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059 – The Neuroscience of Non-profit Fundraising, with Cindy Wagman

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Audio recording

In today’s episode, we’re excited to have Cindy Wagman as our special guest!

Cindy is the President and Founder of The Good Partnership, a consultancy that helps small non-profits unlock their potential through effective fundraising strategies.

During our conversation, we’ll be delving into the importance of a non-profit’s mindset when it comes to fundraising. We’ll explore how shifting to a growth mindset can positively impact an organization’s ability to raise funds and achieve its goals.

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Episode Transcription

David Pisarek: Welcome to the Non-profit Digital Success Podcast. I’m your host, David, and in this episode, we’re talking about the fundraising mindset with Cindy Wagman.

Cindy is the President and Founder of The Good Partnership, which is a values-driven, social-justice informed consultancy that’s working to unlock the potential of small non-profits through fundraising.

She became CFRE in 2009 her MBA from Rotman School at the University of Toronto in 2013. She’s presented for AFP, CanadaHelps, CharityVillage, Bloomberg, Keela, and Fundraising Everywhere, and now she can add to that list the Non-profit Digital Success Podcast.

She’s the host of the top rated, The small Nonprofit Podcast and best selling author of “Rise It: The Reluctant Fundraiser’s Guide to Raising Money without Selling your Soul” also, she loves to host people, but today she is a guest here.

Thanks so much for joining in, Cindy.

Cindy Wagman: Thanks so much for having me.

David Pisarek: My pleasure. So what are your thoughts in terms of what is it that people need to be thinking about to create that fundraising mindset?

Cindy Wagman: Well, the first thing is I think we have to understand that most people’s problems with fundraising are stemming from mindset. Very often when people try and learn more to improve their fundraising, they focus on the tactics.

They’re like, “Okay, well, I’m going to learn how to write better, or I’m going to learn how to ask for a major gift, or they look at the tactics” and what happens in my experience, especially with small organizations (or what I call reluctant fundraisers) is that they’re ignoring their underlying feelings and beliefs about fundraising, which, spoiler alert, are not very good, so what happens is those tactics, they learn and learn and learn, but they don’t implement or they don’t start to see the results.

I always (as someone who likes to eat healthy and stuff) think it’s like trying to make a decision about a meal where you have a hamburger and a salad in front of you, but you love burgers, you’re not going to reach for the salad. The salad, that is the mindset, right? You need to work on changing how you think and feel about food so that you’re going to reach for the salad if that’s what you want to be doing.

It doesn’t matter what we want, our behavior doesn’t always reflect that.

That’s where mindset comes in. I have so many stories. I think most people who touch fundraising in some way have these stories of people.

I’ll never forget when my husband and I were at a wedding many years ago, and we were talking. It was someone who went to grad school with who was getting married, and we were chatting with another couple, I’m like, “Oh, yeah. What do you do?”, my husband introduced himself (at the time, I think he was a political staffer. This was a very political crowd, so they were talking), then they looked to me and they’re like, “Well, what do you do?” I was like, “Oh, I’m a fundraiser. I love what I do”. I was excited about it. The guy walked away. He was like, “Sorry, I have no money”, and walked away.

Now, obviously, that’s an extreme example, but I have had people say very bad things about fundraising on the extreme. Usually, it’s like, “Wow, that’s really hard. I don’t know how you do that”.

There’s a story there, that is when we say things like that, that’s a signal that there are some underlying beliefs we have about fundraising. They’re so prevalent and so dominant and so deeply ingrained that we can’t see them. That’s where some of the brain science stuff comes in, which I’m happy to talk about.

But really, we need to unlock or change the way we think and feel about fundraising before we can actually sit down and do the work because we just will be too busy. We will choose to spend our time elsewhere.

David Pisarek: Let’s talk about that for a second. I think that’s a really interesting point that you’re mentioning is that there’s some brain science happening there. So are our brains wired to prevent us from fundraising?

Cindy Wagman: Yes. I mean, in short, the long answer is our brains are designed to protect us from things that are threats and things that we don’t like or have bad feelings about are threatening to our wellbeing.

