Pleasant small talk is an essential skill.

Mastering the “Soft Skills” of Fundraising

Social skills matter.

Kindness and graciousness will take you far!

Appearance matters. Graciousness matters.

How much do they matter to a master fundraiser?


I gave a brand new presentation on “Mastering the Soft Skills of A Fundraiser: What They Don’t Teach You in Fundraising 101” last week at the AFP Toronto Fundraising Congress.

And it was quite a hit.  Fundraisers, both new and experienced, ate this stuff up.

(I got to be totally candid and not politically correct!)

What’s at stake here?

If you are oblivious to your soft skills, you’ll miss important cues that can have everything to do with your career and your ability to raise money.

Your job is at stake. And so is your organization’s reputation, since you are representing it when you are out in front of people.

Don’t be oblivious like Winnie the Pooh

Your organization’s mission is at stake, and the amount of money you can raise is at stake.

So maybe, just maybe, you want to study what they don’t teach you!

Five “Soft Skills” of master major gifts fundraisers:

1. Social awareness.

You need to have a good radar. Where’s your attention? On yourself? or on the other guy or gal (your donor)?

If you are self-conscious and nervous, you’ll totally miss the cues from your donor.

And if you are oblivious (we all know these people) you miss the cues as well.

Things like your donor’s body language, eyes, fidgeting, tone of voice – they tell you worlds of information about her interest in your cause.

Your donor will tell you what the next steps are.

But only if you are aware of both spoken and unspoken messages.

You’ll never raise any money if you can’t totally focus on the donor, and get over yourself.

2. Ability to build a trusting relationship.

Building a trusting relationship with a donor is a delicate dance.

How do you build a trusting relationship with a donor?

The most important thing is to do what you said you’d do.

Follow up when you said you would.

Get them what they asked for when they asked. Circle back promptly to them.

And be on time.

Nothing says disrespect more than tardiness. Keeping a donor waiting is NOT cool!

And get out the door when you said you’d leave!

And how do you know when to press forward and when to back off from your donor?

To know when to go away and when to come closer is the KEY to any lasting relationship. Domenico Cieri Estrada

3. Social skills.

Social skills are wildly important.

The ability to come across as polished and gracious is an essential skill. (Moving up in business usually depends as much on this as on your ability.)

In fact, a friend who’s a very successful restaurateur said recently to me:

“In this economy, it’s all social skills.”

What he means is the ability to be likable. To make people feel good. To make them comfortable.

Make it all about the donor and not about you, and you’ll never go wrong!

Pleasant small talk is an essential skill.

The art of “small talk.”

I taught my kids about small talk when they were in elementary school. They learned to how to have polite conversations with adults.

Making pleasant conversation is a learned skill.

Again, make it all about the other person and they’ll think you are a brilliant conversationalist!

4. Good manners.

What is the essence of good manners?

  • Kindness and consideration
  • Keeping your cool (decorum)
  • Putting others at ease

Good manners can get you out of sticky situations.  You can just ignore the offensive behavior as if it never happened. : )

Table manners can be a minefield for many people!

And good manners can help you dig yourself out of a hole.

We’ve all put our foot in our mouth with a donor before.

From misspelling their name, to not giving them the attention they think they deserve, we have lots of opportunities to offend delicate egos.

Good manners will save you time and time again.

5. Etiquette.

The Dali Lama once said, “Know what the rules are, so you can break them properly.”

You need to know the basic rules of etiquette:

How to make a proper introduction, when to pick up your fork at the table, when to hold the door, when to stand when someone comes in the room, where the knife goes, which fork to use, where the elbow belongs, when to wear white, how to pay a compliment.

You need to pay attention to your appearance:

What’s the proper role of makeup, extreme fashion, showing skin, jewelry, stubble, colors?

What is appropriate in your social life may not be appropriate in front of a major donor.

The essence of marketing tailoring your message to suit the needs of your audience.

A smart fundraiser is willing to tailor their personal presentation to fit into the world of a major donor.

You can loosen up with your friends.

Be more formal and professional with your donors.

Bottom line:

All this stuff matters more than you imagine!

Not only does it affect your success raising money, but it also affects your ability to rise in your career. (not to mention socially.)

I know I’m not being politically correct here but I might was well say it all out loud.

I think we could all use more practice in graciousness and making others comfortable.

What do you think? Leave a comment and tell me!

  • Gail – this was a great session. Thank you so much for making the time to come to Toronto and share it with us. Fundraisers all over the world would certainly benefit from this. In fact I wish it has been longer! Thanks for blogging the highlights so that we can all start thinking more about being gracious and putting others at ease. K

  • Anonymous

    Thanks so much Kimberley! It was lots of fun to present this! Hope you have a great weekend!

