Building Trust

The Oxford English Dictionary defines trust as "firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of character." Other dictionaries give a host of synonyms: Reliable, good, honest, effective, fair; confidence, integrity, strength, ability, surety.

The definition of trust matters because the ability to build it is a key attribute of the truly successful gift officer, for as each of us knows trust is the foundation of all successful interpersonal relationships. Indeed, the case can be made that this attribute is truer in our work than in most other professions. As shown in the definitions above, there are many variations to the definition of trust, which allows us the freedom to create our own definition for trust as it plays into our work. 

There are two primary reasons to spend time building what we call trust bridges: 

  1. The initial assumption of most donors is that we are more interested in their resources than in who they are, and
  2. Until we have established trust, we aren't able to have the kind of discussions that allow everybody involved to maximize the opportunities that are possible via a true partnership.

The Importance of “Permissions"

The more robust the trust bridge between you and a benefactor, the more permission you will have to initiate a dialog of true value. A dialog that will allow you to ask the right questions, so that you may more clearly hear the donor and understand what lies at the heart of the matter. Conversations at this level should exponentially expand your ability to accompany them as they consider how philanthropy may have a greater more satisfying and meaningful role in their lives. When you have their permission you can be part of helping them to think about their moral biographies.

It's easy to illustrate what we mean by permissions by starting with an example: It required significant permission for a gift officer to ask her prospective donor if he was aware that a) if he accomplished his intention of getting the bulk of his estate to his daughter, then b) her annual income from the earnings of the inheritance would be significantly greater than what he had earned in any year of building and owning his own business. The lightbulb over his head lit up immediately, and he said: "Wait, why do I need to do that?" Shortly thereafter, a significant gift was negotiated with the gift officer's organization. 

The story concludes with this donor caring, in part, for his daughter through the creative use of a charitable life-income agreement that provided a safety net of an annual income stream in addition to the outright transfer of assets at death from the father to the daughter. He was pleased with a more comprehensive estate plan, his daughter continued to be well provided for, and, over the ensuing years, he took great joy in supporting several charities through his generous philanthropy.

It's our view that the following are the key attributes in building trust with donors: 

  • Being reliable
  • Being competent
  • Showing integrity
  • Showing compassion  
  • Being open 

Let's look at each of these key attributes in a little more depth.

1. Be Reliable 

“Do you trust me enough to believe my promises?”  - Seth Godin 

Say what you will do, how you will do it, and when you will do it - then do it.  

Establishing your reliability is one of the reasons your intent should be to leave every prospect interaction with something you promise to do. Obviously, fulfilling the promise also provides you a reason for another contact. Regardless of how insignificant the promise seems to you, make it and then do it in a complete, clear and timely manner. 

You can be certain any lack of follow-through will be most disappointing, even if you think it is an insignificant action. Obviously, if you cannot for some reason meet your promise, acknowledge that fact directly, preferably face-to-face, and in as timely a manner as possible.

2. Demonstrate Your Competency

There is at least one very successful institution that begins their request for support with the phrase, “If we can help you figure out how, would you consider . . .?”

As we build our trust bridges, we are compelled to put our donor in the center of what we do. That means, in addition to our focus on the needs and wants for support of our institutions, we must meet the donor where they are in their life cycle. A great way to show our competence is to have the skill and training to help the donor reach the point where they want to make a gift, and to have the skill and training to assist them in making the smartest gift possible. 

We can never know ourselves, our institution, our donors or our product well enough. It's our obligation to our donors and our own careers to be continuous learners. 

3. Demonstrate Your Integrity

This refers to your ability to protect others, both in their presence and, most importantly, in their absence. The other person must feel confident that you will stay true and remain dedicated. Trust is solid when a person knows he or she has your loyalty.

Tell the truth - no matter what. No one expects you to know everything, and having the confidence to respond to a question with, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out” is almost always an appreciated answer. In this line of work, you may occasionally be tempted to give an answer to a question even if you are not certain of your answer's accuracy. Instead of responding in that way, use the situation as an opportunity to reach out to a gift planning colleague. Development work is a team sport, and this circumstance is another open invitation to expand your team. Making a request to bring in another party is also a way to help determine the level of the prospect's interest. If the donor says, “Oh, nevermind,” that indicates a very different stage of relationship than if they encourage you to make the call to a colleague.

Have the phone number of your gift planning office in your favorites list: call them early and call them often.

In short, honesty is an effective tool to move donor relationships forward. However, an even better outcome of being honest is that you build credibility and can come to be considered trustworthy by the donor even when you're communicating hard news.  

4.  Be Both Passionate and Compassionate

We all know our work requires us to be passionate about our organization and what it does, and the difference that the philanthropy of a given prospect can make. We all have our stories to make that case. But as development officers, we must expertly deal with both the rational and emotional sides of our donors. 

While we first must be an artist and paint a picture that shows them what's possible for their philanthropy to accomplish, we must also manage the rational side of making the transfer of the gifted asset as straightforward and simple for the donor as possible. 

5. Be Open

If we expect our donors to be open with us, we must be willing to be open and vulnerable to them. This can be the most confusing word in our definition of trust. What exactly does it mean to be open?  

We gift officers walk a fine line: fulfilling our roles as employees of our institution, and simultaneously becoming friends with our donors. Friends share intimate details, and to truly help the donor address their opportunities for transitions, it is important for you to learn some of those details, and yet not use what you've learned as a lever to secure a gift.

To appropriately manage a situation where we are unsure of our relationship, in our experience the best move has been to insist - not just propose or recommend, but insist - that other relevant parties (children, relatives, advisors) be brought into the conversation and gift planning discussions. 

When an opportunity arises to be vague, don’t go there. If you provide reliable information, your trust status will increase.

Be open, but be circumspect and respectful. And, when you need to be circumspect, do so, but explain why you are doing so.

Brief Case: A nonprofit engaged the services of a premier consultant who had worked with many other fine and comparable institutions. Because of his reputation, the consultant came in with much credibility. Unfortunately, that credibility only lasted a short time, because the consultant chose not to be circumspect when sharing information about other client institutions he had worked with. Instead of sharing best practices by saying "another organization" he was advising did such-and-such, it was the practice of the consultant to use proper names of both the institution and the names of potential donors. 

This practice is not necessary, not effective, and he is no longer a consultant with the nonprofit.