March 2015

“This is the Pineapple Crème Brulee, with Tahitian vanilla bean and white chocolate mousse. Over here is our Melted Chocolate Pie, with chocolate cookie crust, mocha mousse, and English toffee crumble…”

At lunch a few days ago, our waiter, Jorge, had joined my wife, Anne, and me, taking an empty chair at our table. Placing the dessert tray in front of us, he looked each of us in the eye.

On he went through three more options, ending with “…our most famous dessert, the Pina Colada Cake, which is a vanilla cake made with Myers dark rum, a diced pineapple base, overlaid with white chocolate mousse, and topped with toasted coconut. Which would you prefer today?”

Then he waited. He didn’t rush, and neither did we. Surely we didn’t need the calories, but I had been impressed by the ambiance, the service, and by the quality of the main course. The restaurant exuded success. To make it complete, I was impressed by his delivery, and I capitulated. I ordered the Pina Colada Cake. Annie ordered an extra fork.

I’ve been to a lot of restaurants, and history and my waist line will record that I’m not a tough sell when it comes to desserts. But I had never seen a waiter take Jorge’s approach, and I was impressed. He had a superb product, he clearly believed that each of the desserts was delicious, and without being intrusive he was merely expanding our appreciation of an excellent meal. Most of all, he looked me in the eye, and he asked for my order.

“Look ’em in the eye, ask for the sale, and then wait.” That’s what all of the sales manuals tell you to do. Not so coincidentally, that’s what the best fund-raisers tell you to do as well. It works in the profit-making world; it works in the non-profit world. Unfortunately, many non-profits have missed the broader lesson: it requires the rubric of success.

My “winter church” in Fort Myers, FL is a case in point. Two hundred sixty-seven members strong, with a well-defined mission and an active presence in the community, they’re falling short of their aspirations, apparently due to financial constraints. As with most service organizations, compensation and benefits absorb 70% of their revenues, with fixed facilities costs and mostly-fixed operating expenses comprising the other 30%. Cutting back means cutting staff – which is highly visible, inevitably contentious, and possibly results in a downward spiral.

The root of the problem? We have a bunch of non-believers. Oh, they buy into the minister’s weekly message as well as the core denominational values. They consider the church their spiritual home, and most wouldn’t consider going anywhere else. But they just don’t feel that the church is successful enough to justify their digging a little deeper into their pockets. They’re not sure that their money will be well-spent.

As an old-line denomination, we don’t “sell” from the pulpit as much as we try to sell the old-fashioned way, by reminding the congregation that it’s budget time and that we’ll appreciate their considering a boost in their annual pledging level. Given an increasing number of options in the world for their charitable dollars, this has resulted in an unfavorable gap between revenues and expenses.

My “home church” in Lexington, MA, on the other hand, has come a long way in the past four decades. From being a “poor relation” in the denomination in 1975 to being one of its leading churches in 2015, the congregation has communicated its successes person-to-person, year-after-year with an annual fund drive which has ten critical components (not commandments):

  1. Emphasizing our successes – how we’ve gotten here from where we’ve been.
  1. Embracing the future – by establishing our goals and committing to achieve them.
  1. Communicating with all – from the pulpit, in the newsletter, by mail and email, through the web site, and by person-to-person contact with messages that accentuate the positive.
  1. Establishing an ever-widening circle – one that actively involves every member and friend, recognizing that contribution (financial and otherwise) follows commitment.
  1. Developing an effective organization – by teams charged with marketing, events, canvassing, record-keeping, and follow-up.
  1. Maintaining long-term continuity – the stewardship committee operates year-round, organized by a triumvirate of chair-people: last year’s, this year’s and next year’s.
  1. Witnessing – fellow congregants offer testimonials in the newsletter and from the pulpit to describe the positive impact of the church community on them and their families.
  1. Ensuring transparency – the church’s financial statements and the aspirational budget for next year are available to all.
  1. Solicitation Training – a soft sell, done well, results from training, role-playing, experience-sharing, and preparation, leading to the “ask.”
  1. Celebrating – whatever the dollar outcome, an effective stewardship campaign needs to be celebrated – before, during, and after.

With this as the context, the process of closing the sale is no secret: describe the bandwagon – where it’s been and where it’s going. Then, looking your fellow parishioner in the eye, ask if he or she is going to be along for the ride and suggest a dollar share that they might consider. Stop. Look. Listen…

…and then, extend thanks, from all.

When he presented the restaurant’s bill, I complimented Jorge on his effective sales pitch and asked him how often he used it. “When there’s an extra chair and I’m not interrupting the conversation,” he said, “I’ll join the table to help our customers appreciate what our chef has created. It helps me to get their attention, and it seems friendlier if I’m at their eye level.”

“Does it make a difference in what they order?” I asked.

“It usually lowers their resistance,” he replied. “And it always improves the tip.”

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