It’s alive

For your next sales-and-storytelling practice session, try this.

Think of your favorite popular song, one that everybody knows. Then tap out the tune on the table with your hand, and have the rest of your team go around in a circle and guess what the song is. Try it a few times and see how many times the song gets guessed.

How’d it go?

The answer is: terribly.

You can’t guess a song by just hearing the rhythm. But even so, when you’re the person tapping that “tune,” you can’t help but hear the song in your head. Nor can you help wondering (just a little bit) “why don’t they hear it too?”

This is your storytelling problem in a nutshell: you can see something that your audience can’t.

This something has a color and a smell and a texture, it is just about to burst with feeling and emotion and meaning.

Picture it.

Your stories need to help us see what you see. As your audience, we are begging you to paint this living, vibrant thing for us, to help us see what you see so we can feel what you feel. Let us, first, experience its texture and shape and possibility.

That’s your one and only job at the outset.

Once that’s complete we have a real, shared conversation about whether and how to make that picture come to life.

What’s it worth

At some point in every negotiation, the conversation turns to price.

Sometimes this is straightforward. It’s been discussed all along and you are formalizing what everyone expects.

And sometimes, a new prospect will come at you with some version of, “We really want to do this, we just can’t make it happen at this price. Could you do it for less?”

Can you?

Well yes, you always can do it for less.

But should you?

There might be good reasons to do it for less. The work is interesting and important and will allow you to grow. It will open new doors for you and your firm. You have available resources (time, people) that otherwise would lay dormant.

But if the price you’ve offered is one you’ve been paid before, and if clients keep coming back for more and referring new people to you, this means that, at the price you initially offered, the one you’ve been asked to lower, your work is a bargain: you’ve been delivering a lot more value than the price you’re charging.

What’s challenging is how uncomfortable  the “can you do it for less” moment is. The tension in the silence that follows this question makes you want to make the discomfort go away, which you can do by negotiating against yourself.

“Maybe,” you think, “this time I’m wrong.”  “Maybe, this time, my work isn’t worth it.”  “Maybe this client will get away and……..”

And what, exactly?

And there will be another client tomorrow. This client will see what you’re worth, be willing to pay that amount and, in doing so, will get be getting a bargain relative to what you’ll deliver.

Don’t uncut yourself, and certainly don’t apologizing for asking for what you deserve.

Instead, you might offer: “I’m confident that at the price we’re discussing, you will get more than you’re paying for.”

Then, when she ultimately say yes, it’s up to you to do something magical, which is exactly where you want to be.

Fundraising Parable

A fundraiser asks for advice about how to get more access to the institutions who give money to her sector.

The conversation that ensues is about seeing this work not as a series of transactions, but about building real relationships, about making connection, about building a network that you value and feed, that you give to first rather than ask for things.

This conversation runs long. The fundraiser takes copious notes, nods a lot, seems excited.

And then you never hear from her again.

Not Sales mode, Amazing Interesting Allies Mode

The biggest challenge we all face in terms of nonprofit sales isn’t how to win people over, it isn’t how to pitch, and it’s not how to close.

The biggest problem is access.

We are not selling a product with a defined market price, which is why it can take the same (or more!) time, effort, passion, and skill to raise a $1,000 donation as it does a $100,000 donation. What matters is how big that donation is for each person.

So the question arises: how do we get access?

The only real answer—which on some days feels energizing and on others relentless—is to generously, consciously, and actively be in always-on sales mode.

“Generously” because the only way to make real connections is to actively, deeply, and truly care about creating value for the people you’re connecting with, with no expectation of return.

“Actively and consciously” because this requires clear and deliberate prioritization in the midst of an already too-full agenda. That can be hard if the yield isn’t immediate: this next person simply is not going to write you a check for $100,000, so, do you meet her anyway?

It helps to remind ourselves that our most valuable connections are “weak ties”—the ones at the edges of our social network. This means that what we’re really doing in this next hour is taking another step in our multi-year project of creating a strong, connected, personal web of shared values, purpose, and mutual support. The web we are weaving creates real and lasting value for all of its members, including, hopefully and eventually, for us.

Tangibly, this means things like:

Always, every time taking the extra conversation that might lead to something that might lead to something.

Keeping your antennae up for people with the same type of passion that you have.

Remembering that your job is not to get the next lead, your job is to collect allies and advocates, the kinds of people who make things happen with verve and joy and passion, because that’s the virtual army that your life’s work deserves.

Because, when you boil it all down, people who do amazing interesting and important things know other people who do amazing interesting and important things.

And, if you find and add value to enough people doing amazing interesting important things, and if at least some of them become wildly passionate about YOUR amazing interesting important thing, eventually they will roll up their sleeves for you, eventually they will lend their best thoughts to you, eventually they will become part of your journey.

Bit by bit, over time, those relationships will lead to more relationships that will eventually get you in the room with a person who can write a 10x or 100x bigger check and who is positively disposed to the conversation they’re about to have with you, because they’ve heard about you from one or three or five other amazing interesting people doing important things. Then you need to close that sale.

