Solicitor Training: How Everyone Can Raise Friends and Funds

In working with the professional staff members and the members of the boards of non-profit organization I have had the opportunity to assist people in developing their skills in raising friends and funds for various organizations. Often people say to me that they could never ask anyone for money. What right do they have to place their hands in someone else’s pocket? How can they tell someone else what they should do with their money? What right do they have to talk with someone about how the use their funds to support charities or give to “Tzedakah”?

Whenever I am faced with these questions, I engage with the staff and/or board members in a conversation of what it means to talk with someone about money. Inevitably, I am told that “money” is a “personal matter” and it is not something that is easily discussed with people who are potential donors. You can discuss money with people who you are close with, however, you never talk about money with people who you barely know or have just met. If you cannot discuss money with these people, how can you dare to talk with them about what they should do with their money or how they use the funds they have for philanthropic purposes?

Before even beginning a conversation, the person who is responsible for soliciting donors feels uncomfortable about the content, and perhaps even the process of raising funds. In my experience I have found that one of the ways to deal with this uncomfortable feeling is to provide some reorientation to the process of friend and fund raising. It begins with how the solicitor views him/herself and how they have framed the process.

It is important for solicitors to develop a perspective that encompasses the entire process and does not focus on the “dollar” alone. One way of doing this is to conceive of the engagement with the donor as providing the person with an opportunity to “partner” with the non-profit organization in doing something wonderful. The potential donor is offered the chance not only to provide people in need with a specific service that will impact on their lives, but also to work with the organization that is strengthening the community.

The added value is in the engagement of the donor and not only in the receiving the check. Throughout the solicitor’s contact with the donor the focus has to be on the relationship and not on a specific dollar amount. At the end of the day a lasting relationship is reflected in the continuity of the solicitor’s connections with the donor. When the donor feels a lack of sincerity then it is clear that the only reason for the contact between the organization’s representative and the donor is the donation. This misses an important ingredient in the relationship and that is the friend raising quality of reaching out to potential donors.

How does a staff member or member of the board of directors become a professional solicitor and an expert at raising friends and funds? What is involved in the training of dedicated and devoted people so they expand their understanding and their skills? What has to be done and how long does it take to become accomplished at these tasks?

The first step is in coming to terms with the notion of process of engagement as discussed above. The second step is to realize that there is no set answer and no recipe for instant success. Once the solicitor understands the importance of building and strengthening the relationship with the donor then this relieves the pressure to immediately “bring in the funds”.

Each interaction with the donor is seen as strengthening the connection. There should be discussions that not only focus on the organization’s programs and services but also have to do with broader social issues. This demonstrates the organization’s commitment to the broader community and not only to promote its own programs.

The solicitor needs to feel comfortable in discussing both the organization and other topics aligned with the social concerns in the community. For example, if the solicitor is raising friends and funds for a Jewish community center the donor can be engaged in a discussion that has to do with the center’s role in strengthening Jewish identity and not only the menu of programs and services offered by the agency. The specific topics would depend on the solicitor’s assessment of donor’s interest and the solicitor needs to be trained to identify and understand what motivates the donor.

Yes, becoming a skilled solicitor takes requires some effort, however, when someone is committed to a non-profit then it is a matter of learning how to use the commitment in a variety of ways. The solicitor is not only concerned with making the “sale” but is also involved in “listening” to the donor’s interest. The solicitor needs to make a connection between the donor’s interest and the organization’s purpose, mission and programs.

Once the solicitor has assisted the donor in making the linkages between her philanthropic interest and the agency the next step is to discuss the “partnership” that is possible between her and the organization. In order for there to be a strong connection beyond the donor’s writing a check and the agency sending a thank you there has to be a meaningful expression of the donor’s involvement. Depending on the gift and the donor’s desire for great involvement there are many ways to strengthen her involvement with the agency.

The solicitor needs to explore this with the donor and look into a number of ideas including memorializing a program for a loved one; serving on a committee to oversee the implementation of the program; or chairing a committee to reach out to additional friends and funders to strengthen the program. The staff member or the board member who is soliciting donors should have a sense of confidence not only about the quality of the agency’s programs and role in the community but also about the relationship they develop with the donors they have engaged. The process will reinforce itself and the more involved solicitors are the more they will achieve as they engaged donors and friends successfully.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.