Our brains are designed to keep us safe.

What that looks like, if you look at how our brain determines what is and isn’t safe, usually that’s through repetition and experiences. As we go through life, our experiences start to inform our brain, and our brain actually creates neural pathways or shortcuts, to be able to make decisions really quickly.

The best example I have (I think it’s relatable, I hope other people can relate), is like, imagine you are going to a new job and you have to drive there. The first time you’re driving there, you’re a little worried because you want to show up on time, you don’t know how long it’s going to take.

During the drive, you’re hyper aware. You’re looking at your GPS. I remember when we had MapQuest printed out or like pocket. You’re following the directions, you’re looking at the road signs, you’re paying attention to other landmarks and buildings. Your brain is working really hard to absorb information.

Once you’ve been on the job for a couple of months, that drive is like you could do it in your sleep. You know where you’re going, you know where you’re turning, you have your favorite music blasting or your favorite podcast, and you can be having conversations.

I used to drive home from work talking to my boss and we’d still be working on the phone. Our brain is in autopilot and it uses way less energy to do the exact same drive. That’s what happens as we experience things.

And if we look at our experiences around fundraising in society and our beliefs around the non-profit sector more generally, they all lead us to think that fundraising is not a good thing.

We think that we have to coerce people into giving. We have to trick them or do things that are sneaky so that we can get their money from them because they fundamentally don’t want to give it. Or just the beliefs that our sector is “less than”, that we shouldn’t be paid a lot. It’s like a murder syndrome, right? That we should be doing this work because it’s good, not because we need to earn a living.

Those experiences year after year after year start to become a shortcut or that autopilot in our brain that makes us think, “Okay, well, I don’t want to do this because it doesn’t feel good. It’s not safe”.

David Pisarek: Yeah, I think that’s really true. How many times have you been on the way home, driving in your car and like, “Oh, yeah, I need to go to the store”, and then you end up on your driveway and you’re like, “Oh, I forgot to go to the store” because you’re just doing the same thing over. It happened to be last week, right? You’re just doing the same thing over and over.

We’re creatures of habit. We want to do, as you said, what’s safe and what’s comfortable.

Asking people for money isn’t the comfortable thing, and not everybody can do it. Not everybody feels comfortable doing it.

So how can we overcome that feeling?

Cindy Wagman: Yeah. So the first thing is just recognizing it. We have to understand that there’s a difference between our perception and the reality, but also that our stories are different.

We are unique and our brains function independently. And so my stories around fundraising, we have these sector beliefs, but then I might also come from a family where money was something we don’t talk about. And so we have to start to identify, I always say, whose voice is in your head? Where are these stories coming from that show up for us when we think about fundraising and what’s uncomfortable about fundraising?

So recognizing that is the starting point to say that, “Okay, wait, this isn’t true. This is like my brain telling me it’s true”. So how do we separate that? Sometimes the best way to do that is actually just catch yourself in the moment is to be like, “Okay, wait, we’re talking about fundraising now. Let me examine, let me see. What was my first reaction?” And so often those reactions can be really fleeting or quick, and so we need to slow it down. “Okay, so what did I just say?”

Usually, I do a little detective or think about… Who’s really good at poking holes in things? Either lawyers or the insurance claim people. So you’re like, “Okay, wait, what did I just say? What am I thinking? What am I feeling?” Because usually the short cuts in our brain, the neural pathways are reflective of our beliefs, and beliefs are formed by a combination of our thoughts and our feelings.

So the analytical is our thought, the rational logical, and the feelings is the emotional. We have to first catch that belief, “Okay, what did I just say? What does that mean?” Then we can say, “Okay, what are the thoughts behind that? What are the feelings?”. Then we start to unpack that and refute them: “Where am I wrong?” It’s a process, but you can’t just force your way through it.

These kinds of changes to belief to actually take time and in fact, if you think about that neural pathway that’s created on the drive to work every day, it takes about 67 days for that to become a shortcut in your brain or an autopilot. Oftentimes we hear 21 days to a new habit, but it’s actually much longer than that.

