sure that you want to keep your donors engaged. Not just by showing them the results, but also continuing to ask them for their advice, for their feedback, get their buy-in and include them.

It is time consuming, but how else should you be spending your time if you are in development than cultivating donors? That’s what this is, this is cultivation. Whether they’re big donors or small donors or volunteers, this is cultivating people who are engaged and involved and invested in your organization.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Yeah. We always use the word cultivation and there’s a good reason that we use it. It is cultivation, and it is also more than that. I mean, it’s not just manipulative. It’s actually wise. It’s actually how to make the world work better for you and your organization? It happens also to be a way to engage people.

Think about your own life. If somebody comes to you and says, “Melanie.” Melanie, I just happened to be looking at your name in the chat. Say, “Melanie, you are in the housing business and housing opportunity development corporation, right. I know you know a lot about housing and our organization is doing something that is quite similar. We’re working with a similar population, right? We have a challenge. This is what our challenge is. I wonder if you would spend 10 or 15 minutes on a Zoom call with me telling me what you know from your perspective?”

Now, imagine I did that, right, whatever the question was. I’m making this this up, of course, and we actually spend some time. Then I get back to you afterwards. I say, “Thank you so much. Your input was really helpful to us as we develop this plan.” Now, guess what’s going to happen to you, Melanie, you’re going to start to feel like you have some real connection to me and to my organization.

If I come and ask you for help with something else or to serve on a committee or to be a partner in some other way, you’re much more are likely to say yes, and that’s powerful, right? It creates a little thread and this business really, you can look at it like a web, like a web of supportive threads that you build over time. Not by lecturing the people or telling people who you are, but by inviting them in to be a partner with you in some way.

Whether it’s financial, whether it’s advice, whether it’s opening a door for you, whether it’s just getting to know you or you getting to know them and understanding them, these are all parts of a web that the more of those little lines you have, little spider supports you have, the stronger that web is and the more resilient it is, and the better you can do it.

It’s a powerful strategy, and it’s easy for us just to think that it’s manipulative, that we do it just because we are in development and we have to ask for advice, and it is way more than that. It is a mindset that leads to you strengthening and expanding your own personal power in what you do. I use power, the word power, advisedly and positively, and building a tremendous net of support for your organization.

How Advice Visits are Tied to Cultivation

Amy Eisenstein:
I wrote down as a future blog post title, “Is cultivation manipulative?” Then you said, “No, it’s wise,” but here’s the thing. I bet if there was any way to do a research project or survey people, that the most successful fundraisers use cultivation genuinely, authentically. They go to donors when they have a real issue, or they really truly want feedback. They’re opening to listening, and fundraisers that are less successful may feel like cultivation is just an exercise that they have to go through, and that they’re not doing it genuinely, authentically. It is a skill. It is something that takes a lot of thought, practice, you get better at it.

When Andrea asks you a question, she’s genuinely and authentically looking for an answer. She’s not doing it because she’s manipulating you or me or anybody she’s talking to, but you can get better at it. It is a skill. I think that thinking about how could this person add value, and what could I ask them that would really support this effort, this organization?

All right. I think we’ve had a great conversation about advice visits. Our advice is do them, but think thoughtfully about them. Be genuine, be authentic. Truly go into them with the idea that you’re going to listen, and if you can get a small nugget from everybody you talk to, whether it’s the whole idea or a teeny tiny piece of the idea, or it shapes, or it twists, it’s critical.

I’m just working with one of the Toolkit clients on a Guided Feasibility Study, and the first three people he went out and talked to suggested all had the same suggestion of focusing on a different area of the campaign. The campaign didn’t change at all. The emphasis changed, and it is going to make such a big difference.

If he hadn’t gone and asked for people’s advice now, be it was in a formal way in a feasibility study setting, but he got great advice that is going to change the trajectory of his campaign without changing the programs or services. But just changing the… I don’t know how to explain it without giving the whole scenario away, but advice visits, they can be invaluable. That’s how I think I’m going to leave it for now. Any final words from you, Andrea?

Final Words

Andrea Kihlstedt:
I just think it’s the key to living a rich life is to get good at asking questions and opening your mind to the wonder that other people can bring to you, right? That when we stop being anxious about ourselves and start being open to other people, and it’s not easy to do that, it is not. All of us revert to protecting ourselves, whether it’s in a fundraising context or otherwise. It’s something we need to keep working on. When we can do that, so many things open up and become remarkable.

Amy Eisenstein:
Before we wrap up, we want to just remind listeners that next week we are going to be having a guest on the program, Joe Tumolo, who’s going to be talking about planned gifts and incorporating planned giving into your campaign. We’re super excited about that, so please do make sure to mark your calendars and join us next week for that.


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