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Don't let political opinions derail conversations with donors


The presidential election was contentious and divisive, and everyone seems to have an opinion about what happened and, more importantly, what's likely to happen next. In a recent Chronicle of Philanthropy article, author Maria Di Mento offers sage advice on how to keep politics from interfering with fundraising.

by Maria Di Mento

Avoid discussing religion, money, or politics in polite company, the saying goes. Still, fundraisers have to talk about money all the time, and occasionally religion, particularly if they work for a faith-based nonprofit.

But politics? In today’s contentious political climate, the topic has the potential to derail conversations with your donors. As the race to choose the next U.S. president intensifies, fundraisers should double down on their efforts to leave political views out of their conversations with philanthropists, say experts.

One of the best and easiest ways to do that, says Daniel Post Senning, an etiquette expert, author, and the great-great-grandson of Emily Post, is to remember the fundamentals of all etiquette: consideration, respect, and honesty.

If you’re talking to a donor and the subject of the election comes up, use those principles to guide yourself, says Mr. Post Senning.

An important part of etiquette, he adds, is keeping your audience comfortable. That should remain top of mind even when other people aren’t practicing that principle themselves.

No matter what happens, he says, remember that everyone has a right to his or her opinion, and you can acknowledge someone’s opinion without agreeing with it or revealing where you stand on the subject.

“You’re not obligated to tell someone what you think,” he says. “You can always say you are uncomfortable talking about something, or that you don’t know what you think about it.” He suggests practicing in advance so you have a response ready that makes you feel comfortable. “Say it out loud so you hear it out loud and know how it sounds,” he says.

Developing and practicing different responses is key to gracefully navigating such conversations, agrees Janet Harris, chief philanthropy officer at the California Academy of Sciences. And veteran gift officers, she says, should help their less experienced colleagues figure out how to respond in such cases.

One of the most useful lessons a senior fundraiser can teach younger counterparts about dealing with these difficult conversations, she says, is the importance of listening.

“When you truly listen to philanthropists, it’s so important to understand what motivates them and what their attitudes are,” says Ms. Harris. “You don’t have to agree with everything or put a gag over your mouth, but listening shows them respect.”

Listening also gives you information about what a donor cares about so you can redirect a conversation that has become uncomfortable to a point of commonality, says Aristide Collins Jr., vice president of development and alumni relations at George Washington University.

Being able to listen closely and to exercise discretion in these types of conversations, says Mr. Collins, are key to showing your donors respect. So is remembering that the conversation is not about you and your viewpoints, he says, but something bigger.

“The relationship donors have is really with the organization, and gift officers are merely the conduit,” he says. “It’s not that the donor is a friend of yours, it’s that the donor is a friend of the institution.”

Gift officers, he says, should repeatedly remind themselves that they’re the caretakers of the nonprofit and the guardians of a donor’s relationship with that organization.

For fundraisers who struggle to keep sight of this, Mr. Collins says, “It’s easy when you remember that your job is part of something larger than you and your perspectives.”

Tips:

  • Let donors feel comfortable expressing opinions, even when they conflict with your own strongly held points of view.

  • Avoid saying where you stand on controversial issues or public figures.

  • Before meeting with a donor, practice using language that will steer the conversation to a different topic.

  • Always listen carefully to your donors, even during difficult moments. They may reveal valuable information about things that matter to them — insights that can help you as a fundraiser.

  • Remember that you speak for your institution, and your job is about something much bigger than your one-on-one interactions with a donor.


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