I've never been to Indiana and honestly never thought I would find myself there for a trade show catering to regional buyers of building supplies. It’s not that I don’t appreciate building supplies, but as a fundraising professional for non-profit organizations, our professional paths had never crossed. However, that is where I spent two days a few weeks ago -- helping a friend sell his wood flooring to regional buyers at a casino/resort on the Ohio River.
Having spent the last 10 years helping raise funds to solve many environmental issues -- including rapid deforestation -- this was also an opportunity to learn more about the sustainability practices of the vendors which has always interested me, but really, I was there to help a friend, nothing more.
During the show, one topic kept coming to mind: what are the fundamental differences between nonprofit fundraising and general sales? As many of you know, this is an existential debate in the annals of fundraising practices. “We don’t sell cars, we help people,” and “sales connotates something bad,” are common refrains.
With time on my hands between interludes of trying to explain the Janka and Taber ratings of my friend’s wood products (no, those are not video games for the uninitiated), I did some research from our little booth on the trade show floor.
Not surprisingly, Googleland offered many an opinion on the subject and two pieces articulated the similarities and differences better than I will, written by Sasha Dichter and Nadine Riopel. What were the opinions of the thousands of salespeople at this trade show?
During lunch, I had an opportunity to find out. Sitting with four representatives from a large, national building supply company (think the Pink Panther), I struck up a conversation with one from Pittsburgh who had been in building supply sales for over 40 years. As our conversation progressed, it became obvious to both of us that I was an interloper. I explained that I was not a full time employee of my friend’s company but only in town to help him with the trade show.
He asked me what I did normally. I explained that I was in a form of sales, working with nonprofits to raise charitable contributions from as little as $35 to as much as one million. He said that it sounded like the hardest job he had ever heard off and would stick with building supplies!
After a shared laugh, I asked him what were the most important attributes of “sales” as he saw them in relation to his business. What he said was quite interesting:
Building a strong personal relationship with his clients was paramount -- knowing their business goals, a bit about their personal life and even the names of their kids.
Listening to their needs and those of their customers was a close second. “You can’t sell someone a turnip when they ask for an orange even though I see people try it all the time,” he said.
Maintaining those relationships with personal visits, a healthy amount of communications to update them (“I don’t spam them though!”), was also an important attribute.
I told him that he had all the attributes of a budding fundraising professional! So my little journey to Indiana taught me that for profit sales people and nonprofit fundraisers can learn something from each other. Even when selling hardwood floors.