Skip to the main content.

9 min read

Create your own story arc for fundraising conversations

Create your own story arc for fundraising conversations

A guest post by Kel Haney, Senior Consultant at Donorly. Kel introduces her method for shifting fundraising conversations from transactional moments to relationship opportunities. Use this advice to create a story arc to make your fundraising conversations run smoothly - without using a script!

For the past 17 years, I’ve been engaging in fundraising conversations with potential donors on behalf of non-profit organisations. Through coaching, training, and mentoring, I’ve shared my methodology with hundreds of individuals, usually artists and development teams. I’m all about “taking the ‘ick’ out of the ‘ask’": I help individuals fundraise in a manner that feels authentic, honest, and even enjoyable. 

Before I jump in, I want to acknowledge that we all come to these conversations with our own history: memories of unsavoury fundraising asks (a canvasser stopping you on the street and not taking ‘no’ for an answer), cringe-worthy missteps (a fundraiser calling your personal phone and not knowing your giving history with the organisation), and our own psychological roadblocks connected to our personal relationship to money (an ingrained sense of shame around talking about finances). None of these challenges can be avoided – we need to acknowledge that they exist and use those experiences to forge ahead from a more open, patient, positive mindset.

You might think the first logical step in preparing for a painless fundraising conversation is to create a script.

I want to challenge you to think differently: In the spirit of reimagining how to fundraise, let me invite you to move away from scripted conversations.
Why? Without a script, you'll have more organic, authentic conversations with each potential donor.

In order to get comfortable with the idea of working without a script, you’ll need to understand the arc of a telefundraising phone call. I’m a visual thinker, so I like to imagine four 'poles' holding up the 'tent' of the conversation. In this blog post, I’ll explore these four Tent Poles and how you can use them as markers within your fundraising conversation:

  1. The Opening

  2. The Main Event

  3. The Ask

  4. The Wrap-Up

My hope is that by having these four Tent Poles established as markers, you’ll experience newfound freedom in your fundraising conversations. Around the Tent Poles, feel free to go with the natural flow of the conversation. Ideally, because you know that you can always return to your Tent Poles, you’ll be more comfortable and more authentic in your fundraising conversations. If you and a potential donor end up on an unexpected tangent, that’s something to be embraced - you’re likely to learn something interesting about each other, feel more comfortable with the conversation, and genuinely enjoy the interaction!

You can always get back on track with the next Tent Pole whenever the conversation has a natural lull or segue.


The Opening - Establish rapport with your potential donor

This is the most important part of conversation, in which you will establish rapport with the potential donor. In person or via a video call, I suggest taking approximately 20% of your allotted time together (around 7 minutes for a 30 minute Zoom call or 20 minutes of a 90 minute lunch date) just to ease into the conversation. The goal is to connect with your potential donor from an authentic, genuine place and for you BOTH to get more comfortable with one another.

If you and this potential donor are new to each other, do some research to give the relationship the strongest start possible. When doing this research, I like to find a few things that aren’t directly connected with the non-profit we’re going to be discussing. Some curated ‘ice breaker’ topics are a great way for you to build rapport and trust with your potential donor, in addition to helping you assess how to enter into the fundraising conversation with them.

Do you have any colleagues or friends in common with this person? If you feel that your relationship with your shared friend/colleague is strong enough, reach out to them: ask if they can think of anything you and the potential donor have in common, share any background that feels applicable, or give you a heads-up about the potential donor (knowing something simple such as whether they are more introverted or extroverted may affect how you go into the conversation). If you don’t immediately know of a mutual acquaintance, explore social media and see if that avenue uncovers anyone you both know.

Even if you do have a shared connection with the potential donor, taking some time to research them on the internet is still a great idea: if they happen to have a strong social media presence, you are in luck! Explore any shared connections (you both have rescue dogs or you both love to cook), or interests that you’re curious to learn more about (they like to hike in nature and you’ve been thinking about picking up that hobby, too).

When researching a potential donor, I also suggest that you stay on the look-out for something they’ve accomplished that lets you 'be a fan' of them or their work. I always love being able to lead with sincere enthusiasm. For instance, the potential donor may have been a guest on a podcast and you really resonated with how candidly they spoke about their recent career shift. Remember, we always want to lead with authenticity, so only mention something you admire about the potential donor if it’s truly how you feel.

