Breaking the script – three ways to inspire your supporters

In 18 years in fundraising I have found that two of the biggest challenges for any fundraiser in conversation with a potential supporter are a) holding their attention – there are so many distractions, both in people’s heads and in our forever-bleeping, interrupting environment; and b) saying something that impresses them, that causes them to think, ‘wow, you’re really making a difference to a problem I care about.’

On my Programmes a tactic we explore is ‘breaking the script’, which can help solve both problems. When someone stops concentrating on a conversation, lecture or TV programme its often because their brain has predicted what’s going to be said next, and decided it won’t be worth more mental resources to pay attention. To counteract this, when we deliberately ‘break the script’, we are really giving the other person’s mental ‘guessing machine’ a JOLT, that is, something different from what they had expected. This causes them to pay attention and potentially think ‘wow’.

Done badly, they’ll think you’re using a tacky gimmick or are a bit weird. Done elegantly, with rapport and in tune with what the supporter cares about, breaking the script is a powerful way to make these conversations work out for both you and them.

So how can we break the script? One great example from the world of hospitality is cited by Chip and Dan Heath in their 2017 book “The Power of Moments; Why certain experiences have extraordinary impact[i], and describes the adventures of ‘Joshie the Giraffe’ at a Ritz-Carlton resort in Florida.  An author named Chris Hurn had recently returned from a family holiday only to discover that his son’s beloved soft toy – Joshie the Giraffe – had been left behind at the resort.  Chris contacted the hotel to ask them to look for Joshie and what happened next really ‘broke the script’; not only was the toy located and returned, but it was sent back with a photo album containing numerous pictures of Joshie living it up at the resort in the absence of his owners.  He was in the spa (complete with cucumber slices over his eyes), he was lounging by the swimming pool, he was driving a golf buggy[ii] – it was the playfulness and goodwill of the Ritz-Carlton staff who implemented this relatively simple and inexpensive gesture that made the story so memorable and sharable.

As a fundraiser there are many ways you can apply this idea.  Here are three of the tactics we talk about on the Bright Spot Mastery Programmes:

  1. Bringing your message to life with a prop. In my recent blog, ‘What prop would make more of your supporters say YES!’, I share three examples to give you ideas for types of prop you could use. And I gave the example of William Wilberforce – one of the leading campaigners for the ending of the slave trade in the 1780s and 1790s – who used to take with him a genuine slaver’s iron ball and chain to meetings to bring his arguments to life. Tactile, tangible objects can encourage interaction and more successfully engage the supporters’ attention. A little effort here makes all your meetings more interesting.
  2. Thank creatively. The opportunities to break the script are not just before the gift, they can also help delight and deepen relationships with existing donors. I recently wrote a blog entitled ‘Wow Factor! Applying the power of magic moments for increased income’ and described how I was given a free cup of tea and a cake at a Pret A Manger. This simple gesture is part of a business-wide policy to give staff members the ability to ‘gift’ a certain number of free food and drink items each week, helping to restore ‘the surprise and humanity to perks that, in a loyalty card scheme, would have been systematized.’[iii]  On the Individual Giving Mastery Programme we help participants make use of this concept in an intelligent, strategic way. For example, handwritten thank you cards on ‘giving anniversaries’, simple but sincere ‘smart phone’ films and other unexpected tokens of appreciation can make all the difference.
  3. Focus on them Though we can get very excited thinking through some of the ‘going the extra mile’ creative tactics like those I mention above, this one is an even more important way we must break the expected paradigm. On the Major Gifts, and Corporate Mastery Programmes one of the most common types of breakthrough that participants tell us about is progress they have achieved in recent meetings with wealthy donors. Invariably they say that this improved meeting outcome started with the decision to truly care about the donor and what they could get out of this meeting / relationship.

As I say in my book The Fundraiser Who Wanted More’ – If you really seek to influence someone, you must first seek to understand and appreciate their world.  It’s all too easy to say too much early on, to gush your mission statement and fulfil the expected charity script: “Charity needs funds. Charity explains what funds are needed for. Charity asks for donations.”
By shifting the focus of the meeting onto what the potential donor cares about (if only we can confidently give them the space to articulate it) then we have a chance of later on showing them that our charity is a means to solve one of the problems in the world that the donor cares about. I appreciate that this sounds obvious to any smart fundraiser, it’s just that doing it in practice is not always easy. And this is why mastery programme participants are so pleased when they make progress with the confidence and skill to do it well.
 This idea was demonstrated really effectively last year by a University fundraiser called Stephanie who had attended one of my programmes; Stephanie told us she had had a meeting with a potential donor that started badly, as the donor – a busy and stressed lawyer – criticised the University’s strategy.  Rather than respond defensively, Stephanie found a way to confidently listen and care about his frustrations. As she sought to genuinely understand and appreciate his world, the focus of the meeting magically seemed to shift to an entirely new conversation and ended with the donor enthusiastically committing to a new donation of £12,000 – nearly double the size of any gift he had given before.
So what could you do to break the script in your next meeting with a donor? Whether you embrace just one tactic, or several, it’s important that you make your communication both caring (about their perspective) and sufficiently script-breaking to help them connect and care. This doesn’t necessarily need big budgets and big gestures – taking the time to listen to your supporters, and thanking them with a personalised flourish can make a difference quickly and simply.  Let us know how these approaches work for you!
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You can find out more about the Major Gifts Mastery here, Corporate Partnerships Mastery here and Individual Giving Mastery, here.
[i] Heath, C. and Heath, D., 2017. The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact. Simon and Schuster. Page 69-96
[ii] for the full story, see Chris Hurn’s Huffpost article:
[iii] Heath, C. and Heath, D., 2017. The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact. Simon and Schuster. Page 74