The Foundations Of Relationship Building In Philanthropy With Ben Starling III

TTD 16 | Relationship Building


Relationship-building is a vital part of any industry. But it goes to a much deeper extent when talking about philanthropy. Finding donors and asking them to support a cause financially can’t be done with a regular sales pitch. In this episode, Ben Starling III joins Dr. Patty Ann Tublin to discuss the unique adherence to a “family” approach when engaging donors for a lifetime relationship, not just a project. Ben is the Founder and CEO of Southern Philanthropy, where he helps for-profit and nonprofit organizations and philanthropists in their fundraising ventures. Learn all about investing in donors, so they invest back to your cause by tuning in.

Listen to the podcast here


The Foundations Of Relationship Building In Philanthropy With Ben Starling III

We have an exciting guest, but before I give you more information, make sure you like, comment, share and subscribe to this show because you are going to get gems of information from guests, such as the one I’m going to introduce to you now. There’s not a lot that I can say about Ben Starling III that he can share with you himself.

Suffice it to say, as somebody that is enthralled with relationships, He is the consonant relationship builder, and he has a special place in the hearts of the philanthropic world. Without any further ado, let me introduce you to our guest, put on your seatbelts because he is going to take us for a ride. Welcome, Ben Starling III.

Thank you, Dr. Patty. My mother and father would be very impressed with that introduction. My brother and sister would question what you were reading, but my parents would be impressed.

As for me and as my readers know, I only speak the truth and I speak truth to power. There’s nothing I said that is not true. All of your work is focused on relationships. Help us understand how you got to where you are and you can start at any point in your journey.

That’s a loaded question and probably one that you should not ask me unless you want a long answer to it.

I want a long answer.

I grew up in a small farming community in Southwest Florida called Immokalee. At the time when I was growing up, it had three red lights. My parents owned a flower and gift shop that they sold. My upbringing, they had it for over 50 years, was in and around the hospitality industry. When people had a baby, when they had someone die, anniversary, Valentine’s day, Mother’s Day, a bad day and you name it. They came to my parents.

Growing up in that industry, my brother, sister and I learned several things. 1) We learned entrepreneurship. 2) Relationships. We learned sales. We also learn the art of listening because when someone comes in and they are crying and they need to get out of the doghouse with their wife because they have done something.

Everybody’s got a story and everybody wants to be heard. The same as when people would come in and they lost a loved one, and they would need to order flowers for the funeral. We would console a lot of families. A lot of people may think, “A flower shop, what’s that have to do with relationships?” Unless the old one, worked in one, dealt with people, the emotion that goes along with so many of these holidays, and so many of these occasions craft who you are, your insight and the way you deal with people. That being said grew up in that environment my parents have made.

There’s a street in Naples, Florida, Immokalee. Is that where you work?

If you go to the end of that road, it will lead you to Immokalee. That road in Immokalee is known as the Naples Road, because it ends up in Naples. No one ever calls it Immokalee Road in Immokalee. We call it Naples Road. If you have ever wondered what Immokalee is, Seminole meaning my home. I don’t know if you know that or not.

This is how you know I’m brilliant. I knew it was an Indian name, but I had no idea what it meant. A floral shop makes perfect sense to be on the street of my home. There’s a national florist now that the motto or something, “Say it with flowers.”

One of the national. That was a thing.

You’ve got to get on the donors’ agenda before you’re going to get into yours.

Whatever you have to say, say it with flowers.

Those folks like my parents, whose livelihood was dependent on flowers, we love that motto. We encourage everybody to say it with flowers.

For the readers, this was not a plant. Ben did not share that information with me before the interview. I’m happy to accommodate.

I can say my parents sold the flower shop, so they are out of business now.

This is true for most businesses. You go to school, you get a formal education, but you learn the art of relationships by watching your parents.

Absolutely. I believe in hands-on education and on-the-job training. A textbook can only teach you so much. When I was a sophomore in college, I had to get a job. I had to work. I went to work at a fundraising PR firm, and the education that I received there, I hate to say it’s far superior, but it was far more helpful, in terms of my career than what I learned out of a textbook.

A textbook can only teach you so much, and we all know, textbooks are written from a perfect world scenario and best scenario. I think everyone will agree that life is not always the best scenario, and oftentimes it’s the worst-case scenario, and you have learned the most when things are absolutely disastrous.

