Fundraising and Public Speaking

10 concepts that both public speaking and fundraising have in common: Goal setting, knowing your audience, visualizing success, and paying attention to the details.

Fundraising and Public Speaking
14 mins read

Fundraising and public speaking might seem like odd bedfellows, but there’s actually one thing they have in common: many of us dread (and detest) at least one of them.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, you might just find that making friends with one will give you a whole new appreciation for the other.

First, a confession: While I do belong to the majority of people who fear public speaking only slightly less than their own death, I also happen to love fundraising. Here’s how I managed to marry the two in a way that melds and magnifies the power of both.

Several years ago, on a volunteer committee for a local TEDx event, I found myself voluntold to help the speakers. This experience has since grown into my personal mission to help people find and express their voices. And while it came about within the context of coaching public speaking, this mission works in my fundraising life as well.

At the end of the day, people want to be heard and seen. In fundraising, donors want to know that you get them, will honor their wishes and values, and appreciate their generosity. On the other hand, public speakers want to communicate an idea or information in a way that is actionable or at least understood. Both donors and speakers rely on clear expectations and communication in order to achieve their goals—either sharing resources in line with their values or sharing information that others find engaging and informative.

Here are 10 intersections between public speaking and fundraising. After you read through these, perhaps you’ll begin to notice even more!

1. Know your goal.

For public speaking, know the goal of your presentation. At its end, how do you want people (or a person) to feel? What do you want them to do? Visualize what you hope to achieve before you even start writing your presentation.

For fundraising, determine the objective for each meeting or conversation. You want to make the best use of both your and your donor’s time, so imagine what a successful outcome would look like for each visit. Is this visit to build a relationship, to request a gift, or to report back on how the donor’s gift was used (and thank them)? Think ahead and plan accordingly.

2. Know your audience (and anticipate reactions).

The more you know about your audience, the better you can tailor your message, building in answers to potential questions. However, knowing your audience also means thinking through questions your listeners might have as well as any potential disruptions or reactions.

For public speaking, find out as much as you can about who will be in your audience. Your word choice (including length and complexity) should reflect your audience’s style and expectations. Don’t use a lot of acronyms or insider terms for a general audience. Remember, they are wondering, “what’s in it for me?” Be sure to address them accordingly. Similarly, if you are speaking to people skeptical of your work, build in material to address those concerns. Some people like to ask gotcha questions after a talk, so incorporate content that shows how your organization can be successful.

For fundraising, ask yourself:

  • Is there research (even a simple online search) you can do before a visit?
  • What relationship (if any) have you built with this donor?
  • Have they had any major life events recently?
  • What is their connection to your organization (or do you need to ask)?

And if they’ve had a less-than-stellar interaction with someone, you might say something up front (you don’t want unresolved tensions): “I was sorry to hear that we didn’t promptly thank you for your last gift and appreciate you hanging in there with us.” After you acknowledge the black eye, move on with the conversation.

Again, before any donor visit, make sure you consider their history and experience with your organization so you are prepared for what might come!

3. Keep your eyes off yourself.

Make it about the other person, whether that’s a single donor or a larger audience. This not only increases your chances of having them pay attention but also can help with your nerves. If you take the attitude that you are there to give something useful to your listener, you might have less time to worry about what they’re thinking of you.

For public speaking, remember that what you have to share is vital to your nonprofit’s mission, and you are the person to share it. Also, if you make your presentation about your audience and what they are seeking—rather than about yourself or your nonprofit—people will be more engaged.

In fundraising, you want to make sure that the donor feels that the visit is about them. Try to listen more than you speak, ask open-ended questions, and keep your own talking to a minimum. While relationship-building is a dance of finding common ground and connection, err on the side of hearing from your donor and tailoring your information to their preferences and values.

4. Visualize success.

First define what success looks like, and then imagine as many details about it as you can.

For public speaking, consider whether you are trying to change a behavior or raise awareness. Are you stirring people’s emotions or delivering data? Really think about what your desired outcome might be.

For fundraising, spend some time imagining what a successful outcome is. There’s more to fundraising than asking for money: maybe you’re hoping for a deeper connection with that donor. Figure out your goal and then visualize how you might achieve that goal.

5. Minimize visuals.

In public speaking, it’s fine to have slides that expand upon your topic in a talk. However, an audience really can’t focus both on your speech and extensive graphics. Instead of flooring your audience with amazing visuals, keep them to a minimum.

In fundraising, visuals can also be really useful if they are utilized well: it’s great to prepare a packet of materials to leave behind or to send an email follow-up after the donor visit. However, donors are rarely excited or engaged when forced to go through brochures or charts side-by-side. Donors want connection, and it’s hard to feel connected to the person when you are distracted by pamphlets in your hands.

6. Organize your content.

Keep to one main theme. Everything you say should support this idea. Make the best use of your (and your audience’s) time.
In the TEDx world, we encourage public speakers to focus on a “throughline”—one main idea—making sure everything they incorporate into their talk somehow relates to or supports that idea. You should resist the urge to throw in the kitchen sink. Instead, take people through a logical sequence from beginning to end, illustrate your main point with a story or some data, and make it about a solution. There are plenty of places for storytelling or personal testimonials but be careful not to stray from your main point.

