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Cents and Sensitivities
Cents and Sensitivities

Professional actors help Cornell University fundraisers tune in to donors’ emotions

By Dane Cruz , Laura Toy

Robert Barker, Cornell University Photography

A fundraiser's dilemma:

Jonathan Woodruff and his wife, Gloria, were longtime alumni volunteers and donors, but their involvement ended abruptly in 2003 after their youngest son, Sean, an excellent student and promising musician, left the university. Although Jonathan hadn't engaged with the university in some time, I was heartened by his willingness to meet with me in his Houston office.

As soon as our visit began I realized that it would not go as smoothly as I'd hoped. Jonathan displayed anger, hostility, and immense sadness, both in his words and through his body language. I was surprised to hear that Sean had a problem with alcohol and that Jonathan and Gloria felt that the university was negligent. The institution did not inform the Woodruffs of Sean's condition or that he was no longer enrolled. On the verge of tears, Jonathan described an impromptu visit with his son, where he found him in an off-campus apartment, surrounded by beer bottles and filth. This made him aware of the situation and enabled him to bring Sean home for treatment.

How could I help Jonathan move past his disappointment and maintain his relationship with the university?

Jonathan is not a real donor. He's a character brought to life by a professional actor during training exercises for Cornell University fundraisers. The role-playing scenario you just read was developed by the Cornell Interactive Theatre Ensemble, an employee-training resource based within the New York institution's human resources division. CITE's trained facilitators and actors, who work in theaters and on short films and training videos, designed the course to teach frontline gift officers how to respond to challenging situations, either as the fundraiser opposite Jonathan or as an observer.

The program goes beyond providing gift officers with practice dealing with difficult donors. In the scenario, fundraisers have to read body language, control their emotions, and respond thoughtfully to Jonathan's concerns. This training helps fundraisers develop emotional intelligence, self-awareness, empathy, and confidence-skills that are essential to being an effective gift officer.

Inside the donor's mind

Cornell was in the midst of a $4 billion campaign when in 2009 it began exploring new and innovative methods to train its gift officers. The problem? Many of the fundraisers were new not only to Cornell but also to the profession, and veterans were wary of traditional training programs. So Charlie Phlegar, vice president for alumni affairs and development, challenged his senior team to create a program that would instruct newcomers and energize experienced fundraisers. Enter CITE, known for its interactive training programs about bias and other workplace issues.

CITE interviewed some of Cornell's highest-performing fundraisers to discover what makes them successful. Their response: You must trust your intuition, be comfortable with the intimacy that comes from helping donors create their philanthropic legacy, understand different communication styles, and be able to read body language and think on your feet. Success requires the willingness to adapt your approach to each donor as well as emotional intelligence: the capacity for recognizing and managing your feelings and those of others.

Emotional intelligence affects every aspect of one's life. Fundraising is about managing relationships, and when people apply emotional understanding to their interactions with others, they can form genuine and meaningful connections. Although working with donors is a business, it centers on building relationships. Sometimes prospects have complex and unfavorable feelings about their alma mater. Understanding and navigating these emotions may mean the difference between reigniting a relationship with the institution and losing the donor forever. Helping a donor move past a painful experience or disappointment with the university requires emotional intelligence.

This emotive navigation also requires an awareness of your personality and style preferences—and those of donors. You might be an extrovert who makes gut decisions. But maybe your donor is an analytical introvert who needs time to mull over giving decisions. Understanding where donors get their energy and how they process data, make decisions, and take action enable us to adapt and communicate more effectively with them and move the gift process forward.

Consider the resolution of the fictional situation with Jonathan:

As Jonathan's tirade wound down, I said, "I'm so sorry." I didn't try to make excuses. "Things are different now; there are more safety nets in place," I explained, but allowed that there was still much room for improvement. I asked Jonathan if he and Gloria would help the university in this regard. "Perhaps," was his reply, and we agreed to stay connected the following month by phone.

In this scenario, the gift officer recognized that more than anything Jonathan needed to vent. She didn't get defensive but invited Jonathan to be a partner in finding solutions.

A plan comes together

Armed with gift officer and donor interviews, CITE began planning the training session. CITE turned to the Hay Group, a global management consultancy headquartered in Philadelphia. The firm's Emotional and Social Competency Inventory model, based on decades of research across hundreds of organizations, describes 12 competencies, including adaptability, positive outlook, empathy, and conflict management, clustered around four distinct areas of ability:

  • Self-awareness: recognizing and understanding one's own emotions
  • Social awareness: recognizing and understanding the emotions of others
  • Self-management: effectively managing one's own emotions
  • Relationship management: applying emotional understanding to dealings with others

CITE also incorporated the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test, which gives participants insights about themselves and how they interact with others to improve the ways they communicate, learn, and work. It provides a powerful framework for building better relationships.

