Fairmount InSights

Being a nonprofit executive director can feel like a trapeze artist tiptoeing across a wire while many eyes watch from below. One misstep can catapult you from secure footing to a catastrophic situation.


Running from Board meetings, to speaking engagements, to pressure-packed dinners with potential donors gives executives many chances for unintended mistakes. While few errors are fatal, there are common conversational blunders that can significantly hurt your chances to earn funding.


Appearing inattentive Imagine you sit inside a cozy coffee shop while soft-pop music plays above the buzz of caffeinated conversation. Across from you sits an old friend you haven’t seen in years. Aside from swapping “happy birthday!” messages on Facebook, you each have fell behind on the intimate details of your lives. You tug your stool closer to the table, excited to share your recent big news. You launch into your story but soon notice your friends’ eyes glaze over. Your friend nods at the appropriate places but every twenty seconds their hand reaches for their phone, stealing glances at the screen.

Most people have played both roles. But only one person in this scenario feels bad. That’s the person who believes their conversation partner isn’t paying attention. There are many ways to leave a bad impression with potential donors but being distracted is a quick path to conversation Armageddon.

Talking more than listening – People don’t like those who behave in ways that suggest “my time is more valuable than yours.” Especially people who are considering giving you money. Like appearing inattentive, talking more than listening disrupts potential connections. For nonprofit executives speaking with potential donors, over-talking also causes missed opportunities to gain crucial information about a possible donors’ needs and experiences. Sometimes what’s not being said by a potential donor is the most valuable information. An overzealous nonprofit executive can miss this if they’re fascinated by their own words more than the person they’re speaking with.

Saying what you think the potential donor wants to hear – Some nonprofit executives fear upsetting a potential donor and bend over backwards to withhold their true perspective. This mistake causes mistrust if the potential donor believes they’re burying their real opinion. Trust is critical to any strong partnership and it’s especially very important between a nonprofit and their donors. Donors giving money to an organization are essentially saying “I trust you to deliver on your promise (an organization’s mission) and I believe this money will help you create more good.” But inauthentic comments and opinions from nonprofit executives can ruin the foundation of trust from potential donors. If they can’t trust you to be real with them, how can they trust you to deliver on your organizational mission?


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