It’s a long road from here to there, but you distinguish yourself on Day 1 by committing to walk this path.

And, if you’re just beginning on this journey, and especially if you think of yourself as “results oriented,” I’d encourage you to be a little less discerning, a little less linear, and a lot more energetic and generous, and see where that path leads.

Four Steps in Selling

  1. Great to meet you
  2. Asking questions
  3. Making the pitch
  4. Closing

It’s amazing how often, as salespeople or fundraisers, in our breathless urgency to make our pitch, we skip to step 3.

Ultimately there’s a wrapper around this entire conversation, and that wrapper is our true intention.

Every moment we spend demonstrating genuine curiosity, we make clear that we care most about meeting their needs, and will pursue a sale only in service of that end.

Yes, our future customer wants to know that we are smart, capable, and that we have a great solution for the price, but the first thing she wants to know is: what’s this guy’s true intention? If we don’t pass that test, we never get out of the gate.

The truth is, today everyone has a nearly infinite choice about who they are going to work with, or what organization they are going to support. The deeper truth is that no product, service, intervention, or charity is so much better than everything else out there that it wins solely on the merits.

This is why we begin with courtesy and basic good manners.

We follow that with genuine curiosity around the problem someone else is trying to solve, and, from that deep interest, we explore if, how, and in what ways the thing we have on offer today might solve that problem.

These aren’t boxes to check so we can get on with our sale, these are the first steps towards building a partnership on a foundation of respect and service.

No skipping steps.

The Story-Reality Gap

Not long after a recent conference, I was comparing notes with an early-stage social entrepreneur about pitching to potential investors. The pitches at the conference had been heavy on dreams, lighter on reality, and we got to talking about how big the gap should be between the stories we tell on stage and what’s happening on the ground. 

Specifically, in service of telling our stories, when do we push the truth so far as to reach a breaking point?

Like all good questions, the answer to this one begins with recognizing the limits of black and white thinking: there aren’t just two types of stories, one full of puffery and half-truths and the other a grim, warts-and-all picture of reality so sober and honest that no one would ever dream of funding us.

Indeed, the real truth is this: we owe it to our ideas to tell stories big enough that there’s space for others in them.

Our job is to describe a future reality that will only come into being if the listener rolls up her sleeves with us to help make it happen. This reality can be a few steps, maybe many steps, removed from today, because the question the sophisticated listener is asking isn’t “is this exactly what they’re doing today?” it is, “do I believe that this person with this team, together with my help and support, can get us from here to there?”

With this as a given, we all have our own sweet spot for how we tell stories in ways that mesh with our personalities and worldview.  I’ve been persuaded both by big-picture dreamers and cranky cynics, the former because they help me see something that feels impossible but just-in-reach, the latter because if, with all their negativity, they tell me that they can make something important happen, I’m inclined to believe them.

My own version of selling builds off how I’m wired—I deeply value transparency and authenticity, and as a listener I want to understand where gaps lie and that an entrepreneur is thinking two steps ahead. So I pitch in this same way, always trying to walk the line of painting a big vision and acknowledging what doesn’t exist yet, the potential pitfalls, an how I’m going to address them. This is the balance that works for me, the space between a story I cannot tell authentically (because it feels un-grounded) and one that is thinking and playing too small.

Of course your sweet spot will be somewhere slightly different, a comfort zone with a natural set point on the spectrum between dazzle/charisma/vision and grounded, sober reality.

The non-negotiable bit is that, regardless of which style is most comfortable to you, it’s everyone’s job to share an evocative vision of an as-yet-unrealized future and help others see it.

Storytelling is just that…story-telling, and the stories you want to tell are stories about the future.

Pricing you

Classical economic theory tells us that the market-clearing price for a product is the one at which the last customer, the one with the lowest willingness to pay, gets exactly the value from the product that she pays for it. Her “consumer surplus” is zero: for a product that will give her $50 worth of value, she pays $50.

But what about pricing for a unique product, one that is the opposite of a commodity – things like tree-house building, editorial services, or the work your social enterprise is doing to change the world? In the broadest sense, there’s a market out there, but only if you let that happen. Really your whole job is to be un-comparable to everyone else, to make people understand that there’s only one you in the world and that you are uniquely worth paying for.

So how do you price you?

A friend once told me that that if I’d never gotten kicked out of a fundraising meeting then I wasn’t asking for enough money. It’s true. We undersell ourselves for two reasons: we don’t have enough market feedback to know what we’re really worth; and we let our fear of not making a sale overcome our desire to sell at the right price.

We can overcome this. The trick is to use each subsequent sale to build out the demand curve for our work. Each time we sell, we push a little further to find out where that ceiling is. By going beyond what feels comfortable, we discover the gap between what we’re asking for and the price the customers we want are willing to pay.

We can be told this time and again, but it often only hits home when we feel the frustration from delivering work we’ve undersold. The pattern is familiar: we make a sale for too little and then set out to do our best work. This best is harder and takes longer and requires more sweat and tears than we ever imagine – because what we do is special and we always do it with love and passion, even when today’s economics would suggest otherwise. We end up proud of the work but exhausted, because we did the work with too few resources and we know that we can’t do it this way forever.

