Train Your Board: Ask Better Questions, Raise More Money

Thank you Andy Robinson for sharing your training and resources:

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In my work with boards, I’m always amused (and occasionally annoyed) by the obsessive pursuit of the perfect elevator pitch.

Many trustees – especially those who are new to fundraising or simply find it difficult – tend to indulge in magical thinking.

The magic thought goes something like this: “If I can just master the elevator pitch – if I can learn to say something persuasive – people will give me money.”

To be clear, good things can happen when you describe your organization clearly and concisely. Our book contains an exercise, One Minute of Fame, which we’re happy to share with you today.

It’s all about listening 

However, the quest for “the perfect pitch” ignores one essential truth about fundraising: listening is WAY more important than talking.

Yes, the best fundraisers are good talkers, but even better listeners. They excel at discovering, and then meeting, the needs of their donors.

If you’re too focused on delivering the perfect pitch, you may forget to listen. Good listening allows you customize your responses to address the interests of your potential donor, volunteer, or ally.

How to ask better questions 

Here’s a simple exercise you can use with your board, staff, or anyone involved in fundraising or community engagement.

  1. Gather people in small groups of 3-5 people each.
  1. Ask them to imagine that they’re meeting with a prospective donor or volunteer. Instruct them to brainstorm potential questions they could ask that relate to your organization’s mission and programs. For example, if you run a nonprofit theater, you might ask, “Why do you come to the theater? What was your favorite performance? Why?

If you’re a preschool, you could start this way: “In your experience, what are the most important things that young children need?” Encourage your participants to create open-ended questions – the kind that generate sentences and complete thoughts, rather than yes-or-no answers.

  1. After about five minutes, convene the full group and capture their questions on a flip chart or white board.

Practice better questions 

  1. If you have time – this will take another 10 minutes – ask people to pair up and practice on each other, using the list you just created. In responding, instruct them to voice their own opinions and ideas, rather than treat this as a role play. Encourage everyone to listen carefully and ask follow-up questions as appropriate.
  1. Gather the full group to debrief the exercise. Here are two classic, open-ended debriefing questions:
  • What did you learn from this exercise?
  • How do we implement what we just learned?

What do you love about living here?  

I recently facilitated a board training for the Stowe Land Trust in Vermont. The organization works to conserve natural areas, farmland, forests, and recreation opportunities in their community.

Among the questions they created during their brainstorm:

  • What brought you to Stowe? What do you love about living here?
  • What do you like to do for outdoor recreation? Are you a hiker, a hunter, a skier, or a birdwatcher?
  • Many of our properties are open to the public. Which have you visited? Which are your favorites?
  • How would you like to be involved?

Ambassadors ask good questions, too 

As we discussed in a recent post, every one of your board members can be an ambassador, regardless of whether they’re actively raising money. The type of questions outlined above are great icebreakers, regardless of the situation.

As ambassadors, the same principles apply – ask good questions, listen carefully, and use what you learn to educate, engage, and strengthen relationships that can benefit your organization.


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