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Practicing with Live Ammo

Kasie Ambrose sat in her parked car, a few doors down the street from Joan Gillespie’s house.  It was five minutes to ten in the morning.  Kasie knew the drill.  Be on time, but don’t be early.

She was doing two things at once; trying to breathe, and trying to get the palms of her hands to stop sweating.

“Why am I nervous?” she demanded of herself.  “This is our third visit!  She knows me.  The last two went pretty well.  I don’t get it.”

But Kasie did get it.  This visit was supposed to be an ask.

Kasie was a new gift officer, just promoted from alumni relations.  She’d met Joan at her 60th reunion weekend, they’d hit it off and when it came time to assigning Joan to a manager, Kasie spoke up and got her wish.

The first two visits were easy.  Building a relationship is all about listening to the donor; her interests in her college, her life story, and maybe a little about Kasie so there could be a connection.

Joan was a widow.  She still lived in the family home, plenty of money, plenty of friends and a sparkle in her eyes.  Kasie liked her very much.  But today?

She rang the bell.

“Well, hello there!  I was wondering when you’d get out of the car.  Think I can’t see down the block?”

Kasie turned crimson.

“Gosh, I’m sorry,” Joan told her.  “That was uncalled for.  Come on in.  I have iced tea on the porch waiting for us.”

“She is one classy lady,” Kasie thought, and followed Joan back to a broad, sunlight room looking out onto yard and gardens.

“Did I ever tell you how many football games and baseball games and whatnot we had back there?”  Joan looked wistful.  “Jim and I loved that yard.  Well, he didn’t love it so much when he had to mow it on a 90-degree day,” she laughed, “but we loved that our boys could have their friends over to their home.  We always knew where they were.  Just looking out there makes me happy and a little sad at the same time.”

Kasie deftly changed the subject, and the two women, separated in age by four decades, settled into a happy conversation about the college and the upcoming campaign.

“Tell me all the news,” Joan insisted.  “I especially want to hear the scoops!”

Kasie obliged, as best she could.  After thirty minutes or so, Joan gave her young friend a gentle smile.

“Dear, may I ask you a question?’’

“Of course!  Anything!” was Kasie’s reply.

“Are you ever going to get around to asking me for my gift to the campaign?”  Her tone of voice was genuine.  Not accusing, but curious.

For the second time that morning, Kasie blushed.

“Yes, I know.  I was, uh, about to get to that,” she stammered.

Joan came to the rescue.  “Let me tell you something.  When I was in college I was dating this boy who I liked a lot.  He was handsome and very respectful of me.  You can imagine, we had to abide by a very different set of rules back then.

“But on our third or fourth date, as we were saying goodnight outside my sorority house, I just wondered what was taking him so long and so I asked, ‘Are you ever going to kiss me, or what?’ and he did, and that was nice.

“Can I be honest with you,” Jane asked?  “What you do is so important, I don’t mean to trivialize it by making this comparison but it’s a lot like dating.  You’re getting to know someone.  Building a relationship.  At a certain point you have to know when it’s time to take the next step.”

Kasie was listening.  She decided to be brave.

“I hear you.  Thanks.  I needed that kick in the butt.  So, can I ask, would this be an okay time to talk about the Campaign and what project you might be interested to support?”

Joan smiled.  “It would be a perfect time.”

Ask any gift officer and they’ll tell you.  To excel in this business of fundraising, nothing beats experience.  Practice.  Repetition.

Really, the only way to become a great fundraiser is to ask, over and over.  The nuance in the donor’s face that tells you now’s not the time?  You don’t learn to recognize that nuance on your first visit.  The way the prospect’s shoulders don’t relax?  Something is bothering her or him.  Before you ask for the gift you need to ask what the problem is.

You don’t know that, except from experience.

Learning to be a fundraiser is practicing with live ammunition.  Role playing is okay, insofar as it goes.  Nothing replaces the real deal.

That means you may make a mistake from time to time.  Donors don’t care.  If you wear your heart on your sleeve about your organization, if you are honest and genuine, donors will forgive your inexperience.

In fact, they’ll embrace it.  They’ll want to help you.

Just like Joan helped Kasie.

By the way, Joan’s gift to the campaign was $500,000 now, and $500,000 in her will.  Kasie didn’t know what to say.

Joan loved it.

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