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One of the biggest obstacles to overcome in any fundraising effort, particularly a long-term project, is that of knowing who your donors are. Sounds odd, doesn’t it? You’re probably already saying, “Hold on, Marc. I know exactly who my donors are, thank you very much. They’re the ones that have made a gift to my project! I can print out a list of their names any time I want.” I agree that is simple and important. But what can you tell me about your donors? What are they like? Old? Young? Wealthy? Middle-class? Male? Female? Professionals? Blue collar? Single? Married? Parents? Business executives? Entrepreneurs? Smart? Savvy? Skilled? Generous? Do they tend to be optimists? Pessimists? Do they like public recognition? Or do they prefer one-on-one appreciation?

Knowing as much as we can about the people we are inviting to care about our cause can go a long way in helping us achieve our goals—especially in our goals of building long-term relationships. In this chapter, I’ll introduce you to two effective assessments that can help you interact in every step of the Get R.E.A.L. process: the D.I.S.C. test and The Highlands Ability Battery.

The D.I.S.C. Test

If you’ve never heard of the “D.I.S.C.” test, you are missing out on a really simple assessment tool that will help you understand people’s personality profile. Four quadrant personality assessments have been around for millennia. The labels range from the standard “sanguine,” “phlegmatic,” “melancholy,” and “choleric” labels of the ancient Greeks to different kinds of cars. I think its popularity is so enduring because it’s simple to grasp and easy to relate to yet you can spend years using it. I’ve even heard of one college admission office that uses this when they want to know how to address potential students. They put a D, I, S, or C in the prospective students file to help each other know how to best interact with that person. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The D.I.S.C. assessment is basically a circle with two lines in it. The vertical line represents how fast or slow you process things. Write “faster” at the top of the circle and “slower” at the bottom. The horizontal line represents your preference of working with people or tasks. Write “tasks” on the left-hand side of the circle. Write “people” on the right. Each of these lines acts as a spectrum. Some people will be task oriented but not to the same extreme as others.  In your circle with the two lines, put a “D” in the upper left-hand quadrant; an “I” in the upper right-hand; an “S” in the lower right; and a “C” in the lower left. Each quadrant has a different way of seeing the world and interacting with others.

DISC Personality Profile

Image courtesy of PersonalityInsights.com

I recommend you take an official assessment by a provider like that named in the resource section. But if you haven’t, take a minute to ask yourself:

  • Do you tend to be a faster-paced person? Someone who prefers to be up front and on stage?
  • Or are you someone who doesn’t mind being behind the scenes, out of the limelight?
  • Would you rather be with people or do you prefer to accomplish tasks?

D people are up front and on stage. They’re doers. They get things done, no matter what. These folks are often what people think of as the stereotypical “leader.” They’re the people who say, “We’re doing this my way.”

I people are also an up front person, but are also very people-focused. I people just love being around other people. Like a golden retriever, strangers are just friends they haven’t met yet. If they have to choose between coffee with friends or working on a task alone, they’re always going to choose coffee with a friend. They’re high-energy people who say, “We’re going to have fun!”

S people are also very much on the side of people, but they don’t want to be up front. They’re almost like Piglet from Winnie the Pooh, just not as timid. They’re solid, dependable people. They want to make sure everyone’s in harmony. They are always measuring the atmosphere, checking in to see how people are feeling. They want to know where everybody is at and how they’re doing. We need S people because Ds and Is tend to be so far out in front that they’re out of touch with how people are feeling and, as we’ll see, Cs aren’t particularly wired in a way to consider people’s feelings. S people ask, “How is everyone doing?”

C people are into tasks. Really into tasks. They love numbers. They don’t necessarily have a need or desire to be around people. They study and research before coming to conclusions. They just want to make sure everything is done correctly. They’re the kind of people who say, “We’re going to do it the right way and my way is the right way.”

If you’re a movie buff, then here are a few characters’ personalities and how they might fit on the D.I.S.C. test:

  • In “Gone with the Wind”, Rhett Butler is a D, Ashley is an S.
  • In the movie “Patch Adams,” Robin Williams’ character would be an I.
  • Professor Higgins from “My Fair Lady” is a stereotypical C.

There are many ways to categorize these personalities, but the most important thing is to understand how people communicate and process information within each category.

Shortly after starting a new job, my wife and I learned that we were pregnant. Naturally, one of my wife’s first assignments for me was to find out if my employer had any “paternity leave” policy. Since I had just started there, I felt extremely uncomfortable about asking. I thought about directly asking our CFO—she who oversaw the human resources function—but I decided against it. She took things very seriously, and it seemed to me a bit negatively. I didn’t want to stir anything up so I decided to send a personal just-checking-in-but-I-know-this-probably-isn’t-an-option email to someone else in her office.