If we can hang on to that sense of frustration, we can use it to discover our own value. This is the key step. It’s only when we truly believe in what we are worth that we can look someone in the eye and says, “Yes, this is the price for this. And what you’ll get in return will blow you away.”

I remember the first time I looked someone in the eye and asked them for a million dollars. I could barely choke out the word and my palms started sweating. I didn’t believe it the first time, but I did believe it eventually.

This happens in fundraising, and this happens whenever it’s up to us to tell the world the value of the work we do. First we must believe ourselves, and then they will too.

Because what we’re saying about what our work is worth is true.

 

Don’t take it personally

Jonathan Lewis’ recent blog post and accompanying video on fundraising hits the nail on the head: “The best fundraisers don’t fundraise.  Instead, they teach people to take realistic – and unrealistic!  – risks in the service of a better world. “

“Teaching” and “risk-taking” in service of a better world.

Maybe if we used that language more often we would have more great people getting into fundraising, more people in fundraising with the right mindset and orientation, and more funders taking risk.

I’m with Jonathan all the way until the closing paragraph, where he says, “Infuriating indeed is the patronizing ‘don’t take it personally’…If you believe in your mission and if you are giving it your all, then it’s always personal.  Every committed social entrepreneur takes organizational rejection personally!”

As I told Jonathan, I don’t think this is quite right.  Of course I feel it personally when I am rejected, when someone doesn’t share my passion or, worse, when my explanation of what we are trying to do at Acumen fails to capture the imagination of someone who I know is aligned with my passion and vision (in which case, shame on me).  I don’t think I would be human if I didn’t feel it; indeed, if the day comes when I stop feeling it I’d have to question my own passion and sense of commitment.

But when I let the rejection feel personal, and when I see other fundraisers do the same thing, I think that’s a big mistake.

The person I’m meeting with came into the meeting with a worldview, with ideas, with momentum in a certain direction…and so did I.  I feel like my job is to listen, explore, connect, tease out alignment, and then to inspire action (aside: the “inspire action” bit is really important and not easy to get right.)

But when that alignment isn’t there and I end up feeling personally rejected then I believe I’m misdiagnosing what just went on in that meeting.

When someone says no, it could be an execution error on my part: maybe I handled the meeting poorly, didn’t listen enough, was off my game, didn’t have a real and compelling ask, didn’t tell compelling stories, or didn’t articulate how Acumen could help the funder realize their vision.  Hopefully, after fundraising for nearly seven years I make fewer and fewer of those mistakes, but I’m sure I do make them plenty.  When this is what’s gone wrong,  I need to use a rejection to figure out how I can get better, how I can hone my craft, how I can turn “no’s” into “not now’s.”  Taking these sorts of rejections personally places blame in the wrong place: I didn’t do my job well, plain and simple.

And when what I’m fundraising for doesn’t inspire a funder or align with their vision, then something entirely different is at play.  That’s a question of worldview, a question of where they are in their journey.  It’s about lack of alignment of vision and values and aspiration.  What they’re looking for is not what I’m selling.

(Note that it’s easy to see, when I’m selling database software or consumer copiers, the difference between being turned down because the person isn’t buying anything right now, buys from my competitor, or decides to buy productivity software and a high-end color printers instead.  In philanthropy what we mostly see is the person giving or not giving to us, so everything gets much more muddled).

Almost always, it’s not personal.  I have not been rejected.  The moment I take rejection too personally is the moment I lose forward momentum, the moment I begin to question myself at a more fundamental level, the moment I forget that real long-term partnerships happen because of a deep sense of alignment, not because someone chose to buy what I’m selling.

Finding the line

A friend of mine, a great salesman, was giving advice to a colleague of mine who was new to fundraising.

His suggestion: if you don’t get thrown out of at least one meeting in your first year you’re not being bold enough in your asks.

This wasn’t conceptual advice – it meant actually physically being shown the door.

Now I admit in nearly six years of fundraising I haven’t actually been thrown out, but I’ve definitely made some pretty outrageous asks.  At the same time, until I actually find the line I don’t fully know where it is.

You could be fundraising, you could be a freelancer, you could be selling just about anything – 9 times out of 10 we all are less bold than we could be and should be.

Yes be respectful, always, but find the line.

The deadline opportunity

Deadlines force focus, can create superhuman results, can help people who have been dithering decide to act.

They are, in short, incredible opportunities.

Your leadership challenge is to see deadlines coming and plan for them appropriately, get the groundwork and underpinnings and infrastructure in place well in advance so that you can use them to your and your customers’ advantage.

So, for example, since you know deadlines are going to help you close a sale, you work backwards from the deadline, you have all your prep work in place, and then you make the deadline part of the pitch long before it arrives.  This way you use the deadline to your and your client’s advantage, to help them move from good intention to action.

A good deadline is a terrible thing to waste.