Change your words. Change your world.

Exactly What to Say for Non-Profits

In the list of critical conversations, communications with donors, potential donors, and volunteers tops the list, as they can literally make or break the future of a nonprofit organization. So isn’t it about time we workshopped the Magic Words so we can have the most effective conversations with our most important constituents?

As the Exactly What to Say author, Phil Jones, demonstrates so well, “the worst time to think about what you are saying is when you are saying it”. To increase your effectiveness in conversation, Jones says you must “do the work before the work, and take time to intensely think about…common objections, the reasons and excuses…that stop decisions from being made or prevent them from being made in your favor.”

When you slow down and prepare, you’ll likely realize you already know some of the objections and questions you’ll hear from your donors:

The best way to address these issues is to prepare, plan, and be intentional with your conversations. Get curious with your questions, and “remain curious for long enough for them to explore their reality” (Jones) and break through the objections. When donors feel you come to a point where you understand them, they will also know that you care about their desires, intentions, and reality. When you can further demonstrate that the conversation is not “YOU vs THEM”, but “YOU and THEM vs IT”, they will know you are working together to achieve the greatest good.

Be the asker of the questions, rather than the provider of answers, and you’ll help donors discover their own answers and move forward with decisions.

Best "work through objection" questions

What do you understand about our new focus on improving technology to make the performing arts more accessible to all groups?”

When the objection centers on an assumption that they already know about your organization or project, go specific and ask for their understanding on a new or changed project or personnel. This can create an “aha” moment and an opportunity to share more information or invite a visit.

Help me understand why you paused your giving after the 2020 Zoo Days drive?”

This is the perfect question when you want to understand why a donor stopped giving or had an unsatisfying giving experience. As you give them permission to tell you what your organization did, didn’t do, or did wrong, you can follow up with, “How important is it to you that your Foundation ….” to garner more details of how their priorities are ordered. (You can also ask this question using a scaled response, so you can weigh answers against each other.)

Best rejection-free offer

I’m not sure if it’s for you, but we have a new program that brings therapy animals to visit children in the oncology unit. The visits have been proven to lower anxiety and help patients feel less isolated. When would be a good time for you to participate in a visit?”

Using this opening takes the pressure off the donor, and piques their interest at the same time. Rather than hoping for interest, or asking if they’d like to participate in a visit, the last sentence assumes there is a good time and takes you to the next step in the conversation. 

Best invitation question

When was the last time you visited campus and to see the changes we’ve made?”

No matter the response of the donor or volunteer, you can use this as an opportunity to invite them to see what you want them to see, the changes, improvements, or additions that you know will garner a positive experience and encourage giving.

Best deal sweetener

“Thanks for your continued support of the GOAL Foundation. I see from our system that you haven’t yet signed up to volunteer at the marathon. Would it help if I threw in a couple of t-shirts so you and some friends could come together?”

This strategy, for increasing response rates, actually utilizes two important conversational tools:

  1. Stating a mutually-agreed upon fact, followed by,
  2. An offer to enhance the original opportunity. 

For use with unresponsive donors, you could say:

“You’ve sponsored our fundraising concert for 6 of the last 8 years — you’ve helped make the event what it is. We’d love for your continued support. Would it help if we included some additional passes to the VIP event so your guests can meet the performers?”

Whatever the situation, when you can sweeten the deal to get a positive response, it is worth it.

Best next steps

“We are thrilled you agreed to do a 3-year pledge! Your support is critical for the hospital to continue providing first-rate cancer treatment. What happens next is our director will come by with some documents so we can get the paperwork out of the way, and then we will make a join announcement to the press. Now what questions do you have for me?

There is nothing more awkward than getting what you asked for, and then blowing the details. The simple phrase, “What happens next” takes away worry, outlines the next steps, and demonstrates to your donor that there is a process that you’ll see them through. Rather than ending with “do you have any questions”, use this simple swap and rephrase it to, “what questions do you have for me?” to give them the permission and space to discuss things further.

Perspective changers

“This is so much more than a horse stable where girls can ride and learn. We provide workshops and mentors to help our young ladies love and empower themselves. How would you feel if Lily had gotten that kind of help when she needed it?”

Sometimes donors need to understand the bigger picture. And sometimes they need a glimpse of a different scene altogether. By using “How would you feel if” or “Just imagine“, you can help them create the emotional shift in perspective that may make all the difference. 

Making it count

“We are excited that you are going to join the Trails Foundation! Is a three-year family membership enough?”

When donors or volunteers give you a “yes”, help them upgrade by choosing a higher option and asking if it is enough. In this example, the new donor could have chosen an individual membership or a family membership, for between 1-5 years. Preselecting a mid-high range option will still often keep the “yes”, with a greater commitment for the same amount of work. Thus a first-time donor becomes a multi-year donor in one exchange.

Bringing it all together

Remember, donors and volunteers are people, too. When we talk to them using language that speaks to their hearts, minds, calendars, and pocketbooks, we have the chance to create trust, establish relatability, and encourage action. And when our questions help us get to know their desires and intentions, we can “Show them that you know them” so they will trust us with their time, talents, and treasure. 

Jodi Orgill Brown

Jodi Orgill Brown​

Creating communities in the workplace has never been more important. Jodi is the master of helping teams to find the glue that sticks them together and the fuel that empowers them to achieve more through creating an anti-fragile outlook for all.

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