For fundraising, it’s important to confirm with a donor how much time you have and plan your conversation accordingly. You don’t want to run out of time before you get to your main goal. Instead, allude to important information beforehand so they know what to expect: “I can’t wait to meet you at ABC restaurant. By way of making the best use of your time, I want to confirm that the purpose of getting together on our end is to thank you for your gift to our wing/exhibit/etc., and to tell you a couple of stories about how much it’s helped further our mission of XYZ.”

7. Start strong, finish strong.

You need to capture people’s attention from the first word. Catching people a little off guard with a surprising statement or statistic can be captivating. The same goes for asking a question: it forces the other person or people to engage with what you are saying. You want to create momentum and keep that momentum going.
On the flipside, people remember the message you leave them with. The conclusion and the feeling it generates are what lasts, especially if it’s a call to action.

For public speaking, focus on the end first. What do you want your audience to do or feel? From this goal, work backwards to build your content toward that ideal outcome. You have less than seven seconds to capture people’s attention, so be yourself and start strong. If you ask a rhetorical question, for example, be sure to follow it with a pause that lets people think. Too often, speakers open with a question and keep talking without pause; this can leave the audience feeling uneasy for the rest of the talk. Also, if you’ve been introduced, don’t re-introduce yourself.

For fundraising, I always start with a thank you. It immediately makes the visit or the call about the donor. And because I’ve thought ahead what I hope the outcome will be, I plan the end of the conversation. If it is an ask, make it and then stop talking. A mentor once told me that if I say anything before a donor does after an ask, I’m doing it wrong.

8. Speak to what you know.

People can spot a BS-er.

Audiences can spot a BS-er a mile away (unnecessarily complex terminology is a dead giveaway). In my classes, I do an exercise where someone has one minute to describe something familiar and then another minute to describe something totally foreign to them—maybe bitcoin or kale. Time goes quickly when you are passionate and knowledgeable about something but drags when you are trying to remember something you heard in passing on NPR.

For fundraising, donors also know when you are bluffing or making something up, which does damage in numerous ways. This disrespects their time and potentially damages your organization’s credibility. It is OK to say, “gosh, I am going to have to get back to you on that,” or “do you mind asking that question another way so I can make sure I understand what you’re looking for?” Don’t try to bluff your way through it; it’s simply not worth the risk.

9. Pay attention to time.

For public speaking, you want to make sure to time yourself. You should know how long you are expected to speak. You should also allot time for Q&A, and, if at all possible, come in under-time—people love that. There’s nothing worse than having your audience check their watches to see when you’ll be wrapping up.
For fundraising, be cognizant of your donor’s schedule, erring on the side of caution. Expect them to be busy and stick to a quick time limit. However, make sure you have cleared your schedule in case they seem open to chat. Try to follow their lead as this will make the visit feel as though it’s about them.

10. Practice.

Practice helps with what bothers people most: nerves (also try deep breathing and power poses). However, another (often overlooked) aspect of practice is making sure that you know your space. Essentially, you’re trying to build familiarity, and knowing both your content and the environment is crucial to creating the relaxation that comes from habituation.

For public speaking, make sure that you run through your talk several times beforehand so that the words come naturally. Also consider reading your talk into a voice recorder and playing it back repeatedly—not to memorize but to get comfortable enough with the flow to allow for expression. On a more tangible level, you should also arrive early to map out the space and test any equipment (AV, microphone, etc.).

In fundraising, practice also depends on context. If you are making a fundraising visit with other people, be sure to map out the flow of your visit beforehand. If you’re on your own, be sure to review the case study or other helpful materials prior to the visit. For quick reference, I write every visit’s objective into my calendar reminder. Again, the goal should center the visit.

Connecting the Two

Whether you love or hate public speaking OR fundraising (maybe both), you probably now see some of the crossover between these two subjects. But hopefully at least one of these strategies will be useful for you.

For me, seeing where these two tasks intersect has helped me appreciate how much they have in common. In the end, whatever our task or profession, people want and deserve to be heard.

About the Author

Beth Wolfer is a development professional with more than 25 years of experience. She currently serves as a Planned Giving Officer at a national animal welfare organization, where she also offers speaker coaching and workshops.

She teaches courses on public speaking at the University of Utah as well as to other groups. She is head speaker coach for TEDxSaltLakeCity and specializes in helping people find and express their voices powerfully and succinctly. Beth lives in Utah.

Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.

2 thoughts on “Fundraising and Public Speaking

  1. Elegant article, and articulate and right on, Beth. Everything you stressed is also mostly true for networking and job hunting! As I’m so aware of right now, since I’m jumping off the high dive – feeling like I’m definitely going in the water feet first – or headfirst feels right too! – as a proofreader copy editor.

    So I’m tickled to be able to say I know you from several years ago when you came to Seattle to meet up with me as a Best Friend donor!

    Are you still visiting donors or are you way too busy? If you are traveling, be sure to contact me and we can meet up again, and kibbutz about the editing profession! I think we are linked on this site but not sure. You can find me under Norma Rosie Wigutoff.

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