Wisdom Wednesdays: Ask, Don’t Tell: Three Types of Power Questions That Build Donors for Life

by Jerry Panas, co-author of Power Questions: Build Relationships, Win New Business, and Influence Others

Giving is a deeply personal experience. When you ask people to invest in your organization, you have to reach their hearts and souls.  That’s especially true these days. Even in spite of a sluggish economy, donors are giving generously, but only to those organizations they really care about.  And whether you’re a professional fundraiser or a volunteer, it’s your job to forge that kind of “heart and soul” relationship.

Right now you may be wondering: What should I say to a potential donor to create a deep personal connection with him?  Actually, there’s very little you should say — but there is plenty you should ask.

Strategic questions are powerful and help expose the heart and spirit of the person you’re talking with. Penetrating questions breathe life into a person’s deepest dreams. When you arm yourself with the right questions, you develop a totally engaged and productive relationship with the other person.

Sure, you need to talk about your organization and the people it serves.  (How else will the donor know if your mission resonates with her?) But what truly motivates her to give is asking a few thoughtfully chosen and crafted questions … and truly listening to her answers.

Listening is the single most important skill in our field.  Yet you can’t listen if you aren’t asking the right questions.  Buying a product or service may be a cerebral process.  Giving is most often a visceral one.  But in the case of both, it’s the relationships that make people pull the trigger.

There are three types of power questions that everyone in philanthropy must master.  Most people in the field have already mastered the first type.  They’re often far less familiar with the other two.

1. Giving questions.  These are informational questions to help you understand someone’s giving habits and history.  For example:

Before making a gift, what do you want to know about the organization?

What are the elements and factors that go into your decision about making a gift?

Has there been any gift that has disappointed you — in what way?

When did you start your philanthropy?

If you ask these questions, you’re well on your way to getting the gift.  But you can’t stop there.

With these questions, you’re laying the foundation for the rest of your conversation.  If you listen closely and ask the right follow-up questions, you’ll be able to advance the relationship.  If you don’t, you won’t.  It’s that simple.

2. Passion questions.  These questions get at what people are truly passionate about in their lives.  For example:

What has been the happiest day of your life?  

What in your life has given you the greatest fulfillment?

What is the greatest achievement in your life?

These are the kinds of questions that unearth the truth about what makes someone tick.  When you’re able to access the person’s passion, energy and excitement, it creates a powerful connection between the two of you.  It’s very intimate.  You’re inspiring her to want to take action, while simultaneously making her feel comfortable enough to want to invest in the organization.

I tell a story in Power Questions about approaching a donor on behalf of his alma mater.  Because he had graduated from the school’s engineering program, I assumed he would want to make a gift to it — but I was wrong.  My assumption, and the abrupt way I had presented it, alienated the donor and almost cost the university a gift.

Only after I asked for permission to start over, approached the conversation the right way, and asked the proper question did I discover that he actually wanted to give to the theater program.  That was where his true passion lay, but I had to ask the right questions to find out.

3. Legacy questions.  These questions help you expose the recognition the person might want and the legacy she wants to leave behind. For instance:

What are your dreams?  What else would you like to accomplish?

How would you like to be remembered?  What would you like people to say about you and your life?

If you knew you had only three years to live, what would you hope to achieve personally and professionally?

These kinds of questions have a way of forcing people to cut right to the heart of what matters most.  Nothing motivates us to act so much as being confronted with the reality that we are mortal.  This reminder, coupled with the fact that the donor has the power to make a consequential difference, puts her in a giving frame of mind.

Giving is at times, and with some people, fraught with psychological and emotional undertones.  Often, you function as a philanthropic therapist.  You must ask the probing questions that help the donor reach into his own deeply held feelings and channel them into action.

You have heard the old saying, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.”  Well, you don’t “lead” a donor.  You can’t and shouldn’t make donors do anything they don’t want to do.  Your job is not to make the donor “drink.”  Your job is to make the donor thirsty.  You do that by asking power questions.

Jerry Panas is executive partner of Jerold Panas, Linzy & Partners, one of the world’s most highly regarded firms in the field of fundraising services and financial resource development.  His firm has served over 2,500 client-institutions since its founding in 1968.  Jerry’s clients comprise many of the foremost nonprofit institutions in the world.  They include every major university, museum and healthcare center in the United States.  Internationally, Jerry has advised organizations as diverse as the University of Oxford, The American Hospital in Paris and Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos in Mexico, the largest orphanage in the world.

Andrew Sobel, co-author of Power Questions: Build Relationships, Win New Business, and Influence Others, is the most widely published author in the world on client loyalty and the capabilities required to build trusted business relationships.  His first book, the bestselling, Clients for Life, defined an entire genre of business literature about client loyalty.  His other books include Making Rain and the award-winning All for One: 10 Strategies for Building Trusted Client Partnerships.  Andrew is an acclaimed keynote speaker who delivers idea-rich, high-energy speeches and seminars at major conferences and events.  His topics include Developing Clients for Life; Creating a Rainmaking Organization; Collaborating to Grow Revenue; The Beatles Principles and Power Questions That Win New Business.


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