[Summary] #DPPOfficeHours – The Power of Asking vs Telling
Over 1,500 RSVP’d to this interview on the Power of Asking vs. Telling.
You can find the recording in our Resource Library.
April 10 #DPPOfficeHours – The Power of Asking vs. Telling
This #DPPOfficeHours saw Dr. Russell James, Professor at Texas Tech University and Jim Langley, President of Langley Innovations give a comprehensive overview of the power of asking vs. telling in fundraising.
These two leading practitioners and researchers of our field shared both science and lived experience from multi-million dollar asks that started with simple questions. This is the first time Dr. Russell James and Jim Langley presented together. The Donor Participation Project was honored to host this conversation as part of #DPPOfficeHours.
Background of the speakers
Dr. Russell James is a professor at Texas Tech University where he teaches charitable financial planning. Prior to this, he spent a number of years as a director of planned giving, as well as a college president, focusing on major gifts and capital campaigns. For the past many years, he has focused on researching charitable giving and fundraising, and to share discoveries that help others to encourage generosity.
Jim Langley has spent 30 years in higher education – 21 years as a vice president – running big campaigns at major universities. For the past 14 years, he has been the President of Langley Innovations where he helps clients to understand the cultural underpinnings of philanthropy and the psychology of donors and, with that knowledge, to develop the most effective strategies and tactics to build broader and more lasting communities of support.
Key takeaways from the discussion
The Question Behavior Effect
Asking a person to do some prosocial act – donating, volunteering, giving blood, voting, recycling, etc. – requires a trade off from the person. If the person pays the cost (i.e. the prosocial act), they get the positive identity effects – I am the type of person who gives or volunteers or recycles. However, if you ask the person to predict if they will act in the future (e.g. asking individuals how much they would hypothetically donate to a project in the future), that also has the same positive identity effects, but without requiring any effort or cost from the person.
Research suggests that people are more likely to predict they will act prosocially than to actually act prosocially. Asking individuals to predict their behavior can have a significant impact on their subsequent future actions. Once people predict, they act. They change their future behavior to match their prediction. So asking for the prediction first increases the likelihood of prosocial behavior.
For instance, one experiment asked for this prediction – if you were contacted by your high school or college and asked to donate money, would you do so? It turned out that asking this, a few days before a fundraising request, worked and the share of those donating to their college increased by half. In another experiment, when people were asked how much they would hypothetically donate to a project, asking this increased actual donations and gifts went up by 43% for a project that helped turtles and by 25% for another one that helped elephants.
Asking questions that connect with the donor’s personal history and values can lead to a positive prediction and subsequently increase the likelihood of donating. Ultimately, nonprofits should aim to ask questions that help donors to project and define a personal meaningful victory. By doing so, nonprofits can increase their impact and the donations they receive.
Structured interviews with the right attitude
When asking people, it is important to approach such interviews with an open mind, a kind heart, and a desire to truly know the other person without an agenda to extract selective pieces of information and answers. It helps to structure the interview with the right attitude. In an example of a student discovery exercise at Georgetown University, hundreds of students conducted face-to-face in person interviews with over 7,000 alumni over a three-year period. The exercise taught them that people respond positively to projective questions, such as what they would do if they had an extra day in the week, and that these projections can show where people want to go in life and how as an organization you can help.
The key to setting up a productive interview is establishing trust first. You have to create conditions that cause people to feel safe and therefore be open with you. It is important to set the stage to be transparent, to preview, and then to promise how you would follow up.
Crafting a personally meaningful victory for the donor
The common factor among planned gifts or large estate gifts is that they come with instructions or a story that makes them compelling. Large gifts come with a desire to produce a specific, lasting impact, and the impact is the motivation for the size of the gift.
To motivate a large bequest gift over a small one, it is important to help the donor define a personally meaningful impact or victory. This can be done by asking questions such as “What would you like to accomplish with your gift?” or “Have you thought about how you would like your gift to be used?” These questions can lead to conversations about impact, which can then help guide the donor towards a specific amount. For example, you may describe a gift made by another donor with a similar desire for the cause, and ask if that type of gift would appeal to them. The donor’s reaction can then guide the conversation towards a suitable option.
The ultimate goal is to help the donor construct a personally meaningful philanthropic victory. This involves engaging in appreciative inquiry, which goes beyond simply extracting information, and requires being a guiding sage for the donor and their desire to create a personal and meaningful impact.
Gifts that create an oral history
Working with planned gifts is like conducting an oral history, and it’s important to take time to truly listen to the donor’s story in multiple interactions. By doing so, a pattern or a theme may emerge that can guide the gift officer in helping the donor construct a personally meaningful philanthropic victory or impact.
The Texas Technical Imaging Institute conducted research which suggests that connection to a donor’s life story is the main driving force behind charitable bequest decisions. In their research, the strongest predictor of whether a person would include a charity in their estate plan was an area of brain activation called “visualized autobiography“. This refers to the internal visualization of oneself from an outside perspective.
It was found that when people were asked about their interest in making a charitable gift in their will, their interest dramatically increased when the gift was described as “supporting a cause that’s been important in my life“. This phrase triggers a life review process where people reflect on the causes that have been important to them. This life review process is what predicts and precedes the decision to include a charitable gift in a will.
