Book Review: What fundraisers can learn from terrorist negotiators

Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It by Chris Voss

Neversplitcover
The marketing for this book emphasizes the background of the author: He used to be a hostage negotiator for the FBI who honed the art of negotiation in life-or-death situations with criminals and terrorists. What could he teach us about fundraising?

Quite a lot, it turns out.

You see, successful negotiation with a bad guy who just might murder a hostage if it doesn’t work out hinges on your ability to listen, to understand, to build a relationship.

(By the way, the old way of negotiation was basically to buy enough time so they could find a way to kill the bad guy. Turns out treating them with empathy works a lot better, especially for the survival of hostages.)

Your donors are not terrorists willing to murder innocent people for their own twisted ends (I assume), but they have something in common with the terrorists: They are human beings, and that means getting them to take the action you want is not that different:

It all starts with the universally applicable premise that people want to be understood and accepted. Listening is the cheapest, yet most effective concession we can make to get there. By listening intensely, a negotiator demonstrates empathy and shows a sincere desire to better understand what the other side is experiencing.

It’s easy to see how the techniques of one-on-one negotiation apply to major donor fundraising. But it’s full of useful reminders and approaches for any type of fundraising. Like these:

  • Label your counterpart’s fears to diffuse their power. We all want to talk about the happy stuff, but remember, the faster you interrupt action in your counterpart’s amygdala, the part of the brain that generates fear, the faster you can generate feelings of safety, well-being, and trust.
  • You’re dealing with a person who wants to be appreciated and understood. So use labels to reinforce and encourage positive perceptions and dynamics.
  • Negotiate in their world. Persuasion is not about how bright or smooth or forceful you are. It’s about the other party convincing themselves that the solution you want is their own idea. So don’t beat them with logic or brute force. It’s not about you.
  • People will take more risks to avoid a loss than to realize a gain. Make sure your counterpart sees that there is something to lose by inaction.

A must-read if you do in-person fundraising. Highly recommended even if you don’t.

Available at Amazon, or if you’d rather support an independent bookseller, at Powell’s.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff BrooksJeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 35 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com. More.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 30 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com.

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