You know this already. Our sector has more voluntary turnover rates (19%) than the overall labor market (12%) right now. You are losing your fundraisers in droves, and it’s costing you a great deal in time spent replacing employees and in subsequent revenue loss since donor relationships take time to build. With everything on your plate, plus your own set of stress and high levels of burnout, the burden of leading and retaining your people is heavy.

Let me tell you a quick story. In 2001, the Campbell Soup Company had lost half its market share and had very low employee morale. They’d even started reducing how much chicken was in their soups, in an effort to save money. Worried that things were headed for disaster, Campbell Soup brought in a new CEO, Doug Conant. He turned the company around and took them to one of the highest ranked companies in employee engagement.

How did he do that?

He started listening to his people, and this provided him with critical information to run the organization. He didn’t sit behind his desk alone with furrowed brows trying to solve his organization’s problems. Each day, he literally walked thousands of steps to connect with his employees.

But it wasn’t just that he asked questions and talked to people. It’s how he asked those questions. He avoided leading, embarrassing, and rhetorical statements in the form of questions.

You know what I mean.

Ones like, “Who’s fault is this?” or “What were you thinking?” Those questions put people in a defensive mode where they are solely focused on protecting themselves. These types of question shut down conversations and don’t create space for creativity. He also limited the use of WHY, which can cause people to justify the current situation – why it isn’t their fault, or why it cannot be changed.

He led with questions that focused on what is working versus what is not. In that approach, he still learned what was wrong, but along with that information, he gained knowledge about the cause, heard ideas for creative solutions, and built relationships of trust with his employees.

He made sure the conversations were about their needs and interests, and not about him. He used a checklist in his head to make sure he was staying on track. Am I seeking their thoughts instead of just offering my own? Am I focused on their priorities, not mine? Am I offering them choices and options, instead of telling them what to do?

How can this approach work for you?

Let’s say you have noticed that your fundraising team is not asking for 6 and 7 figure gifts. I’d bet you have a lot of judgments about their lack of boldness, creativity, and action. Maybe you talked about the need for them to make bold asks in a meeting, but nothing has really changed. You are feeling the pressure to bring in the numbers and wonder what you should do or what questions you can ask to find solutions that actually create change.

Here are some questions that won’t work:

  • How is it going? Using a rote question like this instead of talking directly about the problem will only get you rote answers.
  • Why did you not ask for any big gifts so far this year? This use of WHY will most likely result in them being defensive, protective, and focusing on proving that it was impossible. Part of this too is your energy. If your question has judgment and frustration behind it, it will lead to protective defensiveness rather than open, creative solutions.
  • Who messed up here? At Veritus, we have a culture of owning our mistakes and then moving on to find solutions together. This builds trust and no one feels they have to hide when they messed up. But if you don’t have that culture and this is the question you are coming out of the gate with, it won’t help you move forward to solutions.
  • Haven’t you tried this already? If they start sharing ideas and you as a leader tell them you’ve “been there, done that, it won’t work,” people will stop offering solutions.

What will be much more successful is to ask these kinds of questions:

  • What’s the biggest challenge you’re facing as you work to get transformational gifts? This still gets to the problem but moves people more to identifying challenges instead of just protecting themselves.
  • Are you making progress? This helps you identify what is working, and it also shows whether your people feel stuck, which is important to know. You can also ask: What is working well?
  • Help me understand what led to no asks for 6 or 7 figure gifts this year so far? This is how you don’t use the word WHY and you can see how different the question would make your MGOs feel and respond.
  • How is this problem affecting your work? This will help you better understand the obstacle and develop solutions. And if you remove the obstacles and there isn’t progress, you can speak to that directly and create accountability.
  • How can I help? This is what Doug Conant calls the ultimate leadership question, but don’t ask it unless you mean it. If you want to have fun watching how this can work, check out Dr. Max Goodwin on the Netflix show “New Amsterdam.” He asks this question often and it’s fun to watch the creative, out-of-the box ways he removed barriers.

Interestingly, as you ask the second set of questions, you learn several things about what was getting in the way by aligning with your team using permission-based asking. In this approach, your focus is on the partnership with your team, which transforms the energy that you and your team bring to these conversations. Maybe you learn that your fundraisers don’t have something to “sell” to donors. Or they can’t get numbers from Finance about what projects really cost, including overhead, in a donor-friendly format. Or they don’t feel they have the skills to ask for significant gifts. Wow! Now you have something to work with and you can start to remove barriers.

Imagine what it does for morale when…

…you take what you’ve heard from the team and meet with Program and Finance. You start building more of a relationship of trust with Fundraising. Next, you tease out some exciting projects with price points that need funding. You heard their concerns and addressed them. You provided your fundraisers with a solution that will help them ask for larger gifts. But more importantly, you’ve shown with your actions that you’re committed to helping them be successful. And that you are in this together.

Your job as a leader is to first find out what the blocks are. Then, remove the blocks so your people can succeed. As noted in Warren Berger’s “The Book of Beautiful Questions,” Harvard Business professor Marshall Goldsmith found in his research that “…of all the events that can deeply engage people at work, the single most important is simply making progress on meaningful work. You can be that leader that asks, How can I help? And in community with your fundraisers create solutions that remove obstacles and also create accountability for change.”

So, what is one problem that has been niggling at you lately? What have you done about it so far? What questions could you ask using the questions above as a guide? Plan how you can build trust with your team and uncover barriers to their success so you can thrive together. And be sure to let us know what you try!