Using skilled facilitators certified in the Hay Group's emotional intelligence model and the MBTI, CITE's interactive theater specialists designed a two-day training program. First presented in June 2011 and repeated annually for newcomers, the program provides experiential learning through self-assessment, group interactions, interactive case studies, and role-playing opportunities.

Keep personalities from clashing

The program gives gift officers tools to boost a donor's giving potential and brings development professionals together to discuss, explore, and create best practices.

What's your EQ? On day one of the training, a CITE-produced video introduces participants to eight gift officers, played by actors using dialogue created from interviews with real fundraisers, who reflect on the joys and challenges of the job and the skills and attitudes necessary to be successful. The video launches group discussions in which fundraisers talk about their own experiences.

Using the Hay Group's model as a guide, facilitators invite major gift officers to assess their emotional intelligence. At the heart of the model is self-awareness—the ability to understand one's own emotions, drives, strengths, and weaknesses. It enables people to sustain their emotionally and socially intelligent behavior over time, despite setbacks.

Characterize yourself: By the second day, participants have discovered their personality types and style preferences using the MBTI self-assessment. Personality affects how we comport ourselves and process information. Are you an extrovert energized by a room full of people or an introvert more comfortable talking one-on-one with an alumnus? Is the donor impulsive and prone to act on his gut or more analytical, careful to weigh all options before making a decision?

Participants learn how to recognize a prospect's preferences for engaging with a gift officer, an awareness that allows the fundraiser to adapt—facilitating richer understanding and paving the way for better fundraising outcomes. For example: A prospect who says he'll get back to you after he's thought about your gift proposal may be an introvert who really does need time to think about it. A gift officer who pushes for resolution can ruin the conversation and make the prospective donor feel uncomfortable. Introverts need time and silence to process your proposal. During the training, some of the extroverts talked about their urge to fill quiet periods; now they know when silence is valuable.

Playing the part: Participants break into small groups to work on a complex case study that demonstrates how personality type and style preferences are key factors in an interaction with a doner and the realization of a gift. Enter Jonathan, or another difficult donor, such as someone who has a political agenda tied to the gift, played by a professional actor. Group members debate strategies for approaching the disaffected donor while one brave participant plays the fundraiser. The thespian's realistic and emotional performance allows volunteers to practice the self- and relationship-management skills that they've learned.

Following the interaction, the audience discusses the emotions they felt as they watched the scene unfold, what the fundraiser did well, what they would have done differently, and what opportunities they've had to manage themselves and others. The actor who plays Jonathan stays in character to answer audience questions, such as "What would you have done if the gift officer made excuses?" Having the opportunity to experience the challenging situation, talk about the emotions they experienced, and hear the group share ideas and strategies for moving forward create more self-awareness.

The payoff

The training has offered a variety of benefits. Gift officers are more aware of how their personalities affect their work with donors and colleagues. Through role play with trained actors and observation, they have developed new skills to deal with difficult donors and challenging situations. Further, the two-day program proffers multiple opportunities for fundraisers to work together in teams to assess situations, develop strategies, execute plans, and evaluate outcomes.

CITE training proved helpful in subsequent interactions with donors, says Julie Albertson, a Cornell major gift officer. She could "perceive their MBTI and how they would like me to respond to them," she says. "This is challenging. It might not be the way I would normally respond, but they trust me more and I'm able to move the gift conversation forward."

Adds Phlegar: "These training modules have exceeded all expectations, and veteran fundraisers have been as positive in their evaluations as newcomers. By design, the sessions encourage open and honest dialogue in a very safe environment. The give and take that takes place and the very thoughtful reflection that follows have allowed our fundraisers to get to know and trust one another and further added to a very real sense of team."

Every year we build on the initial training with sessions that reinforce the lessons that gift officers have learned about emotional intelligence and personality types. In the last two sessions, Jonathan has grown closer to the university and hosted an alumni event. This year we'll see the payoff: That donor who was so angry with the institution is about to make a significant gift. If you apply emotional understanding to your interactions with donors, you'll see this outcome too.

About the Authors Dane Cruz Dane Cruz

Dane Cruz is the director of the Cornell Interactive Theatre Ensemble at Cornell University in New York.

Laura Toy Laura Toy

Laura Toy is a principal gifts officer at Cornell University in New York.




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