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What nonprofits can learn from the best salespeople

Even if we don’t like the word, the truth is undeniable: If you work for or run a nonprofit organization, many of your everyday job functions might be considered “sales.” Fundraising, marketing, client or patient relationship-building—they, and many more activities, have sales-like aspects to them.

At a nonprofit organization, everyone--from top to bottom--is attempting to persuade others to "buy" into what they are selling. For example, the executive director has to sell the nonprofit's vision to the organization's board. To effectively fundraise, you have to sell foundations and donors on the mission of your nonprofit.

Even though no one wants to become the pushy car vendor, you can learn a good deal from the best salespeople. In fact, your nonprofit can become better at raising funds and awareness by emulating what the best salespeople do:

1. Understand Your Target

Of course, you’re intimately familiar with the people whom your organization serves. Perhaps tapping into that group of people is one method of increasing donations. But the recipients of your nonprofit’s work and funds aren't necessarily the same ones who populate your donor pool. Like a good salesperson, you need to identify with-- and deeply understand--your target audience of potential donors as well as your clients. That’s known as empathy, and it’s one of the key characteristics of the best salespeople.

Empathetic salespeople do two things consistently: listen and place themselves in the other’s shoes. What actually affects your donors? What are their concerns? Knowing the answers to those questions helps you understand them better and interact with them in the way that they need and want.

2. Face Resistance with a Positive Attitude

In both sales and nonprofit organizations, you can expect resistance to your requests—even from those disposed to support your mission. You’re vying for limited donor dollars and constantly trying to convince your audience that their organization is the one that deserves their dollars and/or time. Even the best of us can get discouraged—even the best salespeople.
However—when the best salespeople hear “no,” they don’t think of it as the end. According to Sales Hacker, “Successful salespeople are those who have emerged strong out of the most difficult of situations. They face them with a positive attitude, learning from them and always seeing light at the end of the tunnel.” In addition, since the best salespeople have a passion for what they do, they can mine that emotion to persist in their efforts.

3. Have Crystal-clear Motivation

The best salespeople not only having a passion for selling, but they also have a passion for their product. They believe in what they’re selling, they know their company’s goals, and, thus, can communicate with conviction. Likewise, if you work for a nonprofit organization, you need to be crystal clear about the organization’s motivations and what it hopes to achieve—and to believe in it. The ability to translate this motivation with clarity is a key to being successful in communicating it to donors.

Know just how to communicate your nonprofit organization's mission to the public and your targeted donor pool is also vital. Further, most successful salespeople realize they’re not selling, for instance, a car—they’re selling fun, or prestige, or safety for loved ones. When you communicate about your nonprofit, move past the most visible issue—providing assistance animals for people with disabilities, for example--to address the underlying ones as well. In this case, that means providing people with the support and independence they need to live their lives on their terms. A way to get to that underlying message is to ask yourself, "What would happen if our organization weren’t around?"

Ultimately, if you and your organization can embrace the characteristics of the most successful salespeople, you can reap some real rewards in terms of donor interest and giving.