Have you ever been in the presence of someone who is blathering away and you can barely understand what they are saying? It happens quite frequently in major gift communications. It’s called “talking over the person’s head” – communicating something beyond the recipient’s level of comprehension.
Highly technical people do this not because they are trying to confuse the target, but because they are sincerely trying to communicate something they understand and they don’t know an easy way to do it.
I’ve been around HR, Finance, Marketing, Communications, Fundraising and Program people that I don’t understand. I’ve sat with MGOs who delivered a very fine presentation that no one understood. For the most part, these good people are not showing off or trying to be complicated and difficult; they are simply not aware that their audience is not with them.
When I am in a situation where someone is speaking over my head (and maybe over the heads of everyone in the room), I try to kindly re-direct by saying something like: “I’m not sure I am tracking with you, name. Can you put it another way?” If the pattern continues, I find a way to talk to the person privately to give them insight into what is happening.
Most often when I can hold up the mirror and the person can actually see it, they are grateful and self-correct. But I have had some occasions where the person angrily told me to mind my own business – so I do, and then I sit there and watch the disaster play out.
One of the important questions to ask when a major donor responds negatively to your request for funding is this: “did the donor understand what I was trying to say?” More often than not when the answer is “no,” it is either because there is not a match between the donor’s interests/passions and your ask, or you have not presented the case in a manner that the donor understood.
It is good to examine both of these possibilities every time you get a “no.”
Jeff and I talk incessantly about the passions-and-interests thing. I know you get that. But have you examined how you present your case?
One formula I always use to construct a case or ask is a simple set of questions as follows:

  1. What is the problem? What is the situation you want the donor to join you in addressing? You need to talk and write about it simply. And it needs to be something that needs resolution. If what you are presenting does not need resolution or fixing, then why are you presenting it? What’s the problem?
  2. What is the consequence of not addressing this problem? A problem left unresolved has consequences. What are they? Write them down. Talk about them. What is the consequence to human life and welfare? What is the consequence to society or the planet? You don’t know? Well, you’d better find out, because this information is critical to making your case to the donor and securing their participation. When you talk about consequences, talk about them in emotional terms. Use pictures and videos.
  3. What do you propose to do about it? What is your solution? You have identified a problem. You have stated that there are consequences if the problem is not addressed or resolved – and those consequences are not pretty. So what are you going to do about this? State it simply and in plain English.
  4. How are you going to solve the problem? Be careful here, because in this one area you could get way too detailed and technical. Just tell the donor HOW you are going to solve it. Keep it simple. And if you have examples of how you have successfully done this before, share them. It proves you know what you are doing.
  5. How will you know you’ve solved it? You need to decide in advance what measurement you will use to know that you have reached the objective. This needs to be specific, so the donor can know that YOU know how your solution will be evaluated for effectiveness.
  6. When are you going to solve it? You have to introduce time into your story; otherwise you have an open-ended timeline, and that doesn’t work. Have you been around someone who promised to do something, but then they don’t state a deadline? It’s frustrating. You can’t help but doubt their ability to do what they are saying they will do. You need to have a timeline.
  7. What will it cost?
  8. How can the donor participate? This is the “ask.” This is where you tell the donor how they can be involved and the difference they can make. Jeff and I have heard of hundreds of seminars and trainings on “doing the right ask,” and the authors and speakers go on and on about all the techniques for asking. Much of this material is good. But often, the MGO has not made the case, and the donor is left wondering whether the money she is being asked to give will actually accomplish something.

Take a look at the cases and proposals you are writing, and see if any of the points above are missing. Remember, the best way to bring a donor to a positive decision to support you is, first, to ensure that you are addressing their passions and interests – then be sure you are making a logical, reasonable and emotional presentation of a problem and its solution.
On the subject of emotion, remember this: facts tell – emotions sell. You cannot deliver an emotionless presentation and expect anyone to get on board. It will not happen. The fact is that there are tragic consequences to the problems your nonprofit is organized to solve. You need to talk about them and share from your heart.
Then you need to ask the donor boldly to join you in dealing with the hurt and the pain experienced by humankind, animals, the environment and the planet. That is what will bring your donor joy and fulfillment.