Is "Sales" a Dirty Word?

by Danielle Irving

A friend introduced me to some skin care products not too long ago and I was completely blown away. I fell in love immediately with how my skin looked & felt. My friend then asked me if I’d be interested in selling them. My initial response was to recoil, as if I were touching a hot stove. As I wrinkled up my nose, I thought “sales”. Ugh! Isn’t that a dirty word?

I’ve spent my entire career working for nonprofits and loving it. Making the world a better place has always been my mantra. Sales has never entered my mind. However, since I felt so passionately about how these products made me feel and look, I thought I’d give it a try. I figured I had nothing to lose.

So, I’ve been learning a lot about the world of sales. And guess what? It’s not all that different from the world of philanthropy! Now, before you throw something at your computer, let me explain what I mean. Here are some common themes I’ve discovered with Sales and Philanthropy.

-Relationship building is key. This is the main takeaway from everything I’ve learned about sales. Customers have to trust you. And like you. And want to buy from you. Isn’t that the same in the world of fundraising? When we are raising money for a nonprofit, we represent that nonprofit to those we are soliciting. If we aren’t honest, trustworthy, dependable and likeable, chances are that people will not want to give money to the nonprofits we are representing.

- Say “Thank You!” My sponsor told me the first thing I should buy are thank you notes. She stressed how important it is to thank customers who purchase from me. Thank early and thank often. In my graduate program in Philanthropy, one professor said we should thank our benefactors no less than seven times. Just as clients can purchase goods from anyone, donors can invest their hard-earned money with any nonprofit. In both cases, it’s important to thank them for choosing you. And we need to be sure they feel appreciated.

The biggest development nightmare I ever experienced was when I finally was able to secure an appointment with a major gift donor for my new organization. From the database it appeared he had made a large gift at our annual fundraiser, but had never made another gift after that. When I met with him in his office, he was a bit standoffish and cold. After getting him to warm up a bit, he finally confided in me that he had not heard ONE THING from anyone in our organization about his gift. Ever. Not one peep! I truly wished the floor would open up and swallow me, I was so humiliated. He said he was so grateful that I had reached out to him, since no one had ever done that before me. Of course, I apologized profusely and continued to thank him for many months after that. He went on to make many more gifts and eventually chair a campaign. We CANNOT underestimate the importance of thanking our people.

-Follow-up is vital. In sales, I am learning how important it is to check in with the customer after they have received their product to see how they like it, if they have any questions, etc. Isn’t it the same with philanthropy? After someone has made a gift, it’s always important to check back in so they have a clear understanding of the impact their gift is making. And to keep them apprised of any changes in the organization or mission. That’s why a comprehensive development plan is so important with newsletters, a social media component, a strong thank you protocol and clear communication is so important. You never want your donor to feel out of the loop or left out in the cold.

-Facts tell and stories sell. The friend who first gave me the skin care sample rattled off a bunch of facts and figures about her company. But when she started telling me about the difference the products made in her life by giving her so much more confidence, and her friends who battled various skin conditions that were practically cured, that’s what sold me on the business. Much like the world of nonprofits. Although we do need to have solid data and facts & figures about our respective nonprofits, it’s the stories we tell that are going to win people over. It’s sharing the story about the student who was considering dropping out, who was mentored and went on to graduate from medical school. It’s the cat that was going to be euthanized that is now thriving in a loving home environment. These stories capture the hearts of people, and most people make their philanthropic decisions primarily with their hearts.

-Referrals, referrals, referrals. Another important piece of the puzzle with sales is referrals. The best advertising is word of mouth. And that was always my experience in fundraising as well. At one of my organizations, I met someone for the first time and was giving him a tour of our facility. We really hit it off and he was very interested in investing in our mission. However, he was not in a position to make a major gift, which was, of course, absolutely fine. However, before he left, I asked him if had any friends who might be interested in supporting the work we were doing. He said “Absolutely!” and ended up introducing me to a friend of his who did make a major gift (and many more!) and ended up being the Chair of our Board. All from a referral.

-Passion is a must! There is no way I could sell a product unless I felt passionately about it. And the same is true for nonprofits. I firmly believe that we cannot be strong fundraisers without feeling passion for what we’re raising money for. People can sense if we are genuine or not. It radiates through us. And if we are excited and enthusiastic about the work we’re doing, whether it’s selling a product or raising money for any amazing cause, that passion is infectious and people want to be part of it.

So, I have learned in the last month that sales is really not that different from Philanthropy. I think we could learn a lot from examining some of the sales techniques that are most effective. Shockingly, I believe that my experience in sales will actually help me become a better fundraiser. But, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic. Can we learn from sales, or is it, in fact, just a dirty word?

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