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21 Discovery Questions to Ask Now

This blog post originally appeared on Guidestar. Outdoor business meeting

Great discovery is the key to retain and upgrade our donors.  If we want donors to understand us we have to start by understanding them.  Discovery centers on humans favorite subject – ourselves!  Statistically people spend 60% of conversations talking about themselves.

To help you maximize the most out of every moment with your donors steal this cheat sheet on how to approach discovery, the best discovery questions you can ask, and tips to encourage open-ended dialogue.

How to approach discovery

Make sure that isn’t you talking AT the donor about how great the organization is!  Aim to talk 25% and listen 75% of the time.  Find a topic that is interesting to them, build rapport and start probing.

Use these soft skills to make your donor feel at ease 

Exude positive energy.  Smile throughout the conversation, whether you are on the phone or in person.  Maintain eye contact.  Express a genuine interest in them.  Share sincere compliments.  Begin with small talk, i.e. “Have you had a chance to take some time off this year? If so, where did you go? If not, where would you like to go?”

Ask permission to ask sensitive questions

This isn’t the Spanish Inquisition.  First, ask the donor permission to ask questions.  This shows respect for the donor, the topic and how you are using their time.  i.e. ”Do you mind if I ask you a question?”  “I’d love to get to know you better and learn more about your interests.  Would you mind telling me more about the causes important to you?”

What if the donor seems surprised to hear from me? 

Truth bomb - they may not even recall our organizations name or remember when they made a gift.  They may think it’s a telemarketing call.  That’s ok!  Reassure them you are only calling to thank them for their gift, learn more about what inspired them to give so generously to your organization and find out if they have any feedback, thoughts or ideas on how you can make their experience more positive.

21 Killer Discovery Questions

  1. Tell me about your life.
  2. What inspired your first gift?
  3. What causes are you most passionate about?
  4. What do you hope to achieve with your philanthropy?
  5. How do you like to be invited to make a gift?
  6. Why does our cause matter to you?
  7. What do you love about what you do?
  8. What was the best gift you ever gave and why?
  9. Do you have any feedback for us?
  10. Is there any way we can make your experience more positive?
  11. How can we get you more involved?
  12. May I invite you to ___ ?
  13. Can I introduce you to _____?
  14. What values do you hold most dear?
  15. How does one make a difference in the world?
  16. What legacy do you want to have? Can you finish it alone?
  17. Which of the organizations that you support does the best job of keeping you involved? How?
  18. What is most important to you?
  19. Are there particular programs or areas that interest you?
  20. As you think about the future of our work, what are some of your worries?
  21. What are your hopes?

Are there any questions that are off limits?

Avoid yes/no questions.  Ask open-ended questions.  Don’t ask anything you already know, like when they gave or how much they gave.

What should I do with all the insight I gleamed from my donor(s)?

You spent a lot of time and thought finding out more about your donors.  Make sure others can access these insights too!  Record the details of your conversation in your donor database or CRM.

How to get a meeting with anyone

2009_0804_ss_woman_businessMy colleague Jeff Schreifels wrote a great blog post called "You Need a Friend" on how important it is for development professionals to have mentors. This is great advice. We all need friends and especially peers in our industry we can go to for advice. Mentors inspire us and help us build our expertise. I used to get emails and phone calls from students wanting an interview for a class or advice on moving to a nonprofit career. Most of them were college students and if they had a deadline it was that week. Real agendas were not made clear until I was sitting across from them. After a few years of this I grew wary of these requests until one day I got an email from a graduate student at the Acton MBA program in entrepreneurship.

It was an unforgettable breath of fresh air. She asked for precisely 30 minutes of my time, told me exactly what she wanted to cover, promised she would only ask me questions not answered by my press or blog, and in exchange would donate 10 hours of her time to my favorite charity. Three years later I'm still raving about her!

Susie Hall, Director of Admission at Acton was kind enough to share her technique with me, it's called Naive Networking. It is the most honest and realistic guide to networking I've ever read and a must read for any student or professional wanting to get ahead. Frankly, I wish they taught this in high school! Here are my favorite Naive Networking tips:

1) Do your personal soul searching and industry homework first. 2) Be specific about what you need. Make sure the other person understands how a little effort on their part can make a big difference in your life. 3) Don't pester 4) Show up prepared 5) Send your questions in advance 6) Ask questions. My favorite? "What's your favorite mistake?" 7) Give something unexpected in return. In my case it was 10 hours to my favorite charity. 8) Be nice to the gatekeepers. 9) Follow up. 10) And as my colleague Jeff would resoundingly agree with me: be gracious and be grateful.

Stay classy, Rachel

The secret to asking a favor no one can say no to

Everyone's busy and time is money.  We need each other but we're all swamped.  How do you get your request moved to the top of the stack?  How do you get the door opened?  How do you get your name at the top of the list? Today I got THE BEST ask for a visit that I've ever received.  Not only could I not say no, I couldn't wait to meet this amazing person.  I immediately asked if I could share her flawless prose on my blog and she graciously agreed:

Dear Rachel,

I am inspired and excited by the work you have chosen to do, from Girlstart to Mothers’ Milk, motherhood to consulting.  Your career, which you have described as a “calling”, is a great example of passion breeding profession.

I am writing to ask if you will grant me 30 minutes of your time for an informal interview on the subject of Calling.  I am an aspiring entrepreneur and an incoming MBA candidate at the Acton School of Business. We have been given the daunting but important challenge of spending 30 Minutes with an Entrepreneurial Hero.  I’d like to spend those 30 minutes with you.

There is no hidden agenda, I’m not job-seeking—I’m just hoping you’ll share some of the lessons you’ve learned about leveraging passion into career, balancing career with motherhood, and living a life of meaning.

If you say “yes” I promise to make good use of your time.  I will ask you only the questions that I’ve been unable to answer from reading your press and blog.  I will send you questions in advance and will end on time.  As a thank you, I’d like to donate ten hours of my time to your favorite Austin charity.

I am moving to Austin this Friday, August 6th.  I’d be pleased to meet at your convenience as early as this weekend, and would love for my first memories of Austin, Texas to include a meeting with you.  Please let me know how I can make this happen.


Ariel Julia Nazryan, Acton School of Business Class of 2011

Here's what Ariel does right:

1) She took the time to know her subject and (just as importantly) let them know she knows them.

2) She asks for a very specific and reasonable amount of time.

3) Just as important as telling me what the meeting IS; she tells me what it ISN'T.

4) She commits to using the time wisely by sending me questions ahead of time.

5) Best part?  She generously gives me the gift of HER TIME, ten hours of it, for MY favorite charity!  What a win-win!  I can feel great about someone this brilliant helping out some of the causes I hold dear.

Want to open the door to your next opportunity?  I would bet money if you followed Ariel's method you'll get the meeting.  What are you waiting for?  Go forth and ask!

Stay classy,