The very next day, instead of getting a reply from that person, I received a policy statement from the CFO herself! I was so angry (and probably quite embarrassed)! I hadn’t asked her. I had intentionally chosen not to ask her because I was sure I’d get a response like the one in front of me.

There was nothing personal in the email. There was even nothing in there indicating that she knew I wasn’t looking to get out of working my new job, that my query had been merely informational. There was nothing about me at all! There was just a full blown, bureaucratic, policy statement. I was beside myself! Can you tell that I’m a high I?

Fortunately, I’ve learned to vent in front of someone else before I blowing up in anger at the person I’m upset with. I went into my boss’ office and unloaded. I took this impersonal response to mean that the CFO was questioning my integrity and thinking I was a slacker. My boss was much more reasonable than I was and helped me gain some perspective. After some time together, he recommended I talk to the CFO.

When I calmed down, I called the CFO. She had no idea she had done anything that would upset me. “I was just writing policy,” she said. “Every organization needs policy to run.” Of course, she was right. Every organization does need policy.

If I had stepped back to see the situation in terms of D.I.S.C., I would’ve realized she was a high C person. As such, she was more focused on policies and procedures—the task side of life—than with relating to people. In an organization, C’s know that you need some level of policies to help direct relationships within the organization. What I found out was that this organization was full of policy gaps when the CFO arrived. It needed someone who was a high C to fix them. My question simply revealed another gap, so she quickly filled it.

To a high I like me, her filling the gap felt more like she was playing a game of Whack-a-Mole and she saw me as the mole! For her part, she was amazed that anyone would get emotionally upset by a policy.

D.I.S.C. & Fundraising

Think about D.I.S.C. in terms of your fundraising. Knowing how to relate to someone will help you in being much more effective at asking them for money. If you’re a high C, you’ll probably tell your organization’s story based on statistics, graphs, and columns of numbers. But if your prospect is a high I she would rather hear about how one person’s life was impacted by your organization’s work. You can pick up lots of these cues during the Engage step of the Get R.E.A.L. process.

I’m a high I and a high D. I guess that means I’m a 100% fast motor person. Seminar attendees tell me I talk very fast and usually ask me to slow down so they have a chance to catch up. I love people but, as a high D, completing tasks is also very important to me. One of the most frustrating fundraising visits for me was with a donor who spent hours touring me around her city. Hours—because that was important to her. All I could think of was all the other donors I could have visited. At that point in my career, my goal was to pack my schedule with as many appointments as possible. I wanted lots of visits and lots of solicitations. Appointments were more about task completion than about relating to people and I wanted to complete as many as I could. That was how I could show I was making the most of my time.

Now I realize that I shouldn’t be fast with someone who wasn’t. As Stephen Covey says, “Slow is fast; fast is slow.” I needed to slow down. This donor was investing in our relationship. She was thrilled to have a representative from my organization come and visit her and she wanted to treat me well. Taking that time with her created a relationship that produced fruit in the coming years.

This works the other way too. If you’re slow with a fast-paced person, you’ll probably need to speed up to keep your prospect from becoming bored. If you’re working through a presentation, take the cues of the other person and move through it more quickly if you have to—even if it’s faster than what you’ve practiced at the office. Even if it means not completing every bullet point of your presentation.

The Highlands Ability Battery

Another tool that will give you a way to approach your donors, as well as your own life, is The Highlands Ability Battery. This assessment revolutionized my own professional growth and my marriage.

In First Break All the Rules, authors Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman explain the difference between average managers, good managers, and great managers. The book lays to rest the common human resource myth that you need to work on your weaknesses and be a well-rounded person to succeed. Backed by all the statistical research of the Gallup Organization, Buckingham and Coffman show that excellent managers, rather than looking for weak areas, actually discover people’s natural strengths and put people in positions that let those strengths flourish.

The Highlands helps you do just that. It is specifically designed to help identify your “hard-wired” natural abilities. Natural abilities are the things that come easily to you. Most often, the stress we feel in life comes from either operating in areas that do not come naturally to us or from abilities that aren’t being used. As we arrange our lives more in line with our natural talents, we find stress practically evaporates and our work becomes filled with a renewed energy and purpose.

Through a three to four-hour test full of 19 seemingly mind-numbing work samples you complete within set time limits, the Highlands measures which tasks you complete quickly and which take you more time. All of us could complete all the tasks if we were given enough time. The ones that come quickly point to your hard-wiring, your natural talents.

One of the things I love most about the Highlands is that you can’t skew the results. All the other personality assessments I’ve used ask you to rate yourself on what you perceive your behavior or attitudes to be. After you take a few, you begin to see where the questions are going and how to make the results look more as you would like. The Highlands is different. It objectively measures how well you perform on specific work samples. That’s it. Either you do them in the allotted time or you don’t. There’s no bias to it so this method very effectively identifies your hard-wired, natural abilities.

