Successful Cause Selling


The sacred wall between non-profit entities, which exist to do good, and businesses, which exist to make money, continues to erode. Companies realize the bottom line business benefits of cause marketing, and non-profits realize the bottom line benefits of strategic sales and marketing to bolster their coffers.

So I found myself at The Cause Conference last week in San Diego, at a breakout session titled Eight Steps to Successful Cause Selling, hosted by Katie Adams Farrell, whose firm KAF Catalyst provides grant writing services and other financial support for not profits. Quite simply, she slayed. Her tips for non-profit fundraising are plenty useful for development professionals, but they are also perfectly transferrable to anyone who is looking to close deals — no matter the organizational structure. Here we go:

  1. Prospecting

Prospecting, or getting your list, is the first step in successful fundraising. Adams Farrell recommends seeking donors from existing supporters: People who love your cause, and who love you will be willing to refer you. “It feels hard, you don’t want to make people uncomfortable,” she explains, “but it’s about the cause and if you are doing a good job they will want to connect you…. We aren’t asking for money because they have money and we need money, we’re asking them to help us save the world.”

Referrals, circles of influence, event prospecting, direct mail and email, social media, warm calling, networking, organization-initiated prospecting, your website, crowd funding are all great sources for prospects. Folks who are big donors elsewhere are a great source too because you know they care. You don’t want to change their giving, but, perhaps, increase it in the cause. “We aren’t poaching, we’re sharing,” Adams Farrell assures the audience.

Track as much info as you can in your CRM (Customer Relationship Management software) because you never know what’s going to become relevant. Not what they ate for lunch, but if they have any allergies, any causes they are passionate about, family structure and ages of children/grandchildren. All these things can help make a connection, which builds trust.

  1. Pre-approach – The planning and preparation done prior to a contact.

This is the research phase, before you reach out to get a meeting or invite to events. What is the prospect’s giving history with your organizations? What are their personal interests, passions and priorities?

Who in the family drives philanthropic decisions? In a successful couple who enjoy giving to philanthropic causes, often one member of the couple will work outside the home and the other drives philanthropic giving. You don’t want to get to that donor lunch with a big prospect and, when you make your ask, hear, “I need to ask my wife — she manages our philanthropic giving.” She should be at the meeting.

ESRI Tapestry is a great tool to give you insight into a prospects’ lifestyle choices, what they buy, and how they spend their free time. That tool is SO COOL, I could write a whole blog post just about that, but we’ll save that for another day. We have 6 more steps to cover!

  1. First contact. Should be tailored to the prospect.

Especially when it comes to major donors, do a lot of research before reaching out and customize that appeal. At best, a custom appeal indicates to your prospect that you have put care and consideration into reaching out, which demonstrates knowledge and expertise. It shows you are legit and your cause is worth a second look.

If you are building from an existing donor network, use a referral to borrow the influence of someone the prospect trusts and respects.

  1. Needs discovery: the process of becoming aware of the essential connections between your prospect and your cause.

Once you get the meeting, it’s time to listen. Use some of that passion research to break the ice and then ask questions:

  • Motivation: why are you passionate about what you do?
  • Success: what do you want to achieve?
  • Frustration: what do you want to avoid? This is a very important question for prospective donors because we do not want to annoy them! For example, some donors hate to be called on the phone; some love it.
  • Right fit: What helps you decide which charities to support?
  • Commitment? How involved do you want to be in making this change happen? Are you a sign-the-check-and-give-me-annual-updates donor or one who wants to be more involved?

“Don’t convince, don’t tell,” Adams Farrell cautions, “Discover with them.”

Another tool Adams Farrell recommends is the double check, “So what I hear you saying is…” It is so easy to misunderstand. It’s ok to be wrong. Checking that you understand shows your prospect that you really do want to understand and it gives them another chance to explain themselves if they missed things the first time.

Don’t be afraid of silence. As Adams Farrell says, it is easy for “persuaders” to over talk.  If you ask a big question, your prospect will rise to answer it and become a partner — another valuable avenue for building trust.

  1. Presentation: tell story about the benefits of becoming a true advocate for the cause.

Note that we’re at step 5 of an 8 part process and we’re now just getting to the part where you present the opportunity to your prospect. These steps are fluid and won’t always happen in order, but the important thing to note here is that you have to have the relationship and trust built first before you go into your pitch or it will fall on deaf ears.

