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Are You A Gift Whisperer?


  • How do you go about encouraging your donors to consider supporting your cause in a bigger way?
  • Can you comfortably and intentionally establish and deepen rapport rapidly and consistently with just about anyone?
  • Do your donors instantly smile and show signs of feeling good about themselves when they’re in your presence?
  • Can you recognize those who are highly philanthropic without relying on knowledge of their giving histories?
  • Do you know your donors’ personal missions; why they give and what it means to them?
  • Do you feel positive and confident that you’re tapping into the donor’s intentions and motivations when you make an Ask?
  • For most of the history of professional fundraising, success with major gift donors has been assumed to be the domain of the “naturally talented” gift officers; the ones who have “magical” abilities and who artfully navigate complex donor relationships– ultimately inspiring a diverse array of personalities to give big. These talented individuals are the “Gift Whisperers.”

“Gift Whispering” is the art of masterfully applying skills that psychological and neuroscience research now reveal are the most powerful tools for encouraging philanthropic behavior. Rather than relying exclusively on intuition, trial and error, and unconscious habits (as many talented “Gift Whisperers” do), you can now learn the science and predictably increase your own success.
Let’s start with the science of rapport, the doorway to meaningful relationships. The discovery of mirror neurons in the 1990’s has led to extensive research about these special brain cells. They fire automatically when we observe someone else making a physical movement, a gesture, or a facial expression—triggering our own “simulation” of not only the other person’s actions, but the emotions behind those actions. For example, when you observe someone smiling, your mirror neurons for smiling are activated, generating the sensation of the feelings associated with smiling. You don’t have to think about what the other person intends by smiling. You simply experience the meaning immediately and effortlessly. In short, empathy, compassion and mutual understanding are rapidly generated through our mirror neurons—and we can proactively mirror others or adeptly lead them (using “Pacing” and “Leading” skill) into mirroring our own gestures to create comfort, rapport and harmony. You can learn these skills easily and practice them daily to increase your ability to both consciously and unconsciously establish and deepen rapport. Read about NLP (NeuroLinguisting Programming) Rapport on the internet or get a book (Building Rapport with NLP FOR DUMMIES is a good start). Even if you’re naturally talented, this body of information will help you identify what you do that works well—so you can do it intentionally and mentor or train others.

Having done that, consider a next step—“anchoring”. Perhaps you’ll recall that Ivan Pavlov identified the mechanism of stimulus response by giving food to his dogs and simultaneously ringing a bell. The dogs came to associate the sound of the bell with food and ultimately would salivate as soon as they heard the bell. This “conditioned reflex” occurs naturally for all of us as we interact with people and the environment every day. In the discipline of NLP, this is called “anchoring”.

You can use it intentionally to “anchor” your donors to powerful feelings in association with your cause – to ensure that they consistently feel good about themselves and emotionally connected whenever they receive a call, a letter, a communication of any kind from your organization. And just as you can consistently “condition” your donors to feel positive about your cause with demonstrations of your organization’s gratitude, opportunities for engagement, and sharing emotional stories about the impact of their support, you can be sure that the absence of this “conditioning” will lead to a void that will be rapidly filled by some other cause. Thus, attending to consistent outreach and mission-focused communication with your donors is not just a good idea; it’s proven to be critical to your success.

And now for some recent research that can help you identify the donors with capacity who are most likely to give again and “give bigger”.
In a recent issue of Psychology Today, Eva Ritvo, M.D. writes, “Neuroscience has demonstrated that giving is a powerful pathway for creating more personal joy. . .” In fact, research shows that when we give, our brains naturally generate an increase in the production of three neurotransmitters: dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. For some of us, this triple whammy is even more powerful than for others, boosting our mood substantially and driving us to feel so wonderful that scientists refer to these neurotransmitters as the “happiness trifecta”.
This is why highly philanthropic people are literally thrilled to give. Forget about the old adage “Give ‘til it hurts.” Focus on the donors who “Give because it feels so good!” Spend more time with those who exhibit the most enthusiasm and happiness—and discipline yourself to remain mission-focused in your conversations. Having achieved deep rapport with your donors, you can now ask them about their personal missions; engage in discussions about how and why they give to your cause. By encouraging your donors to tell their own stories, to talk about their personal, emotional experience of giving, you will glean their motivations while enhancing the “happiness trifecta”.

Studies indicate that the greater the pleasurable brain activation, the more likely subjects will give frequently. According to Dr. Bill Harbaugh, a University of Oregon economist and researcher, arbH“You can actually measure how much [brain] activation there is and predict with some degree of accuracy how much they’re going to give,” In other words, the better we feel when we give, the more we do it.

Your Takes:
1. Learn rapport skills to deftly establish and deepen relationships with diverse personalities, beliefs and cultural backgrounds. NLP rapport skills can be learned easily and practiced regularly to achieve profoundly successful communication and enhanced relationships.

2. “Anchor” your donors to your cause. “Condition” them to feel positive about your organization with demonstrations of gratitude, opportunities for engagement, and sharing emotional stories about the impact of their support. Remember—the absence of this “conditioning” will lead to a void that will be rapidly filled by some other cause.

3. Rely on your observation of your donors’ enthusiasm to determine their propensity to give again and to give bigger. Those who express the most pleasure and emotional connection with giving are experiencing the greatest impact from the “happiness trifecta”. Focus your attention on these “thrilled” donors. They have the greatest potential for increased giving.

Guest contributor: Diane Blumenson, Senior Consultant, Copley Raff Inc., Co- Principal and instructor of the Philanthropy Leadership Advancement Nexus, and Principal of Human Productivity Solutions.

For more information about Copley Raff and its spectrum of consulting services, please see Follow CRI on Twitter @copleyraff.