Questionable Actions

After every meeting, my then-boss would punch the air and say, “Yes!  He’s really interested in what we are doing!”

How do you know that? I would always ask, and he would always look at me as if I was daft.  I was there, wasn’t I?  Hadn’t I heard him say that our work was really interesting?

A more-current client would tell me much the same after every prospect meeting:  “They love us,” he enthuses.  How do you know?  His answer?  They told us!

Well, now.  I have an acquaintance whose child is truly the least appealing kid I’ve ever known.  Unattractive, whiny….and the apple of his mother’s eye.

“So cute!” I always say.  “So adorable.”  And you know what?  I am lying.

Let me ask again:  How do you know that your prospect loves you?  Is going to make a large gift?  Will indeed do whatever it is that you have decided the prospect should do?

When you meet with a prospect and they say positive things, you must follow up with a direct question.  For example, “Yes, we are very proud of this program.  Can you see yourself supporting it at the $500,000 level?”

Of course, I just picked a number out of the air, but you should not.  Before you go out on a major donor call, you should have some idea of the size gift you hope to get—and the purpose for which the gift will be given.  Both of these may change as the relationship develops.  Of most importance is listening to what is said—verbally and with body language.

Recently I was out with a client and one of her major prospects.  As my client was telling the prospect about the project, the prospect broke eye contact, started rubbing on finger with the fingers of the other hand and staring off into space.

As soon as my client took a breath, I jumped in (reasons why two people are better on a major donor call!).

“Joan tells me that you really enjoyed the tour last week,” I said.  And immediately the prospect linked eyes with me.  “What was the best thing you saw?”  And she was off and running.

Without missing a beat, my client asked the prospect, “Could you see yourself as a $25,000 donor” to that project?

The prospect blinked.  “I’m not sure,” she finally said.  “I need to think about it.”

Fine.  It really was. We weren’t there to actually close a gift as much as qualify that there would be a gift to close….someday.  So we continued probing and learning about the prospect—what she hoped for this project and what, if she did chose to support it, how her gift would be used and (more importantly) recognized.

And then we asked a few other questions:

  • Would she be willing to introduce us to some of her friends who might also be interested in that (or another) project?
  • Could she help us with another prospect—someone we knew she knew quite well?
  • What else did we need provide her with to make her more comfortable with supporting the project?

Just as you should be asking questions of your donors, you should be asking hard questions of yourself.  Questions like:

  • So what?  We do “x”—so what?
  • Who cares?  That we do “x” matters to whom?
  • What’s next?  We’ve done this, what now?  That can be about the project, a prospect, or a donor.  Always question what your next step might be.  And even before it all, ask yourself:
  • What is the outcome we are hoping to attain?

Just as you will learn more when you listen than when you speak, you will have more to listen to when you ask questions, rather than thinking you already know the answers. Even if the only person you are asking is yourself.


Janet Levine works with nonprofits and educational organization, helping them to ask their donors and themselves the right questions about fundraising and board development.  Learn more at









About janetlevineconsulting

For over 20 years, Janet Levine has worked for and with nonprofit and educational organizations, helping to grow their advancement programs. Her consulting company, Janet Levine Consulting, serves a wide range of organizations from small, all-volunteer agencies to major national organizations. She regularly teaches courses in non-profit management, fundraising and grant development, both face-to-face and online at In addition to her nonprofit work, Janet brings years of experience as a business and sales manager in the for-profit sector. She has an MBA from the Graziadio School of Business at Pepperdine University.
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