  • Karenjean44

    Your comments are important to us but particularly to the younger folks entering the profession.  What is acceptable attire at your university does not necessarily translate to the workplace.  It’s not politically correct to talk about what someone should wear or not wear but it is noticed by the older folks who are the ones who have their fingers on the purse strings.

  • Rachel

    I think this should be talked about more in school/college, particuarly with those coming into the workforce in such a highly competitive environment.  Parents, of course, should teach these basic principles but as someone who hires staff, these are things that are infinitely important to a fundraising career.  Someone’s behavior in these areas is not only a reflection of themselves, but a reflection of the organization they represent.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Karen, I think you are right! the transition from student to working professional is important and there are few guidelines.

  • Alan

    Gail:  We need far less concern about political correctness.  Truth is truth.  What you laid out here is dead on accurate.  We all need this message, either to reinforce what we already know, or for those who have not heard it before.  Thank you for all you do.  Remember, fortune favors the bold.

  • Anonymous

    great content … so where are the trainers to back up the teaching? YOU trained YOUR children to make small talk when they were in elementary school … some parents train their children that small talk is a silly waste of time. So who trains those now-grown kids in the small talk and social cues that are, in fact, essentials of any business career?

  • Kristen in Maine

    Great post, but I don’t understand all the apologies about “political correctness.” Since when is recommending that one look and behave like a professional–i.e. dress appropriately and act with graciousness and politeness toward people you’re asking something from– considered incorrect by any standards, let alone political ones? Just because younger generations are a bit more casual these days doesn’t mean this good advice is “incorrect” in any way!

  • Scottmandl

    As a pastor at my first church used to say, “If the truth kills granny, let her die.” While that sounds a bit severe, his point was, if you are not clear with the truth, how will people know what to shoot for?

    Great stuff Gail, as always.

  • Anonymous

    Ah yes, who can argue with the truth! : )

  • Anonymous

    Great point, Kristen. I guess we just don’t talk about this stuff a lot. And we need to discuss it MORE! I think people are hungry for this.

  • Anonymous

    We see this in business all the time, don’t we? My daughter said, when she was right out of college, that most of her friends could not handle a real job because they didn’t know how to talk to adults. 

  • Anonymous

    thanks Alan!

  • Charles Burge

    Spot on.  Well said.  Thank you.

  • Anonymous

    Maybe there should be some courses in “business etiquette.” It can make or break you! 

  • Terri Forman

    Once again, you beat me to it, Gail! Very smart advice, especially about reading body language and finding your donor’s comfort zone. The negative nelly’s may respond that this adaptability may be inauthentic, but they are wrong. It is the essence of ambassadorship in its truest form. Thanks!

  • Mary-Anne Herrema

    Gail, this session at AFP Toronto was a breath of fresh air! Thank you for saying out loud what so many of us have been thinking…some people have no concept of the “soft skills”, and someone needs to tell them. I appreciate your courage!

  • Jkruiswijk

    Can you recommend any materials/books that would help in learning these skills? Some of us will need to be instructed in the art in order to make it work well for us.

  • Sandy

    I think you’re right on the mark!!  As fundraisers, we MUST pay attention to these things. 

    Sandy Rees
    Fundraising Coach

  • Anonymous

    Hey Sandy! thanks!

  • Anonymous

    Hi Terri, I like your idea of calling it “ambassadorship” – maybe fundraisers should receive diplomacy training! : )

  • Anonymous

    Well, I was a little conscious of international differences, because there are some when it comes to etiquette. But being gracious and kind are also international languages, don’t you think? 

  • Anonymous

    Hi! I borrowed two books from my Mom over Thanksgiving that were very helpful to preparing my presentation in Toronto:

    “How to Live Like a Gentleman” by Sam Martin and “How to Live Like A Lady” by Sarah Tomczak. They are both “Lessons in Life, Manners and Style” for the modern age.  

    I found them short, interesting, not prissy, and right on. Maybe we should be selling them in the AFP Bookstore at our conferences!

  • Mary

    Gail, You hit the nail on the head. One of the jobs I had was at a University as a development officer. My boss, the VP always had any development staff walk the Donors to the car after a visit. I didn’t get it at first then I realized quickly that it meant alot to our older donors and they really connected to that simple kindness.

  • Whartman

    I am responsible for raising funds for a large non-profit organization and this article is great stuff.  I call it “schmoozing” but it amounts to the same thing, good manners and making others feel comfortable.

  • Jkruiswijk


  • Carol

    Thank you Gail and you are the master of soft skills.

  • Frederic Wiedemann, PhD

    right on the mark! so what is it in our society that makes this so controversial??!!

  • Anonymous

    You’re right! Why was I nervous about speaking up for manners? Guess I didn’t want to be stuffy or prissy! 

