Q:  It’s almost the end of the year and our board committed to doing some end-of-year one-on-one solicitations, but nobody knows what to say after “How’s business?” Any suggestions for moving past the small talk?


A: Don’t rush it! That small talk is important. It communicates an interest in the individual beyond what s/he might give to your organization. It allows you to build rapport. And, it gives you a chance to begin to feel more comfortable in a situation that most people aren’t willing to even attempt. (So kudos to your board for stepping up.)

You’re definitely on the right track by starting with a question. Your job here is not to sell. It’s to find out more about what matters to the person with whom you’re talking, and show him or her that your organization not only cares about the same thing(s), but is doing important work to better the condition(s) about which s/he is concerned. Since people love to talk about themselves if you give them half a chance, asking questions that get at their values and interests, and require expanded answers beyond “yes,” “no,” “20 years” (as in “How long have you been a CPA?”), or “Jordan” (“What’s your husband’s name?”) will provide a roadmap of how to proceed.

The question you chose to use as an example – “How’s business?” – demonstrates this. It’s easy for the person to say “good,” and let it drop. If you are prepared with follow up questions, such as “What’s making business so good right now?” “How did you get into that?” or “What excites you most about what you do?” it encourages the person to talk. If you really listen to the responses, you will gain relevant insights to build on.

Other questions that will encourage a valuable, open dialog: “What kind of community do you want to live in?” “What kind of world do you want to leave for the next generation?” “If there is one change you’d like to see tomorrow that would make your community a better place, what would it be?” “What would you like to help make possible?” “How do you want people to remember you?” You can always direct these questions toward the work your organization does. For instance, if it’s foster care, you might ask, “If you could do one thing for a foster child, what would that be?”

Of course, if the person has given previously, you want to take the opportunity to thank him or her. Letting the person know how his or her money has been used not only makes that thank you more sincere, it makes the perfect segue into the conversation that the questions above are designed to get to.

Be ready with several stories that demonstrate the impact your organization makes every day. These might be something that you’ve heard clients say or something you’ve observed. Keep the stories short, rich with emotion where possible, but focused on impact. Pick the one that most closely aligns with what you’ve learned in response to the questions you’ve asked and/or what you know the person has supported in the past.

Ask what questions he or she has. If you don’t know the answer, promise to get back with the information within 48 hours. Volunteer to set up a meeting for him or her with someone at your agency who might be more knowledgeable. Or, offer to take the person on a tour of your organization.

Come prepared to tell the person how donations of different amounts will make a difference. Will $100 buy school books for the foster child for the semester? Will $2500 buy food for that young person for a year? If the person is a previous donor, you will have a good idea of the level of opportunities to share.

Don’t worry about getting every story or statistic into the conversation. The goal is to be prepared to share what is of interest to the person with whom you are speaking. Don’t worry, either, about getting a donation that day. It takes time to cultivate committed donors. The goal should be opening the door.

Finally, have fun. This is an opportunity to make a new friend.