Cultural Differences in Donor-Staff Conversations

I’ve written a lot about the role cultural differences play in travel, particularly, donor trips. But in this article, I want to bring the message of intercultural awareness home to a more familiar territory: staff interactions with donors. Specifically, I’m talking about those the one-on-one meetings that development officers, board members, and executive directors have with major donors and other major gift prospects.

Too often we think about cultural differences as being set by national identities like “Chinese” or “German.” But focusing on national boundaries means that we miss a whole lot of nuanced differences between individuals. In this article, I am going to list seven of the major cultural differences that manifest in interactions between donors and staff—some of which are not so easily categorized as national distinctions—and what to do about these differences.

A couple things to note: I am not concerned with why these distinctions exist (for example, why are some people always punctual while others are chronically late?). I am also not concerned with assigning these distinctions to particular groups based on things like age, race, gender, socioeconomic status, profession, etc. Both philanthropists and nonprofit staff come from all walks of life—there is no point making assumptions about these individuals as to where they fall on these cultural continuum. Our job is to understand what our own preferred styles may be when compared to others, and be prepared to adjust when encountering differences in our professional interactions.

There also is nothing achieved by making judgments about which end of the spectrum is “better.” Differences are just that, different. We should not be concerned with who is right or wrong, rather where we fall on the continuum, with whom we are meeting, and where the other person may fall. Being prepared to adapt to some of the differences and knowing which adaptations we can make authentically will set us up for a more successful encounter.

1. Time Orientation

Anthropologist Edward T. Hall stated that “time speaks more plainly than words” (The Silent Language, 1959). There are many ways we can examine time through a cultural lens, but one of the most accessible is the distinction between “linear” and “circular” or “cyclical.”

With linear thinking, time is treated “as a material,” Hall would say, “to be spent, saved, or wasted.” For donors with this linear view of time, it is important for nonprofit staff to be punctual, end the meeting on time, and make specific time commitments and deadlines: “I’ll call you tomorrow at 11:00.” “We’ll send you a copy of the report by the end of the month.” Those with linear time-orientation expect progress that can be easily tracked and measured at set intervals.

For a donor with a linear view of time, showing up late to a meeting may send the unspoken message that you don’t prioritize their relationship. But to a donor with a cyclical view of time, ending a meeting early may send that same message.

For donors with a cyclical view of time, punctuality and deadlines are not as important as the quality of the relationship and the achievement of shared goals. We veer into cyclical orientation when we set aside fifteen minutes for a call with a donor and end up spending forty-five minutes on the phone because the conversation was too good to end. We also find ourselves navigating cyclical time when we cannot provide standard updates to our very linear-grant reports because the world has changed so much that the units of measure we were using before don’t matter now.

Time orientation not only affects the design of meetings, phone calls, and progress reports but is relevant to the donor’s very concept of social change. Is the future merely a continuation of the present, or is it interconnected with the past and the present? Understanding the donor’s perception of time can help determine how we talk about the work we do and our mission and make sense of the world we live in.

2. Small talk

In response to “How’s your day going?” I am expected to answer, “Fine, thank you.” This is a common scene in most North American restaurants (back when we were actually eating in restaurants). Yet in other parts of the world, it is decidedly odd for a service professional to inquire about a customer’s daily life. While in some cultural contexts, this kind of casual chitchat is expected and in others it would be weird, I prefer examine small-talk through the lens of which people love it and which hate it. I live in a country where it is considered a professional norm to open conversations with casual statements about the weather, sports, or other nonevent, and while some people thrive in these interactions, I am one of those people who is personally anxious trying to navigate how authentically I should answer and respond to those superficial questions and comments.

The year 2020 has put small talk to the test, with many people wondering if they should share how they are really doing or just say, “fine,” and move on. What is important is to know our own style and be ready to adjust as needed.

When having conversations with donors, I recommend we open the proverbial door with a question that is not presumptuous but that still is very real—for example, “A lot has happened since we last connected. How are things on your end?”—and see if they walk through it. What is disclosed on the other end of that door gets me to point #3.

3. How Personal is Personal

On one end of the continuum is someone who possesses total comfort in sharing any and all personal details with a near stranger from the onset of the interaction. On the other end is someone who prefers to keep all personal information private in professional settings. Somewhere in the middle are those who share personal information deemed socially “positive” but usually not that which could be deemed “negative” (they may talk about marriage but not divorce).

Some people who share a lot of personal information expect reciprocity, and may ask questions that a more private person feels uneasy answering. For those over-sharers among us: pay close attention to the reaction of others when you are sharing, and see if they lean in to your story or not. Understand that we’re not all “open books” and respect another person’s silence.

Alternatively, for those folks who are fairly private, be aware that your restraint may unwittingly send signals that convey a disinterest in another person or their stories. If you fall into this category, I encourage you to listen with full attentiveness to another’s story, ask question when appropriate, and let them know that you appreciate them sharing it with you. Sometimes, all another person is expecting from us is the opportunity to be heard.

