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Role Plays: Valuable Tools or Quintessential Torture?

Management Series


What are the three most dreaded phrases a frontline fundraiser will ever hear?

  1. Not now
  2. Not ever
  3. Role Plays

Interestingly, in our work with fundraisers, while the first two can cause some potential discomfort, we have found the third often leads to the most apprehension and anxiety. Conversely, many participants in our Plus Delta programs admit that the exercise can be extremely helpful. As one participant wrote in a recent post-program assessment, “As much as I hate doing role plays in front of people, I feel like these workshops were incredibly valuable. It was also gratifying to see how our peers did in this space since most of the time we are on our own and don't get to share our expertise with one another.”

If role playing is so valuable, why do we as managers not do it more regularly as we help our frontline fundraisers prepare for their donor interactions? We tend to talk about what message they want to deliver, but not what they will actually say. Is it because we may not be able to commit the time; we never had a manager role play with us; we know role plays make us uncomfortable and we don’t want to make our teams feel that way; we do not want our team members to potentially judge one another or us?

In other professions, role playing is embedded in their self-improvement process. Baseball players have batting practice before games. Actors do dress rehearsals before the big show. Musicians do sound checks before their live performance. As Vincent Van Gogh said, “As practice makes perfect, I cannot but make progress; each drawing one makes, each study one paints, is a step forward.”

While role playing, or if you prefer to call it practice, does require a commitment by the people involved to be vulnerable, it leads to higher levels of confidence during donor interactions. As my colleagues have discussed in previous management articles, managers have a responsibility to help frontline fundraisers be prepared for their donor interactions by equipping them with the tools to be successful, which includes helping them find the right words. Whether it be helping the new gift officer prepare for his/her first solicitation or the experienced gift officer prepare for the big ask or working with any team member to prepare to address a donor’s challenging behaviors, managers should coach them through what they want to accomplish and how to say it.

A framework for coaching a gift officer to prepare for a meeting is to ask the following questions:

  1. What did you agree to do with the prospect the last time you met?
  2. Where is the prospect in the decision-making process of making a gift, i.e. their Donor Engagement Process?
  3. What don’t we know?
  4. What will it sound like (to ask the question, make the case for support, respond to possible questions and/or objections)?

The last two questions may be the most important. They may lead to out-loud processing and the gift officer saying: I don’t know if they are ready to make a commitment. I don’t know if the spouse will be involved. I don’t know if their priorities have shifted. I don’t know why they won’t call me back. I don’t know how to maximize their potential gift. Or any other question the gift officer may be thinking about the prospect. 

Some fundraisers may wonder how to effectively ask those questions in a forthright diplomatic way and worry they are going to sound too aggressive, nosey or transactional. Managers can help them by asking questions like: How will you ask that question? What will you say if they respond with x? What will you say to dig deeper and probe to learn more? How will you explain to your prospect the reason(s) why you are asking these questions?

If we are committed to helping our teams raise more money for our organizations, we have to further develop our fundraisers’ skills and confidence. Commit the time to practice with your gift officers in coaching meetings both as a team and in 1:1’s. By both socializing and normalizing practice with your team, you will help them learn by doing, learn from each other, and be even more prepared to be successful. Now the only question is: How will you say it?


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