Communicating with Elderly Donors
Posted April 1st, 2015

12 Things to Remember When Working With Older Donors

by Lewis von Herrmann

Donors who are members of the Silent and G.I. Generations grew up with particular cultural influences, manners and customs that continue to shape the way they prefer to interact with others and receive information (see “Listening for the Silent Generation” for more on this topic). In addition, common physical limitations related to advanced age can impact their hearing and eyesight, making certain communication strategies more effective than others. When working with older donors, keep these tips in mind.

1. Most donors of this age prefer receiving printed materials to being asked to visit your website. They also would rather receive a phone call than an email because they may view emails as impersonal and an irritation. But keep in mind there are always exceptions to this rule!

2. Written materials should contain a short summary of the gift being proposed followed by clear and concise details to back up the summary. All materials should be designed with a sufficiently large font size (14 point or larger is preferred). You do not want your donors to become annoyed by having to read what to them may appear to be small print.

3. When visiting with and introducing yourself to older donors, provide some background about yourself first and then ask about theirs. Their number of friends may be dwindling, so they are often pleased to make a new friend in you. If possible, bring a coworker of the opposite gender whose role may be to listen and observe. When appropriate, wear an identifying badge, perhaps with a photograph, to validate your identity.

4. While their memories are often still reliable, their hearing may not be. On a visit, sit fairly close (perhaps at a kitchen table) and look them in the eye. Whether in person or on the phone, talk somewhat more slowly and more clearly but not as though speaking to a child.

5. If you believe a donor may not be mentally competent, be cognizant of how you would want your loved ones treated and seek assistance from appropriate persons to ascertain whether the donor should be considering a gift. This can be a difficult task in some instances. A donor may normally be perfectly competent but may be having a “bad day” due to illness, changes in medications or other factors.

6. Be patient; ask a question and wait for a response. Silence can be your friend. If the donor is overly talkative, ask do you or will you questions or those with yes or no only answers. If the donor is not talkative enough, ask open-ended questions beginning with who, what, where, when, why or how. A good question can be, “How did you first become involved with XXX and decide to give?”

7. Listen carefully during any visit and make notes later unless you have asked for permission to take notes during the visit. Older donors will generally tell you what you need to know, provided you have asked the correct questions.

8. Avoid creating a sense that a visit or call is an “inquisition” and that you are in any way prying into their personal affairs. It may be appropriate to ask permission before discussing their personal lives or to do so only in response to issues they have raised. Asking about a donor’s family is a good way to open communication in an honest and nonthreatening way.

9. In cases where there are technical aspects to a gift, be certain to advise donors to seek the assistance of their advisors and offer to send copies of any gift proposals to their advisor, family member or others who should be involved in any decision-making process.

10. If the donor is single or their marital status is ambiguous, leave it to the donor to bring up the subject of a marital dissolution or a deceased spouse.

11. If the donor is married and both are present, don’t speak to or look at just one, even if only one is talkative. Engage the less talkative spouse by asking a direct question. Woe to the fundraiser who speaks and listens to only one!

12. Always send a handwritten thank-you note after any visit and sometimes a phone call. Then follow up with a letter if you need to confirm or review what was said during the contact.

Sharpe Senior Consultant Lewis von Herrmann is a Certified Financial Planner® and a Certified Fund Raising Executive® based in Atlanta, Georgia. Lewis has more than 40 years of fundraising experience.
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The publisher of Sharpe Insights is not engaged in rendering legal or tax advisory service. For advice and assistance in specific cases, the services of your own counsel should be obtained. Articles in Sharpe Insights may generally be reprinted for distribution to board members and staff of nonprofit institutions and other non-donor groups. Proper credit must be given. Call for details.

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