If you are engaging with the potential donor via a phone call (especially if the call is out of the blue): I encourage you to immediately establish who you are, your connection to the charity, the potential donor’s connection to the charity, and the reason for the call. Maybe that reason is to provide an update on the organisation's progress with a campaign or to encourage the potential donor to attend an upcoming event. Although I don’t recommend fully scripting conversations, I do find it helpful to plan out your opening to encourage a strong start. Here’s an example:

“Hi Angela! This is Cheryl Jones, and I’m on staff at Steadfast Theatre Company. I’m touching base because I think you saw our production of 'Into the Woods'. We’re conducting a fundraising campaign right now and I know you’ve been involved with our work in the past (thank you for that donation back in December - your support means a lot to us). We wanted to give you an update on what’s going on right now and hopefully get your more involved. But, first and foremost, I’m so curious to know how you heard about Steadfast Theatre Company in the first place?"


The Main Event - Strengthen your donor's connection to your organisation

This Tent Pole strengthens the potential donor's connection to your charity by inviting them ‘in’ to what’s happening at the organisation. Share a few talking points connected to your organisation’s current goings-on, and see which particular updates are resonating most with the potential donor. Here are some examples:

  • Events for the potential donor to attend: If you are fundraising for a performing arts organisation, talking about the work you're developing or producing is a fantastic way to further connect with the potential donor. You two can bond over your shared passion for the work! Feel free to discuss any work you’ve both seen and tell them a bit more about the upcoming programming. If you have any special events coming up that you think the potential donor may want to attend, feel free to mention these, too.
  • Any recent ‘wins’ for the organisation: This could include recent award nominations/wins, positive press reviews or features, grants received, and new leadership or other employees. Anything that’s recently happened at the organisation that you are proud to talk about, most likely should be shared!
  • The status of your current fundraiser: Share news regarding your current fundraiser as the final ‘Main Event’ point you discuss. Here are some specific points I suggest you share:
    • Why are you raising money right now (end of the calendar year, end of the financial year, capital campaign, something else…)?
    • How will these funds be used (to meet your organisation’s annual budget, to build a new building or start a new programme, to increase artists’ compensation…)?
    • Where are you within this campaign (just starting out, right in the middle, wrapping up…)?
    • What’s your numerical goal?
    • How far away are you from the goal right now?

Sharing news about your organisation's current fundraiser is the perfect way to segue right into Tent Pole #3: The Ask.


The Ask: Shoot for the moon with a targeted donation ask

This is the actual ask for a donation. During this part of the conversation, you should 'shoot for the moon' with a specific, intentional, numerical donation ask. Here’s what this might look like:

“Angela, last year, you helped us by making a donation of £4,000. Given that we’re expanding our season to five shows instead of four this upcoming season, I am going to shoot for the moon and ask if it’s possible for you to donate £5,000 this year. What’s your initial thought about that?"

Never put the potential donor on the spot during your ask. Instead of saying, “Can you do it or not?” I suggest you keep the conversation open-ended (“How does that sound?” “Is that gift within the realm of possibility? What’s your initial thought about that?”) And stay curious about how they respond!

Next is arguably the hardest part: Hold for the silence....

Take a deep breath, a sip of your coffee, a bite of lunch - whatever it takes to keep you from saying anything else. It’s time for the potential donor to have some breathing room to think about what you’ve told them and to consider your ask. I guarantee that this will be uncomfortable when you first begin the practice, but it’s an extremely important moment in your conversation. Holding for the silence reinforces that you’re coming from a place that is open-ended and curious, instead of a place where you’re putting someone on the spot.

I’m sure you’re now wondering, “How will the potential donor respond? And then what do I say next?”

