It’s no secret that salespeople and the mere sound of the word “sales” itself can, at times, come with a very specific stereotype attached. Had you mentioned a career in sales to me a couple of years ago, I would have laughed and pictured Harry Wormwood, crooked car salesman and Worst-Father-of-The-Year recipient in TriStar Pictures’ Matilda.
Since embarking on my sales/business development post-college journey in 2012, I’ve been fortunate enough to experience selling through a much more realistic lens. While my first jobs often felt consumed by calls, I certainly never felt like a fictitious, cheating car salesman. On the contrary, I found the majority of my process to consist of strategic preparation, persistence, and listening. Selling felt more like a consultative conversation, and I was pleasantly surprised at the human-to-human feel of it all.
Along with adulthood and a professional career (aka a salary) came the start of my philanthropic endeavors, where my pockets proudly began contributing to favorite charities, political campaigns, and beloved alma maters. This also meant that in the eyes of many organizations, my newfound income and interests made me a worthwhile prospect to reach out to. I certainly never connected the dots that the way these organizations were contacting me wasn’t that different from my own day-to-day work.
Fast-forward to 2014: Worlds collided and I began selling to advancement professionals within the higher-ed and nonprofit space at EverTrue. It was then that I saw the light; I realized that the act of connecting with individuals to sell a product is quite similar to fundraisers’ efforts to connect individuals to a cause or a mission. However, my experience on the receiving end of a fundraising solicitation always FELT like a sales call. The humanity was gone; it was as if the person calling me had no idea who I was, how I was connected to the organization, or how to proceed if and when I uttered the dreaded word “no.”
I began comparing and contrasting my sales experience with that of fundraisers—drawing parallels, scratching my head, and sketching Venn diagrams (hopefully you’re picturing Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, because that’s exactly what it looked like)—all in search of why it felt so familiar, yet not quite. After some extensive brain wracking, I came up with a few takeaways on what fundraising can learn from the world of sales.
1. Training is essential.
Are all fundraisers and advancement professionals trained like salespeople? Unlikely. But why not? Before anyone let me so much as LOOK at a phone, I had to go through extensive training to learn best practices surrounding the sales process so that I could effectively handle anything that the voice on the other end might throw my way. Training was key in ensuring that I understood the buyer and the industry, and that I knew how to ask the right questions, strategically control the conversation, and overcome objections.
One of the most important things I’ve learned is that when I hear “no, thank you,” it’s imperative to dig deeper and explore why it isn’t a good fit or the right time. Understanding what prompts or impedes people from throwing money your way—whether you’re a fundraiser at a nonprofit or a for-profit salesperson—is extremely valuable so that you can knowledgeably advise your target market moving forward, as well as separate the no’s from the maybe’s and not-right-now’s.
Had some of the folks soliciting me for donations simply pried a bit more, they would’ve uncovered some pretty crucial information—for example, that calling me back around the same time as my next paycheck would likely result in a more favorable outcome.
2. Lead with the “why” rather than the “what.”
While a significant portion of my sales style is tied to the training I’ve received over the years, nothing has contributed more to my approach than the word “why.” I highly encourage anyone with a pulse, particularly those in sales or fundraising, to watch Simon Sinek’s 2009 TED Talk “Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Action.” Although Sinek’s delivery is a bit much for my liking, the overall concept blew my mind and completely redefined the way I approached sales. As Sinek points out throughout his talk:
“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”
I think he’s onto something.
Before sales training and watching this clip, it was my natural inclination to resort to word vomit, spilling out whatever I was selling and all of its benefits in 30 seconds or less. However, when I began to redirect my focus around why others sought us out and found value in our services, versus what product I was selling, I started seeing better results. Not only did this remove that awful sales-y vibe, but it also made me sound 10x more knowledgeable, genuine, and more importantly, human. People on the other end of the line appreciated not having 30 seconds of product shoved down their throats, and I appreciated the immediate feeling of fulfillment as well as the improvement in my performance.
I suspect that fundraisers would also find success with this approach. I’m fully aware that when I get an email or a call at the end of June, it’s likely because the end of the fiscal year is near and it’s crunch time to raise as much money as possible. But why lead with that? I’d be much more inclined to take a few minutes—maybe even a few dollars—out of my day if the conversation began with insights that allowed me to envision how exactly my funds would be put to use. Why should I give? Is there a new scholarship fund, a campaign for a new athletic facility, or an upcoming gala or fundraiser?
3. Embrace modern technology.
I’d be a liar (and a bad tech sales rep) if I said technology hasn’t played a significant role in my biz-dev endeavors. It simply isn’t feasible to conduct in-depth research on prospects before every single call or meeting, but some Salesforce due diligence coupled with a quick glance at LinkedIn, Facebook, or an org-chart is always going to be more helpful than not in terms of prioritizing leads and gaining context on the people I reach out to. I’ve gotten great feedback when I add personalized touches to emails, reference past conversations, relate their specific efforts to our product, or mention similar organizations and peer institutions that are already working with us.
In a perfect world, fundraisers and salespeople alike would have time to do extensive homework before solicitations and have all the right information on prospects at their fingertips. Oftentimes, universities and nonprofits are at the mercy of whatever limited information I’ve provided them with, and the frequency (or infrequency) with which I’ve chosen to update it. But a quick glance at my LinkedIn profile before a call or email would allow a fundraiser to seamlessly reference my interests or even my job at EverTrue—a nice touch that would 100% catch my attention as opposed to an impersonal template or script.
I certainly don’t have all of the answers for advancement professionals, the right to tell anyone how to do their job, or the golden ticket to better fundraising. But perhaps a little more training, a little paradigm shift, and a little technology could point us in the right direction.
Paulina Borrego is a lover of long walks on the beach, burritos, and all things Biz-Dev. You can connect with her on LinkedIn here.
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