You have to keep doing this on repeat over and over again. Then I also like to give people, based on what your beliefs are, “what are some little habits or little things you can do to change them?” One example is a lot of people have the belief that donors don’t actually like to give, that we’re creating a burden for them by asking.

Now, most professional fundraisers know that’s not true, but reluctant fundraisers are like, “I’m bothering people by asking them.” so I just say, “get to know your donors.” If you can, just meet with people or have a phone call and just ask them, “why do you give to our organization?”

You’re going to build the evidence enough of it over an extended period of time that you’re going to say, “Okay, actually, this is not true. People benefit. They like giving. They feel good doing it. And our organization has value to them”.

David Pisarek: Absolutely. And further to that, a lot of times, big donors… I think there’s a different mindset that comes from major gifts versus these smaller $5, $10, $50 a month gifts or $50 a year or $10 a year.

There’s a different mindset that you need to approach it with, where if you’re going after a major donor, you need to really understand them and why they care and how they’re going to benefit from it and the people, and how the money is going to be impacting the community or the people or the individuals or society or the organization or the building that you’re trying to raise capital to construct, understanding what that is, and that also comes down to psychographics.

What is it that they care about? How are they spending their free time? What is it that would really drive them emotionally to connect with you.

Cindy Wagman: Yeah. And I think I have a soft spot for the donors who give $50 a year. I think that there’s a lot of similarity. The challenge is people get overwhelmed with… We think major gifts, we’re just going to raise a lot of money with one gift. Isn’t that easier?

But then a lot of people are like, “Well, I don’t know anyone who can give.” and so they get stuck there. But with donations that are smaller amounts and very regular, people are like, “Well, I can’t scale that because I can’t get to know. I can’t build a relationship with every single donor”, which, again,

You don’t have to know every single donor intimately, but if you start to get to know a good handful of those donors, you can start to see the same patterns.

You can start to make meaningful, educated assumptions about those people and what they care about, where they hang out, what they like to do. We can start to build that same profile, but it might not be one specific person. Now it’s a group of people. That will also help us ask those people more effectively.

When I say ask, a lot of people think face to face meeting. That is what we’re all working towards. I literally have people say, “Okay, when we’re asking for money, we’re pitching someone”, which assumes face to face high level gifts. There are so many ways to ask people for money. The truth is, you still need to understand who you’re asking and why they give for them to give in a meaningful way that’s meaningful for your organization and meaningful for them.

David Pisarek: Two things that I made a note of as you were talking that I want to dig in a little bit is, if you’re going to go after quantity versus higher value gifts, how is it that you can get to know these groups of donors?

Cindy Wagman: Honestly listening, I still want people to meet with them individually. Maybe you have 10, 15 meetings, but you still got to meet with people. We can’t make assumptions. And honestly, people are really bad at telling you not true things. I don’t want to say lies, but when you ask people, “how often do you want to hear from us?” They’re going to say once a month, but their behavior doesn’t reflect that.

They might actually read and click through your email you send every other week. People’s behavior is a big indicator, but honestly, listening, having deeper conversations.

When I worked at the business class, you mentioned in the intro, I have my MBA from the Rotman School. I also worked there as a fundraiser. I was director of development for a few years. We were overhauling the alumni giving program, a lot of other things. I was responsible for major gifts and alumni giving in a lot of different areas.

I would go and meet alumni. I would go meet people and I would listen to them and I would ask them about the role that school had in their life at the time and now, and what do they do, do they feel connected to a network? A lot of times, specific to the business school, they would compare their alumni network to other alumni networks like IB. (For those of you listening in Canada, IB was considered probably one of the best business schools until Rotman started climbing up. I would say they’re probably neck and neck now.)

Anyway, I could go on and on about the value of the alumni network to them, but they communicated that with me. Then we built a program that reflected those values, that reflected what they cared about.

