Most people hesitate to give criticism or honest feedback. I’ve done it myself — sugarcoating my comments rather than telling someone what I really think.
Unless someone asks me specifically what I really think, probing in various specific areas, I’m more inclined to give positive feedback than to engage in a serious conversation about problems and challenges.
As I’m sure you know, one of the best ways to build a strong relationship with a major donor is to ask them for advice of one sort or another.
You might ask, for example, who they suggest you should be talking to about your project. You might ask what they think of your plans. But if you don’t probe for their real thoughts and suggestions, you won’t get them.
How Sugarcoating Can Cause Problems
I saw this sugarcoating happen recently in a funny way.
A client of mine — I’ll call her Sara — met with one of her donors to ask her advice. The donor is an acquaintance of mine, and by chance, I had dinner with her the following evening. She told me of her meeting with my client and she said:
You know, Andrea, they do a terrible job of communicating. Their website is awful and they don’t have a good sense of how to market what they do.
Sara spoke of the organization a bit dismissively and it was clear to me that she wasn’t about to do much to help them.
Being curious, the next day, I asked my client how her meeting with Sara had gone. She reported that it had been pleasant and friendly though not much specific had come out of it. It had been what I would call a “vanilla” meeting. It didn’t move the relationship forward because my client hadn’t probed deeply enough to find out what Sara really thought.
My client had left the meeting feeling okay, if a bit disappointed, that nothing particularly helpful had come out of it.
But Sara had left the meeting frustrated. She hadn’t taken the opportunity broach her real concerns. And she was eager to tell me about them, further solidifying her negative opinion.
How the Meeting Might Have Been More Productive
In order to find out what people really think, you’ve got to ask them for specific feedback! Imagine if my client had asked Sara a series of questions like these:
Sara, I know you’re experienced in our field and I would really appreciate your advice and insight.
When you look at what we do, what are the two or three things you see that you think hold us back?
When you look at our marketing material, how does it strike you?
What is your experience like when you come to our organization?
How have you been treated as a donor? Are you made to feel special?
With a simple, clear requests like that, my client would have given Sara the opening she needed to talk about her concerns. And once Sara had done that, my client might easily have asked for help, saying something like this:
Thank you, Sara. You’ve made some great points. I so appreciate your feedback. Would you be willing to come to a meeting with your communications team to help us think through how they might be better?
That simple conversation would have accomplished three important things.
- My client would have learned something important about how people see her organization.
- Sara would have been able to voice her real opinion and felt heard.
- My client would have had something very specific and appropriate to ask Sara to help with.
And finally, the chances are good, that when I saw Sara the next evening, she might have said something like this:
Andrea, I had the greatest meeting with your client yesterday. She really gave me a chance to talk about my concerns about their communications. I have offered to meet with their coms people to see if I can help solve the problem.
The Lesson Learned
When you go to talk with your donors or important constituents, don’t just hope for a nice, sugarcoated conversation. Instead, go with the clear intention of finding out what the person really thinks about your organization — both good and bad. Ask specific questions that draw out information and can help build the relationship.
If your donor raises real topics of concern, see them as wonderful opportunities to ask them for further help to find a solution.