You also learn the most about yourself.

You learn from others. If you want to see what someone’s temperament is, watch them untangle Christmas lights.

Where did you go to college and what did you study? You are right. There’s the knowledge here and there’s the knowledge job?

I came to school in West Palm Beach, Palm Beach Atlantic University, and I have never left. I majored in Business. That’s how I got to the East Coast. I came over here and never left. My father thought I should have gone to law school, and so I started a pre-law type of course of study. Further, I got into that, I thought I was not a great test-taker, and so I started studying for the LSAT and I realized, “There’s no way I pass the LSAT to get into any law school,” but it worked out as well. By my sophomore year, I started working at the fundraising PR firm, and it was such a natural fit there. I realized that people could get paid for doing what they thoroughly enjoyed and what came naturally for them, and the rest is history.

You are such a people person. Whether it’s designed that way or not, the way it operates is so adversarial that it would have been a slow death for you to be in the law profession. PR and relationships got your name written all over it.

I went to see a donor one time and they were up in Pennsylvania and they did car batteries. I went through the factory and I saw the people standing in one place all day long doing the same thing, and it was loud in there. There was no conversation between the people at their stations. I thought to myself, “I would go crazy if I had to do that.”

TTD 16 | Relationship Building
Relationship Building: You want to have a conversation that’s important to them so at the end of that conversation, they’re going to say, “What’s important to you? What do you do?”


One of the reasons I gravitated to fundraising and PR is the fact that you get paid to talk to people. You get paid to interact and to go out to lunch. You get paid to sit there and talk to people who have accomplished great things and listen to their stories. On some level, I probably should have been a social worker because I love to hear people’s stories of how they got to where they are. Maybe that’s more of a psychologist. I don’t know, but I’m fascinated by people’s stories.

I think you are in the exact right field because you are a human interest expert. That’s what you do. You mentioned the word donor. I don’t think people know what you do.

My career has been spent in the fundraising arena, philanthropy, advancement development. Simply put, I was paid to ask people for money for charities. Some people call it by various names. I’m keeping it clean here. My career has been one that has started with very small nonprofits, to very large organizations, to several billion-dollar nonprofits raising money for great big ventures to start out with some small. One group that I started out with is if I took a check for $1,000, everybody clapped because that was a big amount of money, and then going to work on a campaign goal was $1 billion.

A political campaign?

No. I have done some political fundraising before, but what you find in political fundraising when you are the fundraiser is that when the politician does not vote the way the donor wants them to vote, then they call you and yell at you. Politicians don’t return calls nearly as quickly when they are not out raising money.

Then I became the bad guy and I thought if a nonprofit disappoint someone, that’s okay because they have gotten a tax deduction from the IRS, but I am not going to answer for a politician. I have done that. It’s been quite a ride, but politicians disappoint. I don’t care which politician it is, what side of the aisle politicians disappoint, and they vote for things that their donors disagree with, and I am not the one to answer for that.

This speaks to your integrity. What you are saying is your work is focused on people’s mission is they do what they say they are going to do. If it’s a nonprofit and they want to help fill in the blank, that is what the money goes to. There are character and integrity involved. That pretty much puts politics off the table in every role.

I’m happy to help some behind the scenes. Connect them with the right people, and most of the time, when I’m called on, there’s a politician that’s coming into town. I will host a lunch and invite some people, and then I tell them, “Don’t you ask any of these people for money, but let it be their idea. I’m not going to ask them for money. I’m going to give you an audience to get up, share and cast your vision if you are elected or you continue in office.” I am probably disgruntled is not the right word, but disappointed or disheartened in the way so much politics had gone. I’m still holding out for a real leader that puts the best interest of the American people before party and before special interests. I will do anything for that type of person and, unfortunately, not too many of those people around these days.

We could have a whole other conversation on that, but I will leave that with this part of the conversation with I take what Warren Buffett says, “Never bet against America.” When we need a leader, a la Abe Lincoln, George Washington, they show up. We were having this conversation that we were talking about before we got on about what’s going on in Ukraine with the Russian invasion. Hopefully, Ukraine is an independent country if people are reading this and it went according to plan, but we were commenting on how the leader of Ukraine was not a career politician and how he is leading personifies what leadership is.