I want to say there’s no magic to it, but actually, I feel like this is my secret sauce because not enough people talk about it, but you just need to meet with people and you just have to listen and be curious.

The rest, in my experience, if you’re listening, if you’re paying attention, the answers actually show themselves to you when it comes to the right fundraising strategies, how to engage them, how to ask.

I always think of it as a web. What am I hearing from those people and where that intersects with what is our mission? What do we do as an organization? What’s true to our work and to our community? Is that community the same? Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t.

But yeah, it’s a little bit of patience, a little bit of curiosity and a lot of persistence.

David Pisarek: In terms of meeting with people, what are your feelings of surveys instead of actually having conversation?

Cindy Wagman: Okay, the data, people are going to disagree with me on this. When I use surveys to understand donors, I don’t actually like the quant stuff. I don’t want to know… Sure, maybe I want to know your age range and stuff like that. I understand the value of standardized answers to evaluate information.

I understand data very well, but when it comes to getting into the minds of our donors, I like to ask open ended questions, which is a nightmare if you want to analyze the data. It’s not useful from that perspective, but what it does is it allows people to, in their own words, communicate the value your organization has to them and their beliefs.

When we do that, you start to see patterns in the words that they use and the language. Does it reflect how your organization thinks and talks about your work? Is there a connection there? Is there a disconnect? It helps you understand how to communicate with them and what those heart strings are that you can engage with as you communicate with them. And not just us, but send them updates and report back on your work and all that good stuff.

David Pisarek: Yeah.

And as business owners, we understand we need to know what it is that our ideal client or the type of people we want to work with, what they care about, what helps them get through the day, what their pain points are, what they’re trying to solve so that we can help and we can provide, in our case, services, sometimes products, that will help them out.

And doing the same thing and bringing that mentality to the conversation, but the analysis of the conversation is going to help you see themes through all of the stories and the messages that you’re hearing from donors. And after that conversation, go and make a few notes.

Don’t just be typing on your phone as you’re meeting with them or anything, but take a couple of minutes after you have a conversation and just digest what people are saying to you. Make notes about it so that you don’t forget anything. If there was something really key that was mentioned.

Cindy Wagman: And have good systems, especially in fundraising. But again, as a business owner, having somewhere where you can make the notes, but also learn if you need to follow up.

One thing that comes up for people a lot is when I talk about donor meetings, they’re like, “Well, what if they ask me something and I don’t know the answer?” I’m like, “That’s a gift”.

That is a gift. You make a note and you say, “You know what? I actually don’t know”, which is a sign of authenticity and vulnerability, which allows people to connect with you, and I’ll find the answer and follow up.

Now one conversation turns into two or three, and now we’re forming an actual relationship with this person where you can continue to connect. There’s so many fears that come up when we talk about donor meetings or getting to know your audience. But honestly, curiosity and authenticity usually cure a lot of those.

David Pisarek: Having that door… Look, let me take a step back for a second. The people you’re meeting with are already familiar with your organization. Any butterflies that you have about having that conversation, the first few you’re going to feel nervous and anxious about if you’re not used to these conversations, but let all that go because they know about your organization.

There’s a level of trust there already, but being able to get a second conversation or third conversation, we say that it takes about 6 to 7 interactions with people for them to know, like, and trust you. And if they know, like, and trust you… Look, they already know you, but can they trust you as a representative of the organization? It’s going to take some conversations to build that.

And by building that trust, you create that connection. And they’re going to be more willing to give to a cause where they actually know somebody there that they’re connecting with.

Cindy Wagman: Yeah. I want to talk about trust because that comes up a lot, especially with major gift fundraising or when you are asking face to face, because a lot of times donors feel like they can’t trust fundraisers. I’ve actually had people say that to me.

Fundraisers reinforce that because we’ll say, “oh, can you meet for a coffee?” And then we’ll be, once we’re here and we’re about to leave the coffee, it’s, “can you give us a few thousand dollars or something like that?” That’s not trustworthy.

