Anyone who comes from a big, booming family or has an enormous circle of friends understands the importance of a good listener. Sometimes, we get so caught up in where we’re going and what we’re doing, we forget to step back, sit tight and listen up. It’s amazing what people will share when you don’t interrupt.
Sabrina Pourmand knows a thing or two about listening, and believes it is the key to forging lasting relationships in work and around the globe. As someone who says her path was “always going to include a bent toward social good,” Sabrina’s international trajectory started in Latin America, touched down in to the States, and moved on to providing aid in various disaster zones. By the time she assumed her role at charity: water, a nonprofit that brings clean and safe drinking water to people in developing nations, Sabrina had a uniquely global perspective. As evidenced, her pace is unrelenting, her mission is motivating and her fundraising strategy is a study in socio-personal skills that transcends industries.
Successful social causes rely on outside funding to propel their mission forward. At charity: water, Sabrina’s team is responsible for securing top-dollar private donations, which means she has fine-tuned her pitch to an art form. From client retention and acquisition, to modifying metrics accordingly, Sabrina is constantly iterating her approach. When we caught up with her, she clued is us in on how she measures success, why she doesn’t subscribe to the theory of work-life balance and how a mission-led business model can actually make money.
TAKEAWAYS FROM ROLES BEFORE CHARITY: WATER: My unique heritage led me toward my professional journey. My mother is Filipino and a U.S. Army brat. My father was born in Iran but came to America because of his admiration and love for American culture and democracy. They were the first in their families to attend college and really created their own destiny. I watched my parents make an incredible life for themselves, my sisters, and my extended family. Their journey gave me a sense that anything is possible and that no matter where you come from, every person deserves a chance to pursue their dreams. And that’s why I’m driven to help others. At my core, I want to help others have access to the opportunities my parents gave me.
My path was always going to include a bent toward social good. My international development career began in microfinance in Latin America. But after seeing, first hand, the obstacles that funding challenges can bring, I came back to the States and worked for a large, well known nonprofit to learn about revenue growth and fund development. Simultaneously, I received my Masters in business, with a focus on nonprofit management. I then spent the next few years of my career as a leader in disaster and emergency response, leading large scale programs in Haiti (following the earthquake) and in Jordan (to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis).
Each of these positions taught me something hugely valuable about myself and what I wanted to do with my career.
If you want to “help others,” you need to endeavor to understand the context, people and culture before you can understand the complexities of the issues at hand. And the only way to build a deep and full understanding is by being proximate to the issues. Proximity does not equal a one-month stint in that country. Proximity means living, working and being a part of a community for an extended or indefinite period of time. If this isn’t possible, then you must partner with those on the ground in that community to make a positive impact.
Building relationships is the key to long term success, in any business. And just like personal relationships, business relationships require effort, honesty, and investment of your time.
WHAT IT MEANS TO MANAGE DONOR RELATIONSHIPS: Charity: Water actually found me. Someone I’d worked with in Haiti reached out to me and after just a few meetings, I started with the organization in 2014. Charity: Water’s unrelenting transparency, their work with partners on the ground who truly understand the complexities of the local water issues, and the fact that they make storytelling a top priority, really attracted me to the brand. I knew this was an organization I could truly get behind.
My title at charity: water is Vice President of Key Relationships, meaning that I run a team who is responsible for fundraising all overhead, in addition to high-dollar donations ($10K+) for water projects. In 2017, we raised $50.3M and my team raised $27M of that total.
While my title has remained the same since I started with charity: water, each year has been distinctly unique in terms of my priorities.
The year I started at Charity: Water, we received some of the largest gifts in the organization’s history. As amazing as that was, it set a huge precedent, that I wasn’t sure we could meet in the following year. At the time, we didn’t have systems in place to track donor relationships, and no way to easily re-engage with folks who had supported the organization in the past. So I spent time, lots of time, learning and building the back end of the business — the revenue operations and analytic tools to glean better business intelligence — and creating systems that would manage the data to enable us to create repeatable revenue.
The next year, I was tasked with Charity: Water’s first ever foreign market expansion – the UK. So I spent a great deal of my time understanding the new market and learning how we could successfully expand our fundraising efforts there. When I left emergency response, I thought it wasn’t possible to work harder or longer hours. But I was wrong and I wouldn’t trade it for anything! It has been a really amazing journey because I’ve been asked to take on so many new, unfamiliar areas of work. I’m grateful for the learning opportunities and trust that have been given to me at Charity: Water.
