April 16, 2019

Professional Development

Fundraising Lessons from the Timeshare Office

By: Peter Lipsett

The only drag on our family trip to Orlando came Sunday morning. At 10:45 am, we were obligated to spend at least an hour and a half getting pitched on the benefits of a vacation ownership package (that’s the new politically correct term for “timeshare”).

My goals were two-fold: 1) learn some interesting ideas for sales and marketing, and 2) don’t buy a timeshare.

These sales operations are some of the best in the business. As I would learn, more than 100 couples would go through the sales pitch on that same day as me, and on average a third would buy. Don’t you wish you had ROI like that?

As fundraisers, we can feel the need to go into hard-core sales mode at times. That may be beneficial in certain instances, though fundraising for a cause typically shies away from the high-pressure tactics used for timeshares or new cars. That’s for the best, but it doesn’t mean we can’t learn from that model.

Thankfully, though it was touch-and-go there for a bit, I succeeded in both goals. While that means I don’t have an extra bed to offer you in Maui, I do have some tips I picked up about how we as people working to advance liberty can better sell our ideas (and some ways to really screw it up).

Do Know Your Pitch

The guy selling us knew his spiel. It was customized. He read us well, engaging our skepticism of the whole process right from the start. He made the assumption that we were savvy travelers. We felt heard even before we said anything.

I always think of fundraising as two circles – our ball of interests and the donor’s ball of interests. Our job is to find where those circles intersect and go from there.

You never quite know where that intersection will happen, which is why you need to know your pitch up and down. Ask questions, find that point of overlapping passion, and be confident you can guide the conversation from there in a way that feels positive for both sides.

Do Have Skin in the Game

How would you feel about a baker who won’t eat his own bread? A little nervous, right? My salesman used the product. He told us all about it with great enthusiasm. He showed us his account and detailed his upcoming vacation, giving us an IRL example that allows us as potential investors to envision ourselves doing the same thing.

Do you give to the organization you work for? If so, you understand the confidence you feel in making an ask of a potential donor to join you in giving. Rather than a hired gun, you’re a peer and a partner in a common mission.

When you understand your product from both sides of the table, you sell it better.

Don’t Turn Their Want Into Your Need

These high-intensity sales folks delay your ability to say no as long as possible. They’ll keep asking questions, and keep reaching out for you as the customer to ask more questions. Keep the customer envisioning life with the product, as well as the sad future of life without it. Our sales guy moved the pitch into a mode of ever-greater urgency and scarcity to close the deal.

For a little while, it focused our thinking. Eventually, though, it just felt icky.

When fundraising for a non-profit, we have to be much more willing to allow the donor to walk away. We do more harm to the long-term relationship when people feel pressured into giving. A gift given out of guilt doesn’t allow the donor to connect to the group or to you in the same way that he or she would if the gift came from a place of enthusiasm.

That doesn’t mean we should avoid tactics such as urgency or scarcity. As I mentioned, these tools help focus the donor and really consider the offer in front of them. There is a limit, though.

As my mentor and friend Kevin Gentry often reminds fundraisers, donors don’t give to need, they give to want. If your urgency pushes a donor past the point of seeing their gift as something they want to do into something you need them to do, you’ve lost – even if they give.

Keep in mind, for such a little word, “no” can mean a lot of things. It often doesn’t mean “never.” It more often means “not now.”

Do Know Your Plan B

After we finally gave a resolute “no” (which, indeed, for us meant “not now”), to our sales guy, he moved on to plan B. In this case, that meant a new guy came out and offered us a new try-it-out package that lowered the barrier to entry while keeping us hooked.

It’s a clever tactic. If interested, we could give a little yes instead of the big yes, and they keep the door open in an immediate way.

What is your plan B? You need to have this plan before you go in – the vacation sales shop sure did. In some cases, if you feel you’ve over-asked, plan B might be to seek a smaller amount, right then and there. One way to start is to understand what “no” really means using fundraising legend Jerry Panas’ Four Magic Questions. You might make a non-financial ask. Could the donor recommend someone in their network to talk to (that’s a good question to ask as a follow up if they say yes to the gift as well)? Would they accept your following up with them in six months with an update on a certain project?

Simpler plan Bs might be a friendly, handwritten thank you note that acknowledges it wasn’t a fit but also reminds the donor of the points of congruence you did find. Similarly, it could be a note or call from your CEO just to say thank you for taking the meeting.

At a minimum, unless they threw you out by the ear or you found absolutely no overlap of interests, keep the prospect “on the list” for future engagement.

Don’t Make the Donor Feel Like a Dope

Our sales guy was our best buddy for 90 minutes. Then we turned down the offer, and it was clear he was suddenly unimpressed with my wife and me. It was a shocking turn, leaving us feeling like we were dummies for having had an earnest conversation for an hour and a half.

Remember that each one of us is the hero in our own story. Human nature drives us to believe that we are generally going to make the right decision, even when it is wrong.

Sometimes, though, we forget. We let our disappointment and frustration show when we don’t get the gift (or, let’s be honest, when we do get the gift but not quite at the level we wanted).

We always need to remember that if we are having a conversation with a prospective donor, they are giving us one of their most valuable resources – their time. You as the fundraiser are paid to be there. That donor isn’t. Be appreciative of that gift or of any gift they give, because you already are making progress.

If the donor feels like they let you down, they’ll drift toward embarrassment or anger. With the first, they avoid your future calls. With anger, they give you a piece of their mind. In both cases, you don’t get any more time or money.

My wife and I don’t have a timeshare. We do, however, have a good idea of some things to do and not to do when we need to convince someone of what we’re selling. I hope these ideas are helpful to your own efforts to win support for your great cause.