So what I like to do, and this starts right away, which is I am always transparent with donors around what to expect with interactions with me, and that includes when we’re asking for money… So when it comes to meeting with donors, I’m going to say, “I’d love to meet with you. Here’s why and here’s what to expect”.

So sometimes it’s like, “I just don’t know you and you know what? I’d love to get to know you”. Sometimes it’s, “I’d love your feedback on something”. Sometimes it’s like, “Oh, you just made this gift. Let me say thank you in person”.

Whatever it is, I am clear, and then we do that and I don’t do anything else unless it’s natural. I have had in those conversations, people be like, “How can I support this?” If they say that, then we’ll talk about it, but otherwise, I don’t ask for money. These meetings are not asking for money.

When it comes to a meeting to ask for money, I will tell them that, I’m not going to ask you for a coffee. I’m going to say, “Hey, David, I would love to talk to you about a gift to our annual fund. Can we meet for coffee?” You know the reason we’re meeting for coffee, that builds so much trust so quickly.

I actually think trust is very easy to build quickly. It’s really by doing what you say you’re going to do and following up and following through. The like factor, I don’t know that one might be a little more mysterious, but trust, you can build really quickly with organizations.

When it comes to likability, there’s a wonderful author and researcher, Vanessa Van Edwards, who wrote a book called “Captivate” (which I actually need to reread because it’s so brilliant), she talks about how to really quickly connect with people so that you’re captivating.

And I think that’s likability. And there’s little tricks that you can do and one of them is finding common ground. So very often we go into a donor meeting where we’re like, “here’s all about the organization”, or like, blah, blah, blah, small talk has a purpose.

Before we were recording, we were talking about dropping our kids off at school, and then we discovered that we went to the same high school for a little period of time, that build likability.

The small talk is really important.

I had a donor with an organization we were talking and she was telling me about her son was really into brewing and my brother was starting a beer business. I was like, “They should connect!”, actually, her son became my brother’s first employee, which is crazy. But that’s what the small talk does. It builds connection in a way that allows people to feel comfortable.

I feel like I talked a lot there about donor meetings, but I can go on. It’s all good.

David Pisarek: It’s all good.

It’s important to build connection and create that human touch and the emotional connection that we have with people, even if it’s for that fleeting moment because at some point down the road, you’re going to need to talk with that person again or communicate with them or just have them part of your weekly or monthly or biweekly email series, “Oh yeah, I was just chatting with Cindy over at Rotman. Okay, yeah, so I’m going to pay more attention to that email”.

Even if it has nothing to do with Cindy, everybody knows those emails are automated, but it’s staying top of mind. I think that’s really key, which brings me into, I guess, the next thing I want to chat with you about is… Why do donors want to hear from us?

Cindy Wagman: Let them tell you that. Ultimately, if donors are giving money to your organization, they want to know what’s happening with that money. They care about the work and so they want to be updated on what you’re doing.

They want to know that their contribution is making an impact, but the specifics really do come down to what their motivations are for giving or what they think the impact is when they give. Ultimately, if we don’t know what’s happening, we’re not going to give, but most people, they want to improve the world.

They want to improve some aspect of our society. And that’s what philanthropy is. It’s like, “Hey, I want to see a change and I want to invest in that change”, and so tell them how that change is happening because of their investment.

David Pisarek: I can’t tell you how often I get letters in the mail with a, “Hey, can you donate?” And there’s a form in there to fill out and send back or a link for a website or something like that. It’s like, “I donated to you five years ago because I don’t know, one of my children through this other thing, they were raising money and so we contributed.

Why haven’t I heard anything from you? What is the impact of this? Okay, yeah, it might have only been $30 or $40, but so what? You’ve got my email address. It doesn’t cost much of anything to send out a communication. Hey, here’s what we’re doing and here’s what we want to do in the future, and here’s how we’re spending your money”.

Be in touch. Let people know what’s going on.

Cindy Wagman: This is where mindset comes back. If we believe that our donors don’t want to hear from us (and I, word for word, organizations tell me we don’t want to bother our donors), if we believe that, then we think we’re doing them a favor by not emailing them. That is destroying our fundraising. It’s just not true.

