Pivoting - The Secret to Successfully Handling Difficult Donor Conversations

Posted by National Association of Charitable Gift Planners on Dec 12, 2016 11:05:01 AM

At the 2016 National Conference on Philanthropic Planning (NCPP), attendees learned many valuable techniques and skills in handling interactions with potential and current donors to their organizations. One session offered was “Pivoting - The Secret to Successfully Handling Difficult Donor Conversations” presented by Anne T. Melvin, Director of Training and Education, Harvard University. The following is a brief snapshot of that session.

You are a front-line fundraiser. You're in a prospect or donor meeting and they ask you a difficult question about your organization. Maybe it’s a recent financial mismanagement or a scandal. Perhaps it's a longstanding question about an irksome element about your charity. Often it's a situation where the charity is going one direction, and the donor would prefer the organization go another direction. Whatever it is: the question is about some element you cannot change, you can't solve the questions by finding out more information, and the situation is not going away anytime soon. How do you mollify the prospect while remaining truthful, and holding onto the relationship, hopefully moving it further forward to a gift? You pivot.

Pivoting is simply reframing the situation that the prospect sees. The classic example is where two parties are looking at a glass filled to the 50% mark. One party sees the glass as half empty: it's negative; it's lacking; it doesn't have enough; it's missing something essential. The other party sees the glass as half full: it's positive, it's halfway to the finish line, it's so much better off than those empty glasses. These are two diametrically opposed positions, and yet they are both positions that can be validly held on the exact same factual situation.

While there are many creative ways to pivot a conversation, and the list below isn't exclusive, there are four core principles that you can mentally run through in your mind as you're desperately searching for a way out of the conversational molasses pit you've just waded into. With a bit of creative juggling, they can be stated to form the easy-to-remember acronym "BEAT." When you are in a tricky position, and need to remember your pivoting rules, remember that you want to "BEAT" the situation. The rules are as follows:

  1. Battle: Change the field of battle
    • Changing the field of battle means simply shifting the exact focus of the subject matter under the microscope.
  2. Expand the argument, don't contract it
    • You can pivot an argument by expanding the crux of the disagreement, rather than contracting it to the specific point your donor is complaining about.
  3. And: Use the improv technique of "Yes, and..." (not 'but')
    • A third tactic that is highly effective is to frame any response in terms of agreeing with the prospect. Remember the retail rule that the customer is always right (even when they aren't!).
  4. Tense: Change the verb tense from the past or present to the future
    • When you're trying to get out of a sticky situation, or persuade a prospect to change his/her position where they've dug in pretty well, using language of the future, not language of the past, can help.

Anne Melvin has worked as both a volunteer and a professional in the field of development for over two decades. In recent years, Anne specialized in planned giving, negotiating and closing gifts for various schools at Harvard. As Deputy Director of Gift Planning at Harvard College, she directed the marketing portion of Harvard's gift planning efforts for 12 years, revamping its approach to marketing and tripling its lead generation. She also worked with prospects, soliciting and closing gifts. For the past three years, Anne has directed the fundraiser training and overall development education program at Harvard's central development office.

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Topics: donors, General, NCPP, gift planning