He’s on the ground. He did not leave. I was reading the last time that a leader did not try to take asylum when the country was attacked during World War II when they asked Queen Elizabeth to leave and her response was something along the lines of, “My children will not leave without me. I will not leave without the king and the king is not leaving.”

When we think about Queen Elizabeth, we think about World War II and London being bombed. It speaks to the human spirit. We will always stay optimistic. You work with wealthy people and they trust you. You develop a relationship on trust. Take us along that trust journey. Stephen Covey, his dad who wrote The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the son wrote the book Smart Trust and does a lot of work on trust and talks about how it’s a competency. How it’s a skill you can learn. Help us understand how you get people that, quite frankly, wealthy people are always being asked to donate. The people always want something from them. How do you create a trusting relationship where they interest you, not only with their friendship but also with their money?

Several things and I want to talk about it from a two-point perspective. The first perspective is being me, as the fundraiser, as the person. Number one, I make a personal commitment not to ask someone for something unless it is what you would call a natural fit. I never want people to look at me and say, “Here comes, Ben. I wonder what he wants this week. I wonder who he’s representing this week.”

I have never worked for an organization that I would not want my grandmother to give my inheritance to. That number one is key. That ensures that I’m not pitching someone with a product, service, organization or project that does not align with their philanthropic mission. When you self-governed from the beginning, people see that. People interpret that from the perspective of, “This guy is nice and he’s never asked me for anything.”

You learn the most when things are just absolutely disastrous.

It’s like, “I wonder why,” because everyone else in his position won’t leave me alone. They are like alligators snapping at my heels when I’m trying to walk on water there. The other thing that I share with people from the other side of it, from the donor perspective, is like what you said, “Very wealthy people are constantly being asked. They can’t go anywhere without someone surrounding them and wanting something.”

You think to yourself, “These people must get tired of this. In my role in consulting and when I have been employed by organizations to lead, the first thing I do is listen.” I want to find out what’s important to you and what you are passionate about. I often tell people, “You have got to get on their agenda before you are going to get onto yours.”

They said, “What exactly does that mean?” I said, “If you know someone who is interested in yachting and boating and they happen to be a billionaire and they happen to have an interest maybe, sort of, kind of in what you are you are doing or your organization is doing. The first thing I’m going to do is I’m going to talk with him about boating and yachting. I’m not going to go up there with my stump speech, ready to give you five points of why you should support my organization.” I don’t do that because everybody and their brother is doing that. I want to have a conversation that is important to you. At the end of that conversation, they are going to say, “What’s important to you? What do you do?”

It goes back to getting onto their agenda. Nine times out of ten, when someone is in any type of sales, I don’t care if it’s high-end, low-end, or whatever it is. It’s all about pushing your product. Very rarely does someone stop and say, “Tell me what’s important to you.” Do they stop and listen? It’s all about sales. I don’t enjoy it. One of the things that I hate is buying a car. I have hired people to go and buy a car for me because I can’t stand that.

What is that you can’t stand?

I don’t like being sold. I don’t like feeling they are trying to sell me something. That’s what they have been taught is important to other people because that is the sales dynamic. I love this day and time of how some of these dealerships have gone to the flat-rate pricing. Either you pay it or you don’t, but there’s no haggling. Every time I go in there, I feel like I have been hustled. I’m not the best negotiator. That’s why I hire someone to go in there. I would probably pick out the car. I ask them in there to have around the deal.

What you are saying is that you are authentic. You are genuine. You make sure that what you are asking for they are aligned with and what’s important to them, but that you are asking them about boating and yachting, but you are being authentic and genuine. You are being a crazy car salesperson.

I want to know what’s important to them because they have enough people trying to sell them something. I want to build a relationship with them. I want them to know that I’m listening to them and I want them to know that I’m investing in them. People take and take. Some of the loneliest people in this world I have found are also some of the wealthiest and they are surrounded by people, but rarely are they surrounded by true friends.

I enjoy being a true friend. In my line of work, you don’t have to go and ask someone for money when you have invested in them. They know why I’m there and why I’m employed. “Tell me about that project. We can help out on that project,” and then it’s their idea to give. That’s not my idea. That’s their idea.