  • Anonymous

    Yup, I’ve called it schmoozing a lot in my career too!

  • Anonymous

    Mary, what a lovely thing to do. Graciousness is so appreciated, isn’t it?

  • WillAmKY

    Also Marja Wade Barrett’s book “Business Manners for Success.” I’ve given interns copies in the past.  Full of valuable information that is just not taught in school!

  • Sherry Mueller

    absolutely on target
    people often underestimate the need for plain good manners

  • Margaret in Maine

    Great article, Gail, and great comments from your readers, too.  I think that these soft, social skills are even more important now — since there are so many ways we communicate with donors: direct mail, website, email — our in person “persona,” when we actually get to be next to a donor, has to be enjoyable and comfortable for the donor — otherwise it is just so easy for them to “say no” behind the mask of email or by phone… you know?

  • Gay

    Gail, you are AWESOME! And, may I add, RIGHT ON!!! Good social skills seem to be somewhat of a lost art today, which is why when you see someone with good socil skills, they really stand out. My mother started teaching me please, thank you, Mr. So & So, Mrs. So and So, etc when I was very yound and I am so thinkful for her training. I think it gives me the proverbial leg up in fund raising! Thank you so much.

  • Andy Robinson

    I’m reminded of the fundraising workshop participant who said, “I’m trying to get over myself,” in response to the question, “What do you want to learn today?” In other words, “I’m trying to get my ego out of the way so I can be of service to my organization.”

    This echoes your first point, Gail, and it’s the most important one. Donors will forgive a lot — small breaches of etiquette, grabbing the wrong fork, your frayed trousers — if you’re genuine, respectful, polite, and focus on their needs and interests. This is the key to gracious social interaction, and it’s also the key to effective fundraising.

  • Francine

    Right on point!  Thanks for the reminders.

  • Hnmdevelopment

    These seem like logically pointers, but we all know people who overlook some of them.
    I often wonder if they “see” themselves when reading such tips.  In any event, there is
    something here for all of us!

  • Gail

    Andy, as usual, you nailed this one! If you are genuine, respectful, polite and focused on the donor, you are, by definition, gracious and mannerly. thanks!

  • V Theron Dehen

    Thanks Gale ummm I mean Gail 🙂 
    I work across Europe where there are lots of different cultures, so pan-European fundraising can be challenging beyond the language barrier. I learned a trick from Princess Maxima of the Netherlands, who as an Argintinian national had to learn Dutch (not the easiest of languages for an anglophone to learn). She did it by speaking more slowly after she had learnt the basics, to give herself time to think.
    Sometimes it helps me, too, just to slow down, watch what others are doing and follow suit. And when I get it wrong, instead of turning purple and wishing I could slide into that attractive looking crack in the floor, I find it’s easiest to simply voice the fact that I’m not au fait with the protocol, and jovially make reference to this. Our cultural differences can so easily be taken too seriously.
    In my experience such frankness is often refreshing and can even be an ice breaker, raising a smile and putting everyone more at ease. 
    After all, as fundraisers we are not saints but humans with failings all.  

  • Gahundt

    These skills, in my opinion, are the intangibles that make one successful, or not as a fundraiser. Great stuff.

  • Jeff

    Excellent article. I wish all fund raisers could master these abilities. The time I was able to work with you was “priceless”. 

  • Nkelly

    These are good tips, but I wonder what your advice would be for those of us who see donors who are always dressed informally.  There are occasions when I am dressed for work, but feel positively overdressed, even though the meeting is all business.  While it is true that I work in a very laid back community, I think it is important to look credible–i.e., “professional.” 

    One tiny critique: Unless he is your husband, can you lose the illustration of the guy who looks like Jim Nabors holding a cup of coffee? This photo appears too often.  Thanks!

  • Gail Perry

    Hi, I agree with you. If you are “packaging your presentation to meet the needs/interests of your audience, then you dress informally when it’s appropriate.  Looking credible is important, as you point out! 

  • Gail Alsobroo0k

    Great advice!

  • Jane

    I am always grateful to my parents for helping me learn some of the soft-skills as a young person.  Having good manners is always a plus.

  • Kim Tyndall

    Basically what my parents taught me and what I taught to my own children.  Social skills, navigating with ease and sincerity, manners and civility are recipes for success.  Good to see the validation of the important things in life!

  • Anonymous

    HI Kim, guess our parents are smart when we grow up and look back! Got to have these skills if you want to get ahead!

  • Anonymous

    Hi you are so right. I follow the “when in Rome” strategy when I”m not sure what to do. And just being frank and upfront is also charming, don’t you think? 

  • Anonymous

    Ah yes, these skills are universal, aren’t they!