HOW TO CREATE A FUND RAISING STRATEGY: First and foremost, I think about learnings. In order to make a strategic plan, I analyze learnings (both quantitatively and qualitatively) to help me understand the indicators for success – or key performance indicators (KPIs) – that I believe will get me to my goal. Then I build my strategic plan around those indicators. At the end of the year, I might be wrong about my KPIs, but even those learnings will help me to do better the following year.
For instance, I’ve learned that my team and I need to identify four times the amount of qualified prospects in order to close just one of them. So, if I need to close 16 new donors at the $60K level (which would result in $1M of revenue), then I know I will need to source 64 qualified prospects. That’s my KPI. If I’m able to identify 64 qualified prospects by mid-year, I should be able to close 25 percent of those, and reach my goal of $1 million.
HOW TO QUALIFY YOUR LEADS & INCREASE YOUR CONVERSION RATE: I codify the methodology around a “qualified prospect.” A “qualified prospect” means someone who:
We’ve proven has the sufficient net worth.
We’re in conversation with them.
They have expressed interest.
We’re comfortable making the ask this year (whether they say yes/no).
Once you really understand your indicators for success, you can build a successful strategy around that, taking into consideration your resources.
In this example, if my KPI is that I need 64 qualified prospects and I currently only have 10, my plan requires a qualified prospect acquisition strategy as early in the year as possible. My learnings have shown me that the best acquisition strategy for high net worth prospects is vis-a-vis events. So, I then work with my team to identify our most successful markets and our existing network of supporters there. We then approach our network and make them partners in our strategy: they understand our needs and host speaking engagements and events wherein they introduce us to the profile of person whom we’re looking for. At these beautifully curated events (produced by my team), guests learn about our brand story and we begin a conversation with them. We find that on average, about 10% of guests become qualified prospects – so I have a very clear understanding about how many guests/events are needed to procure 64 qualified prospects. At that point, success relies on disciplined, proper follow-up with prospects and I have to give total credit to my team. They are stellar at the follow-up. This is just one example of how to build a strategic plan, but for me, what it comes down to is a firm understanding of performance indicators, based on learnings derived from data and evidence.
INITIATING & NURTURING RELATIONSHIPS WITH NEW PARTNERS THE RIGHT WAY: For myself and my team, it’s all about using our existing network. We don’t cold call. Ever. We ask our network if they know of other high net worth individuals whose values are aligned with ours and would want to engage with charity: water. Once we’re in a room with new folks, my team and I are clear that it is far more important to be interested in the story of this new person – rather than being concerned with proving how interesting we are as people. By listening and understanding a potential donor or client’s personal story and goals, you will be better able to gauge their interest and build your pitch on the fly – a pitch that sincerely speaks to their specific needs or wants.
PREPARING FOR AN INITIAL CALL OR MEETING WITH A NEW CLIENT OR SUPPORTER: When I’m on a call or when I’m meeting someone for the first time, it is essential that I am interested in who they are, as a person. The key to being able to learn enough about someone to build a relationship is simple: you have to have great questions. You can’t be on a call or in a meeting searching for questions to ask – that’s how you end up just talking. You need to have 25, 30 questions that are just rote to you – they’re always in the back of your mind, and they get people to tell you things that they don’t usually tell other people. As I’m listening, I think about how their life story or values genuinely align with Charity: Water’s goals and work. When I’m able to draw a genuine connection, I know we have a chance at building a really strong, lasting relationship.
LISTENING ISN’T WAITING TO SPEAK: The most successful salespeople and fundraisers are genuinely interested in learning the story of the person they are talking to. My advice: focus on being interested, rather than being interesting. I could tell people 100 things about charity: water that are interesting, but the fact is I actually don’t usually do that. I spend most of my time saying, tell me YOUR story. Tell me why YOU decided to get on the call with me, and why YOU are interested in learning more about Charity: Water. So they tell me what drew them to the organization and I build my pitch in real-time. They’ve already given me the building blocks to create an effective and tailored pitch! That’s what I’m always listening for, and that’s what’s so important about listening. It’s the only way to really learn about another person. Once you find out their story, and why they’re interested in your organization, you are far better positioned to craft a pitch that will truly resonate and lay the groundwork for a fruitful relationship.
THERE’S NO SCIENCE TO WHICH POTENTIAL CLIENTS YOU SHOULD SPEND TIME WITH: Don’t be overly prescribed about who you think is worth your time. Every person I come into contact with is worth my time. At Charity: Water, we treat everyone equally. Of course, it’s also important to keep the goals you are trying to accomplish in mind. If I have a revenue target, that certainly drives my decisions of where to spend the most time. But one of the keys to success in fundraising is to not be too territorial with relationships. I think a lot of sales and fundraising professionals need to work on this: let others on your team into the relationship – especially your biggest prospects – it can accelerate the close and help build deeper ties to your cause and organization. Donors or clients aren’t “yours” or “mine.” Being team-oriented on these relationships gives you more opportunities to close the deal faster and to approach the relationship with more intention.