Our donors actually do want to hear.

Again, so often we let those thoughts control our actions and behavior, but those thoughts are not real. They’re not based on how our donors actually think, which is why you need to get to know your donors.

If there’s one thing that every person who’s responsible for fundraising in one way, shape or form, know your donors. It allows your brain to rewire and show up differently. It allows you to improve your fundraising strategy and tactics and communications and all of it.

David Pisarek: Let’s issue everybody a challenge. Right now, okay? So what do you think about this, Cindy? If everybody were to go and spend over the course of a week, one hour… Do it an hour at a time. Do it in four, 15 minute blocks (whatever works for you based on your schedule, the start of the day, the end of the day, after lunch, before, whenever), take an hour from now over the course of the next five business days and to think about who their audience actually is and write it down.

Put it in a list and write down what you think that that person cares about. And this is really the first step to building your personas. And if you can build really solid personas (you’re not going to get everybody with it, but if you have four or five personas), you’re going to get a majority, probably 80% of your audience in there.

Then you’ll really understand what they care about. Have a couple of conversations down the road in a month or in a week or two weeks, and start to see what they care about and see how closely that matches up and adjust your personas over time.

Cindy Wagman: And don’t wait. Reach out now just a simple email like, “you know what? I’d really like to get to know you. We’re going into… It’s back to school and I’m reinvigorated” or whatever the reason is right now, just reach out and start asking.

Not everyone’s going to say yes to a meeting. I know that, but you got to keep asking.

David Pisarek: And if you want a second challenge, the next donation that comes into your organization, whatever the amount is, reach out to that person. Pick up the phone and call them.

Cindy Wagman: It’s such an easy one because there’s immediacy. You’re already in their minds. So when people give is a great time to ask for a meeting or just call and say thank you (that goes a long way) and “I’d love to meet with you. Learn a little bit more about why you get here”.

David Pisarek: Even if it was a $5 donation.

Cindy Wagman: Every single donation. You can take it up a notch and you can send a little video too. I do that a lot with clients.

David Pisarek: Okay. All right! So video, yeah, you can use Loom, you can use Zoom and record something. You can just use your phone and just record a video and shoot it over. Absolutely. Video goes a long way, 100%.

Cindy, some amazing conversation today, absolutely, on this episode about the fundraising mindset and the shift that people need to take. Do you have any last pieces of advice or thoughts that you want to mention?

Cindy Wagman: Just that if you feel like you don’t like fundraising, you’re not alone. But also it doesn’t have to be that way.

David Pisarek: That’s awesome. So I hope people listening have been able to get something really insightful from this. I know I have, and I want to challenge everybody to take one of the two challenges and do something with it and do it today.

It takes action to create an impact, and you need to do that starting now.

So, Cindy, if anybody wants to get in touch with you, what do they need to do?

Cindy Wagman: So you can find us at TheGoodPartnership.com. Same thing, TheGoodPartnership on Instagram. My name is Cindy Wagman on LinkedIn. And I have a book called, well, as you mentioned earlier, “Raise it: The Reluctant Fundraiser’s Guide to Raising Money without Selling your Soul”, which you can buy on any major gift.

David Pisarek: We’re just talking about major gift.

Cindy Wagman: Any major retailer or on our website, RaiseItbook.com

David Pisarek: Awesome. And you were mentioning that there’s a little free offer that you’ve got.

Cindy Wagman: Yes. So if you want to get a sneak peek of the book, you can visit, we’ll include in the show notes, thegoodpartnership.com/audio, and you’ll get the first four chapters of the book on audiobook.

David Pisarek: That’s awesome. Super high value content in that. I encourage everybody to go and check that out.

From everybody listening, thank you so much, Cindy, for being here.

If anybody wants any of the links or notes or info or the books that Cindy has shared, we’re going to have that all on our show notes page. Just head over to our podcast page at nonprofitdigitalsuccess.com/podcast. Click on this episode for all the details.

Until next time, keep on being successful!



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