It’s important to be perceptive and receptive to our donor’s style and try to put them at ease, allowing them privacy when they seem to need it, and being a sounding board at other times.

4. Money Mindset

All of us acquired certain beliefs about money and formed positive or negative attitudes about money from those stories we heard growing up (i.e. “money is the root of all evil”). Amy Varga of The Varga Group provides an excellent resource to help you assess your internal comfort with money, analyze the money stories you tell yourself, and utilize strategies to challenge those money narratives that are not helping you in your job.

Amy’s advice extends even to those staff who are not tasked with fundraising. As we in the nonprofit sector closely examine the inequity and exploitation that resulted in a few people acquiring enormous wealth while many other lack access to the most basic resources, it is important that we also examine how this enhanced awareness contributes to our biases about people with wealth and how those biases may be affecting our conversations with donors. A quote I love from Amy’s resource: “You hear all the time that fundraising is about relationships. But how can you build a real relationship with someone you resent or mistrust?”

5. Perception of the World

In the course of even a short conversation, we can tell quickly when we encounter a person with a judgmental disposition. They are often highly critical of things that neither party can control: the layout of the room, the weather, the noise, the traffic, the parking, what somebody else is wearing, etc. These are clues as to how that person perceives the world. To be empathetic with a judgmental person, we need to understand that the sometimes the best role we can hold for them is as a willing ear. They tend not to want our advice, nor are they really looking for us to change anything; instead, they want their complaints heard and validated. If we do this for them from the beginning, we have the potential to guide the conversation in a more positive direction.

As author Joseph Pine says, “The experience of being understood, versus interpreted, is so compelling you can charge admission.”

If we possess the self-awareness to spot judgment in ourselves, we should do our best not to verbalize it (what good would come of that?). Later on, we can examine for ourselves why that judgment came up and what it means. It’s pretty hard to refrain from judgment completely, so I think the best we can do is to not say it aloud and put it on pause until after the dialogue with the donor.

The opposite of judgment (according to me) is inquisitiveness. An inquisitive person still perceives differences but does not assign labels of “good,” “bad,” “right,” or “wrong” immediately. An inquisitive person contemplates why something may be the way it is, has a natural curiosity to understand how others perceive it, and uses the opportunity to learn more about themselves and world around them.

6. Direct vs Indirect Communication

In a society where the dominant norm of communication is fairly indirect or passive (or even passive aggressive), direct communication is often conflated with being rude (see point #5 about judgement). I don’t need to convince many folks of the merits of indirect communication when declining a salesperson or a dissuading a stranger, but I often need to provide examples of times when direct communication is appreciated and even essential in business conversations.

How would we feel if a donor said, honestly and directly, that they are decreasing their gift to your organization this year in December in order to allocate more funds to grassroots organizations led by people of color? Isn’t that much more helpful than “we still need time to think about it and will make a gift at a level we determine once we are ready”? That second sentence tells us nothing useful at all. Though money conversations can be stymied by personal assumptions (see point #5), true relationships are founded on honesty and transparency.

So here is my advice: If we want another person to be more direct with us, then we must first be direct with them. So ask yourself: What are you comfortable saying? And what are you comfortable hearing?

I was not taught to communicate directly growing up – I learned it from someone who was direct with me. Early on in my career I received a job offer with a salary that was too low. Not knowing whether to negotiate or turn it down, I told the recruiter that classic indirect stall-for-time-before-you-decline phrase: “I need to assess my finances and get back to you.” She countered with: “What could I change about this offer that would make you say ‘yes’ to it today?” (HR staff, take note). Really with a question that direct, there was nothing to do except meet her directness in a response: “The salary would need to be $10,000 higher.” That level of straightforwardness saved us both a lot of waiting and agonizing. 

7. Emotional Expressiveness

Some people are incredibly comfortable displaying a full spectrum of emotions—at all intensity levels—publicly. Others prefer to conceal their feelings and remain “neutral” in professional settings. What is important to note is that highly emotional people tend to want their expressions of feelings validated by those around them. This does not mean we need to mirror their emotion or intensity but that we should acknowledge their emotion verbally—“I understand how strongly you feel about this”—and express an appreciation: “Thank you for sharing that with me.”

Low-emotional-intensity people are often misunderstood as being cold, unaffected, or apathetic. They may be the only person at the table not crying when a parent delivers a heartfelt appeal at an event. They may be silent while others vent their frustration about a recent news story. I cannot emphasize enough that a person’s lack of emotional display is not correlated to what they are thinking and feeling. The magic move here is for us to ask, “What do you think?” This simple question will likely elicit the kind of information we need from them: “I thought that was a moving speech,” or, “I’m pretty disappointed by the recent news.” In doing this, we display our curiosity, engage them in conversation, and let them know we weren’t making any assumptions about them. A win-win for all.