While there are countless ways the potential donor may respond (they are human, after all!), here are the most likely responses and my recommendations on how to move the conversations forward:

  • The potential donor agrees to your Ask: How wonderful! Feel free to be vulnerable and celebrate the moment with the donor - it’s a moment when you both are most likely feeling pretty good, so enjoy it!
  • The potential donor asks some follow-up questions: I consider these follow-up questions as 'points of interest'. If the potential donor is asking questions, take a deep breath and settle into the conversation - they’re invested, so do your best to answer their questions as fully and accurately as possible. No matter what, admit it when you don’t know an answer. You’re striving to build a relationship that’s built on honesty and trust: you can always seek out the answer to their question and follow up with them.
  • The potential donor doesn’t agree to your Ask: Please work to stay open. A ‘no’ doesn’t have to be the end of the conversation. I could write a whole blog on this subject, so I’ll try to keep it brief here: thank the potential donor for their candour and then lead with curiosity as you ask some follow-up questions to assess how to best continue to build the relationship.
    Here are some examples of how the rest of the conversation could unfold:
    • Is this person saying ‘no’ to the particular donation amount you proposed?
    • If so, would they feel comfortable at a different price point?
    • Is this a particularly inconvenient time for them to donate and would they feel comfortable if you circle back at a different date?
    • Are they not in a financial position to donate now and is there another way they could engage with the organisation (such as volunteering their time or simply attending the organisation’s events)?

Regardless of whether or not the potential donor says ‘yes’ today, your overall objective is to strengthen their relationship to the organisation.


The Wrap-Up: Strengthen the relationship by planning the next contact point

At this point, no matter how the potential donor ultimately responded to your Ask, you should be wrapping up the conversation by setting up the next point of contact between them and your organisation. Regardless of whether or not they're donating now (and the amount of their donation), you want to always focus on strengthening their relationship to the organisation by underlining how they can get involved in the future and when they should expect another point of contact with the organisation. Here are some scenarios:

  • The potential donor agreed to your Ask: While continuing to share your enthusiastic gratitude for the gift, establish the next steps (if you are the person who processes these gifts, feel free to ask for all the necessary information during this conversation; if someone else in the organisation processes these gifts, let the donor know who will be in contact with them next, along with the mode of communication and a timeline).
  • The potential donor is still considering your Ask: Establish when you (or someone else at the organisation) will follow-up and what the mode of communication will be. If they have some unanswered questions, assure them that you will get the answers and follow-up.
  • The potential donor didn’t agree to your Ask: Thank them again for being so candid during your conversation today. Remember to keep the door open for the relationship to continue to grow. If appropriate, establish when you (or someone else at the organisation) will follow-up and what the mode of communication will be.

Regardless of the outcome of The Ask, remind any community member with whom you’ve had a fundraising conversation of any events you’re hoping they’ll attend or any material regarding the organisation you think they’d enjoy (maybe a video interview with an artist or a recent press feature).


4 steps to great fundraising conversations

There are four main takeaways from this 'Tent Pole' method that I want to highlight:

  1. Focus on building the relationship (instead of the outcome of this one conversation). At the end of the day, you have no control over whether the potential donor says ‘yes’ or ‘no’ during this particular interaction. What you can control is how you present yourself to the potential donor. You can focus on leading the conversation from a place that is candid, authentic, passionate, specific, and vulnerable; you can focus on actively listening to the other person, and making an Ask that feels catered to this particular person in this particular moment.
  2. Fundraising is an extremely vulnerable act. Having a genuine conversation with someone (and ultimately making a fundraising ask) is very intimate and challenging, so please be kind and gentle with yourself.
  3. The Ask takes practice. While challenging at first, 'Hold for the Silence' is integral to the process. Do whatever you need to do to coach yourself into incorporating it: maybe write yourself a note to keep at your desk, or ask a trusted colleague to hold you accountable. With practice, 'Hold for the Silence' will become second nature. I promise.
  4. Always circle back to “taking the ‘ick’ out of the ‘ask’ ”. Trust that you being you, whoever you are, is all you need to be in these conversations. Yes, get really clear about your objectives. Ask yourself the hard questions: Why is this organisation so important to you? Why are you putting so much of your time and energy into this organisation? Get into these conversations from a place that is vulnerable, candid, and curious about the potential donor.


Explore more blogs for fundraisers, including the first two in this series by Kel Haney

Kel Haney is Senior Consultant at Donorly.
Reach out to Kel for a complimentary 30 minute coaching consultation