Just One More Thing: The Essential Role of Curiosity in Fundraising

By Laurence A. Pagnoni, MPA

Inspector Columbo, the star of the 1970s TV series by the same name, was a curious man. Columbo, Played by Peter Falk, was the famous senior homicide detective marked by his rumpled raincoat over his working class suit and tie, a tired worn look that only working for the the Los Angeles Police Department could make. Even more iconic than his look was how he completed his investigative interviews, just when he thought he had all the information he would start to walk away, but then he would stop, sharply turn around, and ask, “um, I’m curious. Just one more thing…” In fact sometimes he would turn around two or three times, making sure all of his curiosities were satisfied!

Cultivating curiosity isn’t just a detective’s tool, it is an essential in fundraising, yet it is an underutilized approach, and hardly ever discussed within our profession. Some people think it’s rude to ask too many questions, I get that; but just like the famous Inspector Columbo we as fundraisers should be exploring every curiosity so that we can crack the mystery case that is so often fundraising. .

What Does Curiosity Look Like?

In fundraising, curiosity takes the shape of thoughtful questions that build on each other. Our goal should be to go deeper so as to ascertain the organizational or program details the donor or the funder want to know about. These details will are critical to our job as fundraisers, and will aid in making our solicitation for their resources convincing.

The questions that I propose below are mainly directed to the staff and the trustees of the nonprofits with whom we work, meant more for internal discovery and testing assumptions, as opposed to feasibility questions we would pose to a donor.  Of note, there are numerous reasons we all consciously or unconsciously choose not to be curious. That subject brings us squarely into the area of organizational culture which is more than we can tackle here, but I devote a chapter to it in my book “The Nonprofit Fundraising Solution” to which I refer you.

The Art of the Question

A good question it is said is worth more than a good answer! I believe that wholeheartedly.
“You don’t have to have the answer to ask a great question,” says Michael J. Marquardt a professor of human resources at George Washington University. “A great question will ultimately get an answer.”
The most effective and empowering questions create value; they open up a dialogue rather than close it down. If you have not seen Columbo, be sure that Inspector Columbo’s gentle off-beat queries gave him a trove of insights (and hard evidence) into solving the murder mystery. And so it will be for you too—not about murder, thankfully, but about uncovering the deepest insights to advance your organizational fundraising.

Questions that fundraisers may find useful include these:

-Can you explain more about this situation and the urgency for the funds?
-What would happen if we don’t raise the funds?
-What are the consequences (intended or unintended) of going this route?
-What about our past fundraising worked well?
-Do you think we know as much about our donors/funders as we should?
-What is a judicious amount to spend on the fundraising program to achieve the goals we have in mind? -Is that assumptions reasonable based on industry standards?
-Can our fundraising approach be done another way?
-Based on your experience, how would you approach raising the required funds?

I encourage you to make your own list of questions as well, but be sure that they invite dialogue instead of discouraging it.  If you are new to this approach, perhaps you can share your proposed list of questions with someone you trust, or someone who you perceive is skilled at conversation to ascertain their input.

After the Query

Asking the right questions upfront is a key part to successful advanced fundraising and will set a strong foundation for your development program. After your internal interviews, be sure to write down what you learned without delay, and then compile them into a succinct report to share with the decision makers. Include your own recommendations. The renowned statistician John Tukey put it this way: “An approximate answer to the right question is worth a great deal more than a precise answer to the wrong question.”  To that profound statement, I say, “um, I’m curious to learn more about that, please say more.”

Laurence’s book, The NonProfit Fundraising Solution, is a must have for your fundraising library.

We welcome your comments about this post on the LAPA blog.

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