Now that we’ve reached the presentation, it’s time to build on the connection you’ve established with your prospect. The pitch should be customized. It takes time, but is worth it. It needs to reflect the unique relationship with the person.

  1. If you don’t know your cause, people will resent your efforts to sell it.
  2. If you don’t believe in what your selling, no amount of personality or technique ill cover that face.
  3. If you can’t sell with enthusiasm, the absence of it will be infectious.

“If you talk about the problem for 26 minutes people will get overwhelmed and feel that nothing they can do can help.” Adams Farrell explains. You should cruise into the opportunity and solution pretty quickly before people get discouraged. Demonstrate the impact of their potential gift — what good will come from it?

  1. Objections: don’t be scared. Objections reveal interest.

You made it through your pitch! Now it’s time for prospect questions or objections. Don’t get defensive or discouraged. Hard questions show that your prospect is interested in what you have to say.

How to handle objections:

    1. Hear the prospect out
    2. Confirm your understanding
    3. Acknowledge point of view
    4. Don’t the the objection upset you
    5. Answer the objection as best you can

Don’t let it ruin you.

Here are a few examples of objections and suggested responses:

      • Objection to your cause Your cause might not be their “big one,” that’s ok! Encourage a smaller gift and, once you secure that, check in next time around with some impacts and see about increasing the number.
      • Objection to the fundraiser  i.e. you and the prospect just don’t really click. “It happens, don’t take it personally,” Adams Farrell explains. Give the lead to a colleague who might have better luck. “You are a person, not a chameleon. Yourself is enough.”
      • Aversion to decision making They might just not want to pull the trigger — so it’s time for a nudge. Set a date in a the future to follow up for a solution or determine what questions need to be answered before you can get to a decision and provide those answers.
  1. Closing. Time make the ask! This is not Alec Baldwin’s Always Be Closing. We’re doing ABR — Always be relationshipping.The ask should sound easy and natural when it comes out of your mouth, but it doesn’t have to feel natural. The people who are not afraid to ask have done it a million times, but most still get the stomach butterflies when it comes time to make the big ask. Being brave doesn’t mean not being scared, it means being scared and doing it anyway. Here are some tips to keep the butterflies at bay:
      1. Be assumptive – you wouldn’t have gotten this far if there wasn’t a possibility they’d support you
      2. Provide a summary of benefits
      3. Directly ask with a number and a timeframe. “Can we count on you for $5,000 this month to help us meet our quarterly goals?”
      4. Be specific
      5. After you ask, be silent
      6. Stress the urgency
      7. No it isn’t forever.

A lot of times people are like “oohhh not right now,” Adams Farrell explains. Don’t be discouraged, this is an invitation to ask again later.

Tips for dealing with rejection:

      • You are not alone — seek comfort in team members
      • Forgive yourself
      • Refuse to give up
      • Remember you are important and you are doing an important job
      • Expect the worse, hope for the best
      • Broaden your definition of success. Success isn’t just a check. Those are great,  but success is also getting the meeting, having a positive response, getting the ask out without breaking into a sweat, etc. Success doesn’t have to just be a major gift.
      • Commit to attracting more donors than you need. Not everyone is going to say yes, so your pool of prospects and the amount you estimate each is potentially “worth” needs to be a lot higher than your organization actually needs. Adams Farrell suggests “batting 300” or around a 30 percent yes rate is a good number. That means you’ll be told “no” 70 percent of the time and still be doing your job 100 percent correctly!

Final thoughts – Follow up to keep donors inspired. All those current and prospective future givers need engagement. Think like a donor — yes send a card. But what else would be meaningful? This may be unique to your relationship or cause.

Personalization vs. customization: if you customize every acknowledgement letter you will lose your mind. Major givers get true customization, but you can probably manage personalization for all givers: Use a personalized form letter with a handwritten note “Thank you!” and smily face to add an extra touch.

And one final tip for the road — remember that we’re all peers here. Your prospect might have a big pocketbook, but they are just a human with the same needs and motivations as everyone. Keeping this in mind can keep the nerves at bay any time you interact with major donors or prospects.

Want to learn more? Consider the Fundraising Academy at the Sanford Institute of Philanthropy.

Well there you have it! How can these tips be applied to for-profit sales relationship building? We’ll cover that next time. In the meantime tweet me at @btargeted to share your ideas.

Image credit: gato-gato-gato, Flickr creative commons

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