After taking the test, you receive a very long report describing your results and how they affect your life. Then you have a two-hour, one-on-one feedback session with a coach. This coach has studied your results and is able to explain them and to see if you agree or not with them. He also helps identify patterns or “clusters” of abilities and helps you begin to strategize your life around your natural talents.

After completing the Highlands Ability Battery, my mother said, “Marc, I felt more mentally alert after spending 33 hours in labor with you than I do after taking this test! I hope it’s worth it!” Fortunately, it was. After seeing the report and going over it with a knowledgeable coach, my mom was amazed. The Highlands actually helped her explain some learning styles she had noticed in herself but hadn’t been able to explain. It helped her see herself in a completely new light.

And how did it revolutionize my marriage? It gave us a common language based on an objective assessment. One of the abilities measured is “idea productivity.” Idea productivity measures how fast your faucet of ideas is flowing. Some people are generating new ideas all the time, others generate very few. Neither is better than the other. Some roles require coming up with lots of ideas quickly. But people with high idea productivity can’t always focus; all the new ideas keep distracting them.

I’m a mid-range in idea productivity; my wife is off-the-charts! The other day, she and I were talking at the kitchen table as she was eating some store-bought pudding. All of a sudden, she stopped talking in mid-sentence and just staring at her empty plastic cup. Just staring at it. It was really weird. I thought I had lost her. And I was hoping I hadn’t done something to offend her!

Then she sort of snapped out of it. “Sorry,” she said. “idea productivity. I just had about a hundred ideas of what I could do with this little plastic cup.” Immediately the whole situation made sense and I was able to relax. That’s just how she lives her life—ideas coming in a constant flow. People who have high idea productivity have hundreds of ideas thrown against the front of their brain all the time. The ideas aren’t all good but the quantity can be overwhelming.

Think about this in terms of donor relations. Do you have a donor or alumnus who is always coming up with ideas on how you can do your job better? Maybe they’re simply high in idea productivity. Rather than letting them grate on you, why not invite them to the next brainstorming session your staff has? Their hard-wired ability may really help improve whatever you’re talking about. And if you’re asking that person for money, you know you’ll need to vary your approach with props, other people, and other tools just to help them stay focused.

Let’s look at some of the abilities the Highlands tests on and see how these can affect your approach to fundraising.


The only subjective part of the Highlands is the portion that evaluates whether you are an introvert or an extrovert. Knowing this can help avoid many conflicts! Take conversations for an example. Introverts tend to share an idea once they’ve worked it over internally and arrived at their finished product. They’ve thought things over, they’ve come to a resolution, they’ve framed it, and they’re through. Extroverts, on the other hand, start talking without knowing what the finished idea will be. They love doing the processing outside themselves and with others. As an extrovert, I practically have to speak to think. Somewhere words originate, they pop out of my mouth, and I think about them only after I hear them. Sometimes I think they’re a great idea and other times I don’t. So, when I’m talking to someone more introverted who’s familiar with Highlands, she’ll ask me, “What just went on? Did you make a decision?” Introverts tend to think things over in private and then speak the finish product.

Guess what happens when an introvert shares an idea at a gathering of people. The extrovert pounces on the idea. She starts batting it around like a cat with a ball of yarn. What she doesn’t realize is the introvert hadn’t offered the idea as a rough draft. From an introvert’s perspective, who would be crazy enough to share an idea that hadn’t been completely thought through? The idea he shared was meant to be a finished product. And now an insensitive extrovert is shredding it apart, thinking she’s being helpful.

We’ve all been in this situation before. When teams learn this particular distinction, extroverts start asking things like, “Is this a rough draft or a polished idea?” Introverts also get less offended when an extrovert runs with an idea because they understand that not everyone processes the same way they do.

Another difference between introverts and extroverts is what tends to stimulate them. Extroverts tend to get energy from people; introverts tend to get energy from being alone. Since people are energizing to extroverts, they prefer to be spontaneous in their interactions with people. An extrovert can be like a golden retriever, fun to have around and happy to bounce from person to person. He’ll still get the “work” of the social function done, whether it’s talking about the annual fund or soliciting a major gift, he’ll just do it in a more “free-form” style.

Introverts can also be very social but they like to know where they fit or what their specific role is. Whether they verbalize it or not, they tend to want to know things like “Am I doing registration?” or “Am I supposed to talk to these six people?” Having specific, well defined roles for social functions helps introverts feel less drained.

