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Empowerment Dialogue: A new approach to fundraising

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Empowerment Dialogue: A New Approach to Fundraising
2016 - Civil Sector Press - ISBN: 978-1-927375-32-7
Reviewed by Cynthia J. Armour, CFRE 

If you've ever wondered how to ask for a donation, you'll want to read Ken Ramsay's recent book, Empowerment Dialogue: A New Approach to Fundraising. For everyone who's time-crunched or distracted by competing priorities it's a short, sweet - and empowering - read, both for the prospective donor and the individual requesting the gift. Ken has packed an impressive career of knowledge and psychology into a thought-provoking, concise and practical narrative.

Fundraisers are a rare breed. Whether paid or volunteer, we are people who face our fear of rejection daily in the interest of raising funds for the great causes that deserve support. I once boasted of being genetically destined to this vocation because all my elders fundraised before it became a profession. My uncle even wrote a book on the subject! The logical conclusion would be that my siblings share my excitement for fundraising, given our common heritage. Such is certainly not the case.

In fact, the majority of the population is uncomfortable discussing money, let alone asking for it, so any wisdom we can glean from a seasoned expert should pay dividends. Ken's book is an asset to novices and experts alike and it's worth adding to your collection. He's laid out his text in four sections: (1) the theory and research behind the 'why of fundraising' and our donors' evolving perspective; (2) tools that provide the framework for what to say, when, and how to say it; (3) practice - a series of questions intended to draw out the prospective donor and his or her feelings about each step; and (4) where is the fundraising future taking us.

I appreciated the author very diplomatically changing between his references to female and male prospects. It reminded me of my mom. In the 1970s she taped two "Story Spinners" programs each week on the local cable network. The first one she'd say "good morning girls and boys" and the second taping she'd say "good morning boys and girls". Ken and my mother both demonstrated their deep respect for each gender and made a conscious effort to always be inclusive.

In just 90 pages, the reader is given a simple approach to the Empowerment Dialogue that anyone can follow. In fact, if we applied Ramsay's communication strategies in our daily lives, we would enrich all our relationships. And yet he dispels the notion that fundraising is all relational, between the prospect and fundraiser, in favour of another angle.

The author believes that fundraising is more transactional - "the interactive dynamics of philanthropic decisions". Meaningful gifts are pledged by donors based on a series of conversations and conclusions. We, as fundraisers, hold the key that can unlock those gifts when we make a conscious choice and effort about how we ask. With Ken's advice, the result is an investment in a shared vision, based on the charity's strategic priorities, and is ultimately realized thanks to the patience and commitment of both the donor and the fundraiser.

Grounded in solid research and building on the work of authorities like Penelope Burk and her donor-centered fundraising approach, Ken's cycle of philanthropy presents a process in which fundraisers and prospective donors move through a series of dialogues that follow a logical sequence: Mission, Case for Support, Gift Types, Capacity, Consultation, The Ask, Objections, Thanks & Recognition. The order of each conversation may shift slightly depending on the circumstances but all are fundamental to empowered decision-making.

True dialogue implies a transformation that changes perspectives. Listening intently, reflecting upon what we heard, inviting the speaker to express their feelings and validating their point of view are indicative of the fine art of exceptional communication. Wouldn't the world be a better place if that's what we all aspired to daily?

Being an extrovert I need to remind myself regularly that I have two ears and only one mouth for a reason. The slide I use in my presentations to emphasize this point appeals to my rural roots and shows a donkey with her antennae ears. Ramsay presents this concept a bit differently stating that fundraisers need to listen 80% of the time and speak only 20% - yet another Pareto Principle that helps inform our strategy. But it's so much easier said than done!

While the Empowerment Dialogue is presented simply and succinctly, our practice is the challenge. That's why Section Three is so useful. Ken has included eight cycle of philanthropy dialogues using a common format: Description, Goal, Methodology, Dialogue Questions, Dialogue Deepening Questions, Dialogue Transition and Notes from Your Practice. He's inviting and encouraging you to invest the time and effort in your assignments and score your progress. In addition, there's a website that is intended to support your growth, share stories and even offers advice from Prudence Penguin and Gerald Bear - who'd have guessed?

Whether you're an advancement professional with millions raised, an anxious board member who's never made an ask or a hesitant volunteer who's being pushed from special events toward face-to-face-major-gift fundraising, this book is worth reading.

If you invest the time and effort required to learn this new language, your confidence and results will improve because your focus will have shifted from your own fears to the feelings of your donor. It takes a level of openness, humility, compassion and inspiration to perfect this technique. Those of you who are on that ever-evolving life journey will see the value of your practice, particularly as this new language of fundraising becomes instinctive. I believe that objective is well worth pursuing!

Cynthia J. Armour, CFRE is a governance and fund development specialist (former author of CharityVillage's monthly Fundraising Q&A series). You can reach her at 705-799-0636 or visit her website at

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