picture of two hands reaching out for each other close to the needWe are constantly talking about how important it is for you to get close to the need, so that you keep your heart warm and ready to properly represent that need to your donor.
I was fascinated to read how Peter Zehren does it. He’s a MGO from the Wisconsin Upper Michigan Division of The Salvation Army, and as you know, The Salvation Army does a lot of social service work. Peter has found a way to put himself right in the middle of it so that his heart AND his head are fed.
Here’s what he says, which I have edited slightly for space and clarity:
“I’ve had the opportunity in several positions at social service agencies to sit in on initial intakes. The experiences are both moving and educational. Seeing a person come in for help while the pain of their challenges is still raw provides a deeper understanding. It is equally valuable to watch caseworkers use various techniques, like motivational interviewing, to guide people deftly through the maze of social service systems and opportunities.”
Here’s how he describes learning about the need so he can communicate it to donors:

  1. Establish Trust with the Gatekeeper. The best way to gain this type of experience is to develop a good relationship with a program person or caseworker. For me, meeting caseworkers is a wonderful sharing of experiences we’ve both been through. I learn what they do, marvel over how they do it and share a bit of my own story. That give-and-take is important to establishing trust.
  2. Ask Direct and Clear Questions. Once you’ve established trust, make sure your needs are known. Ask. I told the caseworker that I needed to understand the people we help and how we help them. I needed stories to help donors better understand the impact of their gifts. I asked to speak with them directly. I’ve done that over the phone and at our noon meal service. Speaking directly to the people we help shows the caseworker you’re invested in listening and understanding the people we serve.
  3. Be Aware of the Comfort Level of the Person Being Interviewed. I’ve asked caseworkers (and I’ve been asked by caseworkers) to observe the intake of the people we help. Both the caseworker and the person we help have to be OK with it. The real key (ethically) is the comfort level and permission of the person being helped. An intake is incredibly raw and personal. I always respect that; and when it gets really personal, I ask the person we are helping if they feel uncomfortable and if they’d like me to leave. I give them that option.
  4. Listen and Observe. I found that the comfort of both the caseworker and person we are helping increased if I became a fly on the wall. Frankly, some of the information relayed can be hard to hear. But as an observer, I’m not there to do anything but record and report. I might smile or nod, but I never get into the conversation.
  5. Note the technique of the program person – in this case the caseworker. At our facility, I observed how supportive the caseworker was, while establishing rapport with the person we were helping. She would ask questions and give information to guide the person, not tell them what to do. She deftly asked for the client’s plan without using those exact words. “What are you doing [what might you do] to find housing?” instead of “What is your plan?”
  6. Focus on Impact. I focused my report on how the caseworker’s efforts address the person in need and move people along. I underscored that donor support provides this service. I also highlighted our mission and the specific program that was part of the solution. Being “donor-centric” is also important; i.e., how the information may relate to the donor’s philanthropic plans.
  7. Write it up for the donor. Here’s how Peter begins his write up of the experience for the donor: “Lead caseworker Anne Walli ushers in the mother and her child, and she speaks in a reassuring tone. She listens to the mother’s story while the daughter draws at the edge of a burdened desk. The mother begins… ‘He was stupid again…’ speaking of the man who has abused her. Safe shelter is one of the things your support provides. In this domestic violence case, a temporary place for a week will help the mother find a safe home for herself and her children.” And then Peter connects the donor to the need and the solution.

What I like about Peter’s “system” is his combination of logical process and sincere, heart-filling technique. You can copy this same system for your cause, no matter what it is. Here is a generic summary of the process:

  1. Establish trust with the program person.
  2. Set expectations for what you want to do, including talking to the beneficiaries of the program.
  3. Be aware of the comfort level of the person you are talking to.
  4. Listen and observe, rather than getting into the conversation.
  5. Observe how the program person works, and what’s important to them.
  6. Keep your focus on impact. Besides capturing the emotion of the interaction, you want to capture the details of the impact the program is having.
  7. Then write up all of this for the donor.

Let us know how this works for you.