This can be incredibly important when dealing with donors. For example, in one place I worked, my two superiors were more introverted. I’m off-the-chart extroverted but, unfortunately, I didn’t know the full impact of these distinctions at the time. I started holding alumni cultivation events in brew pubs and other informal settings. These fit my personality so I thought they must be good for everyone. And the alumni seemed to have a blast. But my superiors found these events very draining. Now I know that I should have given them an outline of the event’s purpose, participants, and their intended role. Both of them were great with people, but in a manner that’s different from mine. I should have also mixed these informal events with more formal ones, like a sit down dinner. We would have more effectively served the alumni too. My guess is that the more introverted folks didn’t come to the brew pubs for the same reasons my supervisors stopped going.

Generalist and Specialist

According to the research done by the Highland Company, about 75 percent of the population is composed of “generalists”; “specialists” make up the remaining 25 percent. When you ask a generalist what they do, they tend to tell you in terms of what their organization does, “Well, we help feed kids in central Africa.” A specialist answering the same question will say, “I make sure that donors are cultivated appropriately and stewarded well.” They describe their specific duties.

A generalist is like a casserole—all the ingredients are blended together to form an end product. Most of the specific ingredients are not distinguishable in the final product. A specialist is like a Waldorf salad. All the ingredients are separately definable—the lettuce, the walnuts, the apple slices, etc. And each of these separate elements make a distinct end product without losing their distinctiveness.

If generalists are a mile wide and an inch deep, specialists are an inch wide and a mile deep. So if you’ve asked the donor prospect, “What do you do?” and they answer in terms of their specific duties, you know you’re probably talking to a specialist. They may not know about a lot of things, but what they know they know very well. So focus the conversation on areas that will let the specialist showcase their individualized knowledge. (Specialists love showing off what they know. That’s why I’ve written this book!)

Knowing whether your prospect is a generalist or a specialist can also help you determine how much detail to give about your organization. Specialists will probably prefer to get to know one aspect of your organization in great detail. Generalists will tend to be inspired by a broad overview. This in turn will help you create the most effective solicitation strategy. Specialists will probably prefer to be very specific and strategic in their gifts, generalists will probably be more comfortable with fewer restrictions.

Classification and Concept Organization

Two more talents identified by the Highlands are classification and concept organization. High classification people are those who tend to love chaos and flying by the seat of their pants. They can walk into a situation and immediately spot the problems. Low classification people tend to need some more structure. They need to do some analysis before pointing out where the problems may be. People high in concept organization are able to organize everything in their head. People lower in concept organization tend to rely on planners and filing cabinets. They need lots of props to help them organize their concepts. Both classification and concept organization are crucial in asking for money.

If you’re high in classification, you can almost instantly zoom in on what’s important when talking with a potential donor. If you’re not, then you need to form a process through which to work in order to ease in and find out what the person’s hot buttons are.

The higher you are in concept organization, the easier it is for you to make things quickly understandable to others. The lower you are in concept organization, the more time it will take. You’ll probably take much more time preparing your story before going into a solicitation. You may need pictures of the children in Africa or pictures of the buildings you want to construct in order to begin the process.

This knowledge can also come in handy when you are making solicitations. For example, if your prospect is high in classification, you’ll need to be able to move through your presentation quickly. They will rapidly grasp the ideas you’re presenting. So don’t bore them, keep moving at an appropriate pace. But if you’re too fast with a person lower in classification, you’ll risk sounding like a con artist. That’s never an effective way to ethically raise money!

What if your potential donor is low in concept organization? Whether you yourself are high or low, it will be important to have the props and pictures, even if you don’t personally need them. If they’re higher in concept organization, you’ll probably find yourself needing to stick less rigidly to your outline.

Verbal and Tonal memory

Lastly, let’s look at verbal memory and tonal memory. The Highlands defines verbal memory as the ability to take in written information. If you’re low in verbal memory, reading to remember will take more time. Tonal memory is defined as your ability to take in information through what you hear. These are the only two learning channels schools focus on. The Highlands identifies three more: design memory, rhythm memory, and number memory. But let’s stick with the two we are most familiar with, verbal and tonal.

If you’re high in tonal memory, you can take in information without taking notes. My sister is high in tonal memory. She used to knit in her college physics classes! She said the knitting helped her focus and listen better than note taking did!

Think about your fundraising appeals. Letters and brochures are great for people high in verbal memory. They read them and remember what they’ve read. But what about your donors high in tonal memory? Your well-crafted letters just don’t work for them. Perhaps coming to an in-person event with speakers would be a better fit. Or maybe a monthly audio recording (CD or podcast) from your CEO would be appropriate.

We’ve only looked at a few of the more than 15 talents the Highlands identifies. By now you may be asking yourself, “This was supposed to make it easier for me to ask for money?!” I believe it will. Although we tend to act otherwise, we’re all quite different. As fundraisers we need to pay attention to these differences. With the R.E.A.L. process, you’ve got the tools you need already to be an effective fundraiser, even without the content in this chapter. Knowing about D.I.S.C. and natural abilities will help you become incredibly effective, both in asking for money and in growing long-term relationships with people that love your organization!


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