Your work matters. But if you work in philanthropy, the truth is: Everyone’s work matters. So it’s no surprise that philanthropy is a noisy sector.

This is a problem when it comes to finding partners. Nonprofits want to partner with funders for financial support; funders want the same from nonprofits (and sometimes other funders also). Nonprofits, foundations, individuals, corporations – everyone struggles with finding and approaching potential partners well.

After being a part of many of these conversations, I’ve learned that there is a trick. Here it is: listen, inspire, ask, explain. In that order.

Drowning a person in information is not an effective strategy for gaining their attention. Yet, everyone does it. Organizations push out information, hoping that something will stick. When a potential partner receives email after email with information that isn’t relevant to them or doesn’t inspire them, they lose interest. (Anyone who has cancelled an email subscription knows this feeling!)

Be a listener. If you want to engage with a future partner, see what they are saying about themselves online. Check their website, their bios, their social media. If you have the opportunity for a call, listen to them. Ask questions: What gets you excited? What do you see for the future? And the toughest challenge of all: Resist the urge to tell them all about yourself. (Don’t worry, this comes later!)

Now that you’re starting to understand who they are, find the common ground. Where do your missions, passions and interests align? You are looking for sparks – opportunities where you can accomplish something together that you could not accomplish alone.

When you next talk with your potential partner, inspire them with your spark ideas. Share the vision of what could be and how you could work together to make it happen. Like a real spark, be bright and brief.

In this next step, you are making an ask, but it is NOT an ask for money or partnership. Instead, you’re going to ask them if they want to learn more.

If they say yes, you are well on your way to starting an exchange of ideas, concerns and information that will help you learn more about each other. And that exchange may lead to the decision to become partners.

If they say no, you must respect the answer. You can ask questions to help understand why it is a no. Listen, learn more, and look for other sparks.

If you have arrived here, now is your moment to talk about yourself! Or more specifically, the spark that you both wanted to talk about.

Did they ask a question? Start there. Unpack information slowly. The key to good explaining is to see it as part of a conversation. You share, they share. It’s iterative and on a timeline that you both agree to. It respects that you’ve taken the time to find and nurture a spark.

These four steps are not difficult; however, the order is critical. Most people typically approach potential partners in the reverse. They start by talking about themselves, ask a partner to join and bombard them with information. Then they wonder why the conversation doesn’t produce the desired outcome. When you begin with listening, you open yourself to the understanding of what is important to the other person and build the foundation of a true relationship.

This might feel like the right time for us to tell you about ourselves and how we can help facilitate impactful partnership conversations for you. However, we’ll take our own advice instead: We’d love to learn more about you. Care to share with us your toughest philanthropic challenge?