Fundraising done well has many similarities to sales done well.

Fundraisers sometimes bristle at a comparison of their work to sales, particularly when they sense that the comparison implies a transactional focus rather than a focus on building mutually beneficial relationships.

In my experience, salespeople fall into two broad categories:

  • those who prioritize long-term relationships over individual transactions; and
  • those who do not; their focus, then, is (or at least appears to be) on their product or service, their sales goals, and transactions at hand.

There are two men’s clothing shops to which I have returned again and again, over the course of many years. In each case, I have had the great fortune to work with the same salesperson for the entire length of my relationship. In each case, the salesperson made clear at the outset that he was interested first and foremost in getting to know me and what I liked and didn’t, what I needed and didn’t, and what I wanted and didn’t. Over the years, both have made suggestions, listened and remembered feedback, helped me understand when they suggested something I might not otherwise have considered, and even told me when they thought I shouldn’t buy something. They always give priority to the long-term relationship with me as a customer. They consistently and readily resist the temptation to make a sale that might diminish my trust and confidence that they have my best interests at heart.

By contrast, 90% of my experience with salespeople in other clothing stores has left me wishing either that I could be left alone or that I could leave the store as quickly as possible. Their product knowledge is sometimes very good and sometimes poor, but their approach—trying to convince me to buy what they have, rather than first understanding what I want—is off-putting. They might make a sale, but they don’t gain a customer. My friend and development expert Bill McGoldrick talks about the corresponding result in fundraising as the “go-away” gift: the fundraiser might get the gift but doesn’t establish the much more valuable relationship.

For the most part, when potential donors equate fundraising with sales, their statements to this effect are accompanied by a frown, and their comparison is not meant as a compliment. This is, of course, why fundraisers bristle at the comparison.

In general, however, I welcome the comparison between fundraising and sales. I hope I have brought the same care and attention to facilitating philanthropy that my favorite salesmen have brought to selling clothing to me. When someone says, “Fundraisers are basically salespeople,” I usually surprise them by saying, “I agree, and let me tell you why!”

Fundraising done well has many similarities to sales done well:

  1. Both fundraiser and salesperson have deep knowledge of what they have to offer to their audiences.
  2. Both ask first about the objectives of the potential donor/customer.
  3. They listen more than they talk.
  4. They prioritize the long-term relationship over short-term gain.

The fact that the comparison is often made with derision should remind everyone involved in fundraising that our customers—potential donors—have objectives for their giving and a variety of needs, desires, and other motivations behind those objectives. They want to know how a gift will help them achieve those objectives, not only how a gift will meet an organization’s needs or help fundraisers make their quarterly goals. THEY bristle at fundraisers who fail to show genuine interest in their philanthropic hopes and dreams.

Fundraisers would do well to embrace qualities of the most successful salespeople—a focus on the customer, a commitment to active listening, and prioritization of long-term relationships over short-term gain.

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