I’ve said this for years but the driver behind my success is work life integration, not work life balance. Transparently, most of my personal time is actually spent with existing supporters – because they have become friends and confidants. But this is also because I need to spend most of my business hours with new prospects and leading my team. So, in order to maintain genuine relationships with existing supporters, I need to make time outside of work hours to connect.
Everyone has a limitation on how many relationships they can build. Since I meet with thousands of people every year, that is a challenge I face because I am genuinely interested in people’s stories. But, if you think about it like a friendship, you can only maintain so many friends at a given time.
Understanding this, I am in no way territorial over the relationships that I build and I often bring in colleagues to connect with potential or existing donors, who can build relationships off of their commonalities.
I am very cognizant of how much time it takes to connect with people. My first year with Charity: Water, I made every single meeting one hour long and now, I make every meeting one and a half or two hours. If you are genuinely interested in someone, it shows, and they will put in the extra half hour to get to know you – even the busiest people. Each client or supporter deserves your attention and I’ve learned to allocate time up front to really get to know them as a person, before introducing business into the conversation. Spending time getting to know someone up front always pays off in the long run.
STRATEGIES TO INCREASE CLIENT RETENTION: Take note of what big clients, or donors, are interested in and do small things to let them know you are thinking about them. Act from a place of abundance and selflessness – because this is generally a totally rare approach for most people. For example, if a client tells you they’ve been having trouble sleeping, send them the CALM app. If someone talks to you about their interest in other causes, offer to make introductions to those charities. These small personal touches help build strong relationships because you add value to their lives and create intimacy. At the end of the day, it’s not just about business – it’s about going the extra mile and showing someone you care they are a real person; not just a dollar you’re trying to raise.
SIMPLE STRATEGIES YOU CAN USE TO IMPROVE YOUR SELLING SKILLS: Sales does not necessarily come easily for me – my advice is to practice and be prepared. Smile, look someone in the eyes and ask why they want to learn more about what you’re doing or offering. This allows you to start a genuine, authentic conversation. When you’ve made an authentic connection, it’s far easier to then ask for what you want.
Sales is definitely a learned skill, and I have learned how to sell through going to business school, understanding how to build KPIs in a relationship-oriented industry and reading as much as I can about the psychology of persuasion. But the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that if you want to ask someone for money, build a broader vision before asking.
When it comes time to making an ask, I try to build an inspirational vision that is both tailored to and worthy of their investment. Another piece of advice I can give is rather than asking someone for the total amount of money that you need, reference a figure that you know is unattainable for any one person – and then use stories and impactful numbers to prove your cause. Make them feel excited about the difference they can make by contributing, and then ask for a tangible and attainable amount.
Be patient – I wait until I am comfortable enough with someone to make an ask, though I also understand that even though I may be ready, they may not be. After the ask, I sit quietly and wait for their reaction. Their reaction tells me where the conversation is headed and if I talk first, I will miss it. Doing this doesn’t require a natural talent in sales or a business degree, but it does take practice (and a willingness to sit in discomfort for a short period of time!).
WHY YOU CAN RUN A MISSION-LED BUSINESS & MAKE MONEY: My experience working in every major US market and in over 10 countries has proven that it’s still a man’s world. Almost categorically, just about every room I walk into, regardless of the country, my contact is usually a man. And that man is generally an exceptionally successful or high profile person. It wasn’t always easy to feel worthy of that person’s time. But with age and experience, I’ve come to understand how special it is to represent the needs of others around the world. In order to see more women be successful in business, more women need to be able to identify and articulate – for themselves – what makes them feel uniquely that confident and powerful in themselves.
When I walk into a room, I know I am about to extend an invitation to do something great and meaningful…I am about to offer someone the opportunity to make a real difference in the world. Positioning myself as a conduit to building a better world emboldens me to sit at any table, with any person. One of the other things we should talk about more openly is that as women, we actually do have a different set of superpowers. Many women are innately more nurturing and emotionally intelligent – which helps us be more empathetic (a very important quality in my line of work). So much of what I do is about connecting with others, understanding their values and interests, and seeing whether we are values aligned with our organization. I think women are often better able to access the heart side of people, while being just as competent at accessing the intellectual side, and that is a powerful tool to have in your arsenal.