We See What We Already Believe: Guiding Donor Assumptions in Client Interactions

I’ve written quite a bit about how to prepare donors for their client experiences and what should be included in their guidebooks, but there’s one very important thing we need to address: assumptions and expectations.

Although these words are often used interchangeably, in my work, I draw some critical distinctions between the two:

  • Assumptions are our visitors’ perceptions of the environment and people on-site. These are the conditions our visitors believe exist at the site.
  • Expectations are what our visitors believe will happen during the encounter. This is how our visitors think they will experience the site.

Many organizations spend considerable time managing the expectations of donors. We want to make sure they are prepared for the experience that will affect them: for the long drives and bumpy roads, for the security checkpoints, or for a flexible agenda.

But much less time is spent on those donors’ assumptions. What are their beliefs about the people they will soon encounter? What ideas are they bringing with them into the encounter?

We need to address these ideas in advance of an encounter because we cannot rely on contact to set things right. Many of us have heard the quote “seeing is believing,” but what I find more accurate is this:

Seeing is not believing… We see what we already believe.

It’s important for us to acknowledge that when we enter a new situation, we are bringing our full selves with us. We bring our full memories, and histories, and knowledge, and experiences. And through all that information, we interpret what we see and hear.

Our donors all enter any client encounter with a multitude of beliefs and assumptions.

Figuring out which assumptions will enrich the donor’s experience and which will keep them from deep, authentic interactions is what we must do. In preparing visitors, I prefer to guide their assumptions rather than challenge them.

“Challenge” sounds combative. It also implies one of us is right and the other is wrong. Sometimes we do have beliefs that are factually inaccurate, but in some cases, fact and opinion are hard to distinguish. For instance, visitors to a rural school in Ecuador may assume that the children will be happy and grateful to receive gifts of clothing, school supplies, or toys. They also assume their gifts will help to address poverty and scarcity of resources in that area. The former assumption is probably accurate—children do like to receive toys—but the latter assumption is misguided and can even further exacerbate issues of poverty. Rather than solely educate visitors on sustainable development, I prefer to also address the first assumption and guide the visitor into new ideas for ways they can cultivate feelings of joy, connection, and mutual gratitude that do not undermine the program or belittle program participants.

Now, it’s hard to know what assumptions our donors have because they seldom reveal them to us. In fact, they probably don’t know what their own assumptions are. Asking questions like “Do you have any concerns?” also yields very little. But we can get to the root of this in our preparation process.

In all forms of preparation, whether it be one-on-one coaching, a group training, or a short briefing by phone, the approach I recommend to help set expectations and guide assumptions includes the following:

  1. Start with the superficial stuff (bugs and bumpy roads) and then move to the deep (honor codes, corruption, racism).
  2. Start with the simple (“don’t eat with your left hand”) and then move to the complex (beliefs about food and the meaning of sharing a meal).
  3. Always be specific (“make direct eye contact”), not general (“be respectful”).

At all stages: ask your donors questions! Not to check their comprehension, but to get them to draw parallels to their own lives and experiences. “Have you seen examples of this in your life?” “Have you ever encountered a situation like this before?” Adult learning is really a process of re-learning. We take in new information and apply it to what we have already experienced, so asking them questions about their own ideas, perspectives, and experiences will draw out their assumptions and provide opportunities for deeper learning.

Lastly, we cannot take information without giving information, so make sure your expectation-management and assumption-guiding process includes the following:

  1. Talk about challenges. Things may not start on time, itineraries can change at the last minute, the weather is extreme, the transportation is spotty…whatever may not go smoothly.
  2. Tell candid stories that reveal systems of inequity and power and question dynamics. Explain why you can’t hug children randomly or take photographs without permission. Reinforce any important points in writing in the guide.
  3. Share personal testimony. What assumptions did you have before you first went to the site, and how did those change? What was your most profound learning? Sharing this about yourself first can make the donor feel comfortable about sharing their own assumptions.