This research supports the idea that understanding a donor’s life story is crucial in planned giving, and that listening to their story can help fundraisers identify patterns and themes that can inform their fundraising approach. It allows gift officers to learn and grow close to donors. There are techniques to be learned from skilled interviewers and oral historians in crafting donors’ life stories and what motivates them. The end goal is to help donors pass on what they value most to future generations.
The above discussion was followed by an open Q & A session with questions from DPP members.
Q & A
Universality of wanting to connect with a cause
People wanting to act on what life has taught them to be most important is universal, but the institutions or causes they support can vary based on their background and experiences. However, causes motivating people to action is a philanthropic constant.
Focus on self-actualizing gifts
It is important to distinguish different types of gifts that an organization is receiving and identify a “pat on the head” gift as a smaller, socially compliant gift, compared to a major life investment gift which requires a conversation about the donor’s personal philanthropic impact. The latter type of gift is a strategic and self-actualizing gift that is more significant in terms of giving. It may not help to focus on obligatory gifts, such as those motivated by gratitude or faith, as they are not the self-actualizing gifts that organizations should aim for.
Deep listening conversations can lead to more meaningful giving, and organizations should focus on large gifts within people’s means rather than just the largest gifts. In conclusion, gifts that are self-actualizing for the donor and strategic for the institution seeking them should be the aim of fundraising efforts.
How to convert “pat on the head” donors to donors contributing for a passion
The key is to pay attention to active listening, fostering curiosity, and building trust when working with donors. Fundraisers should take the time to understand donors’ needs and goals, and work to identify personally meaningful victories that align with their organization’s mission. By acting as facilitators and providing guidance and support, fundraisers can help donors achieve their philanthropic goals while also building long-term relationships.
Creating impact through donor-advised funds (DAFs)
Donor-advised funds (DAFs) are viewed more as a tool that breaks up the giving experience into smaller steps, allowing donors to enjoy being philanthropic multiple times. Traditionally, donors would write a check and make a gift, but with DAFs, donors can control the money. Donors can think about how they are growing over time, reminding themselves of how philanthropic they are being. When the money is moved to make an impact, the donor is being philanthropic again. Breaking up the giving decision into smaller pieces and expanding the enjoyment of being philanthropic increases the amount of giving that takes place.
The democratization of private family foundations has made DAFs available to more people, but there is a need to follow limitations on how long the money can be held before being paid out to a charitable organization. It is seen that most DAF activity occurs at year-end, suggesting that donors may not be happy with their choices and want to give more thought. Donors want more soulful experiences and want to meet with beneficiaries and feel the impact of their philanthropy. To make DAF giving more accessible, organizations can offer the option on their web presence and follow up immediately with an interview to deepen the relationship with the donor.
Designated gifts vs. unrestricted gifts
A study was referenced on the largest gifts given to universities and colleges which found that only 14% of these large gifts included any unrestricted funds. This presents a challenge for fundraisers to bridge the gap between organizational goals and donor motivation. You may consider approaching this challenge in creative ways, such as converting a budget into a series of restricted gift opportunities or offering a storied restricted gift that includes all parts of an operation.
The key is to make the gift personally meaningful for the donor so that they feel they are making a philanthropic victory that accomplishes something. It is important to offer donors choices and to meet them where they are in terms of their values and motivations. Building trust with donors over time can lead to more responsiveness to a nonprofit’s core strategic needs. Nonprofits should avoid projecting their financial structure onto donors, who ultimately, care about gifts that have meaning and that allow them to tell a story that matches their identity and values.
Automation and application on a larger scale
Technology can be a useful tool in identifying potential donors and starting relationships with them, gradually shifting to deeper conversations. However, it is important to maintain a human touch and keep the conversation going to establish deeper connections. The use of surveys is seen as a way to gather valuable information and start relationships that may lead to significant donations in the future.
Technology may be used to personalize surveys and create multiple journeys for potential donors. The importance of keeping the conversation going was highlighted, with the need to constantly share and invite more people into the conversation. The traditional campaign cycle is now usually replaced with shorter cycles that involve surveying, reflecting back or mirroring, engaging, and then asking.
Donors refusing to meet in person
In order to meet donors and ask questions, there needs to be a valid reason for doing so, such as asking for help or advice, expressing interest in their story, or identifying them as having a particular insight or identity. It’s important to avoid asking questions that appear to be a disguised request for money, as this can de-legitimize the purpose of the questions.
Additionally, asking questions that are leading or only set up for one response will not yield genuine answers. To engage with potential donors, experiential engagement is crucial to create a connection with them and showcase the mission and aspirations of the organization. To approach potential donors, it’s best to ask for permission and preview the questions, as this can make them feel more comfortable and encourage them to provide candid responses. If a meeting isn’t possible, it’s still possible to obtain valuable input from donors by asking open-ended, soul-searching questions that will generate thoughtful answers. Overall, the goal is to make potential donors feel valued and heard, and to establish a genuine connection that may lead to long-term engagement and support.
ROI of these principles
Organizations can be more creative in finding ways to listen to donors and engage with them. It was suggested to utilize staff, volunteers, and board members to build relationships with donors and seek out major gifts from those with the capacity to make a significant impact. While it is important to expand the volume of donors, it would be more helpful to focus on identifying those who have the willingness, interest, and capacity to make major transformational gifts. Relying solely on small donations may be limiting and that major gifts from dedicated donors are necessary to truly make an impact. Organizations were encouraged to recognize this empirical reality and invest more time in building relationships with donors who can provide the resources needed to make a significant difference for their cause.