Nonprofit Leadership: It is not what you say, it is how you listen

Last week in a nonprofit Facebook group, someone asked how to get board members to start raising money during Coronavirus. It was an interesting dialogue.

Some suggestions were to show them the data: that nonprofits who ask for money will raise it, no matter the circumstance, and donors still want to give. Some suggested playing hardball: ask them to do it or get out of the way and let someone else do it. Some suggested tools or scripts to move them to action.

Here’s how I would approach the situation, and in my experience, what I have seen work the best.

  1. Assume everyone is doing their best, and that the situation may be frustrating for the board member as well. Most people want to do what they say they will do and when they don’t, they get embarrassed. They want this to work as much as you do.

  2. Dig for the deeper problem. If the problem is a noun, something you can name (I don’t have a brochure to help, I don’t have time, I need training) that is a presenting problem or the problem they know and admit. There is most likely a deeper issue they aren’t yet ready to admit, and that is most likely around being rejected, feeling ineffective or being pushy. Data, tools, and calling them out on their inaction don’t always work or may work for a short time but the problem will likely resurface because it is about a feeling they don’t want to feel or a mental block they have.

  3. They want understanding first. When you lead with empathy: “I know, fundraising can be scary, especially during these times. Tell me more about your reservations…” then the other person feels seen and heard and relaxes. The greatest need we have is to be seen and heard. Feeling “gotten” is a powerful experience. You may be able to recall a conversation or experience you had when you felt deeply seen by another person and how good that felt. You can give that to your reluctant board member.

  4. Once people feel seen, they are now open to your guidance and wisdom. Then you can introduce tools or data or encouragement to them. Position anything new as a way to solve the problem or pain they shared.

  5. Let them decide how to solve their problem. There’s a saying, “People hate to be sold but they love to buy.” Why is that? Because being SOLD feels pushy and when we feel pushed, we push right back. BUYING assumes the buyer is making the decision. Lead them into a decision. They will buy what you are selling (in this case, fundraising activities) to the extent they feel seen and heard.

You might feel the need to pitch an idea or convince them to do something. Instead meet the hesitation with empathy and validation, and once you have a true understanding of the deeper problem, offer a solution.

Maryanne is founder and CEO of Courageous Communication. She works with nonprofits to grow their influence and leadership so they can be more productive, powerful & persuasive and stop feeling rejected, ineffective or pushy. She is author of Courageous Communication: how codependence is making your nonprofit brand boring and what to do about it and creator of Up Level Your Influence training for individuals and organizations. She is leading a movement to change “nonprofit” to “human investment company” to accurately reflect the contributions of the sector. She’s known for her love of ultrahigh heels, extra-large Diet Cokes, and short karaoke rotations. If you want to learn how to build your influence and leadership, connect with Maryanne for speaking or training.

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