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The Power of Three Words

Andrew Miller
Published:  07/15/2022

how are you

Ask a fundraising professional how they are doing, and their response is often, “busy.” This is true for my colleagues in healthcare fundraising as well as many fundraising professionals across the industry. So, when we get that coveted time on our donor or potential donor’s calendar, we love a packed agenda!

Over the course of a cup of coffee, lunch, or on a video chat a seasoned fundraiser can fly through a packed agenda. An example of a meeting I had recently with a donor highlighted this. I only had a short window of time and there was a lot to get to. What did you think of the recent draft of your donor recognition plaque? Did your financial advisor approve the pledge agreement? What dates are you available for a meeting with our physicians here to discuss the new special purpose fund we set up for your generous gift? When can we set up our next meeting?

The questions went on and on. However, the most important question was missing. The question we sometimes ask without the expectation or patience to get an answer to, or the one we often skip over entirely: Howare…you?

I can speak from my experience growing up and now working in New England that the line “hey…how are ya” is more of a kicking-off point to a conversation than a sincere interest in the other person’s well-being. Yet as fundraisers and professional relationship builders, we also often skip this part of our conversation because we expect people not to really answer. Everyone is busy, everyone wants to get the information they are seeking quickly, and everyone is in a rush, especially as we continue to inundate our calendars with back-to-back virtual meetings. But for our donors, this conversation and giving process means a lot more than just a check-off on our to-do list.

We are in the business of relationship-building, not just information-gathering. I have posted a sticky note to my desktop that reads, “Ask how they are.” This small reminder allows me to stop and be mindful of the moment. Before I get into the task at hand during any donor meeting, I ask them how they are, and I wait for a response.

I put this to practice with a donor recently who needed that time to talk. I started off, “(Donor), how are you?” That is all it took. This donor needed the space and time to talk, and I could tell. We do not always build close relationships with every donor and family we work with. You will not always get a full response, as people are not always comfortable sharing. But when a donor does talk, it can be tremendously therapeutic for them. You never know who needs that in their day. A chance to get things off their chest.

These moments can eat into your agenda, and you may not leave with all the answers to your questions or the time to make your important asks. However, because this donor took the opportunity to be frank with me, bring me into his journey and his wife’s journey battling a terrible illness, we left that meeting knowing that it was more than just Donor X talking to Philanthropy Officer Y, it was a friend talking to a friend…who was glad to listen.

Fundraisers often wear multiple hats, but the hat most important at times is to be there to listen. The more we can slow down, the more our supporters know that they are not just a name and number on our white boards or just another meeting on the calendar. Taking the added time at the start of the meeting, or when it is most appropriate, to lean in and genuinely ask how the donor and their family are doing creates a deeper connection between the two of you and fulfills the mission of the institution you fundraiser for.

The world is moving at a pace that feels faster than any other time in recent history. Every day brings the deluge of events, news, crises, and distractions that can seem to pile up to the sky. Treat your donors and donor meetings as a sacred space to not only get work done but to be in the moment. Ask how they are doing, not just about the weather. Ask them if they have seen any good movies, read any entertaining books lately, had any funny moments happen, or have any good stories to tell. Bring them into your life as well and tell them more about yourself—not just your “work-self.”

The questions can change depending on the donor but asking them reminds them that while their donation and support is vital, they themselves are also important to you and the organization. I have seen this go a long way in my role, and I am sure it will help you in yours too.


NEWS  /02/15/22
In this Philanthropy Fundamentals post, you'll learn how to create a a go-to list of open-ended questions that give clues about prospects’ capacity, inclination, affinity, and philanthropic nature.
NEWS  /06/16/22
Asking permission at every step in a donor's journey makes the big "ask" easier and more likely to succeed.
NEWS  /12/06/12
The following is an excerpt from an article about the often-over-looked art of listening and why it’s important to take the time to hear what your donors are really saying.

Meet The Author

andrew miller headshot
Andrew Miller
Senior Philanthropy Officer
Rhode Island Hospital Foundation

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