You were talking about listening, being aligned with them, being genuine. Was there something else in the process?

The aspect of investing back in the donor, from the donor perspective, having someone invest back in you in getting onto their agenda before you start pushing your agenda.

It is true what you say. I know a couple of billionaires, probably not as many as you. I know enough millionaires. The joke is if you have no money and you are crazy or eccentric if you have money. People don’t necessarily speak truth to power or speak truth to wealth. Think about a Michael Jackson are surrounded by superfans.

People will tell them what they want to hear because they want to be on the gravy train. I’m not saying all, but it seemed to be there’s a lot of that. Whereas with me, I have got friends in low places. Do you want to come along? Great. If you don’t, that’s okay too. What’s the timeframe? In sales, they say the lead time, but I know you don’t look at it that way.

TTD 16 | Relationship Building
Relationship Building: There are seven meaningful steps from the point of initial contact to the point of the check being offered—the more zeroes to the check, the longer that can be.


I would tend to think from the time you establish a relationship with someone to the time somebody wants to cut a check, and I don’t think it’s for you. I think it’s for the cause. I suspect that’s a huge differentiator for you. I have met you. You are so likable. By the way, I think you are an introvert, but we will get to that later to make sure people stay with us here. I feel that you are genuine. I get that sense right away, but it still takes time to develop a relationship. What does that look like? Is it a year, two years or a month?

In the fundraising profession, there have been studies that have been done that say from the point of initial contact to the point of a check being offered is seven meaningful steps and touches, the more zeros to the check, the longer that can be. I have met with people before. They already know about the organization and they know I would not bring them. I have some level of history with them and I would not bring them something that was not fully vetted. Then I have had people that enjoy the courting process that it can be years, but people say, “How do you know when to ask?”

You said earlier that you don’t.

If you think about it, in terms of any type of sale, you are throwing out enough red meat that it becomes their idea to give. What you want to think of, number one, I’m not, I’m not selling you something you don’t need. I am connecting you with something that is of interest to you, and I am sharing with you how we are going to do it better than anyone else in the most cost-effective way that changes the world. That’s how I presented, but in any type of sales, at some point, you do have to ask for the sale if it does not come to that.

Two things I picked up on. One, if you have noticed that you have not mentioned the name of one donor. People know that when they give it to you, it’s confidential in whatever format that’s supposed to be. I’m sure that goes a long way, and I don’t think that was just, “I did not happen to mention.” I think people know when we give to you, it’s a sacred trust.

It is very much a sacred trust, and the majority of the time, when you give gifts, that $1 million and above, there’s a price release that’s issued. That’s public information.

Did they give it to you?

I would never be presumptuous enough to say they gave to me. They give to an organization I’m employed by. In my employment, there may have been a conduit to presenting, but I would never utter the words that they gave only because of me. I would not want them to do that. I want them to give their hard-earned money because the mission of the organization resonates with them because so many of the donors that I have worked with are people of great faith, and they will talk about how God has entrusted them with billions of dollars, and they need God’s wisdom and how to give back to create more. I want them to take their cues from God, not from Ben. Ben has been known to make a mistake or two.

I feel like you are reading my mind here because I was thinking about people that have a lot of wealth. We were talking earlier, and we are both believe in capitalism. President Kennedy said, “To whom much is given much as expected.” I do think that people that have reaped the rewards of tremendous success financially do want to give back, and they are looking for a legit cause, so they trust that you are only offering up, not only something that resonates with them but a cause that is honorable of their charity.

I’m going to put you on the spot if you don’t mind. Talk to me about an organization like Wounded Warrior. As far as I know, you had nothing to do with them. For years, my husband and I felt very strongly about it. We thought it was a great organization, went very patriotic, pro-American as you are. I don’t even remember what happened, but then we started to hear and read that the money was not going to be what we thought. What happens in a case like that if a brand gets tainted, can you ever recover from that? Have you ever been in a situation like that?

Thankfully, I have never been actively involved in an organization that has an issue. I did work for an organization one time in years after I left. They had a leader that came in and did not lead in the way that some of the donors thought, and then the leader departed. There have been a lot of organizations that, with the advent of the internet, news, blogs, and that type of thing, things have a tendency to mushroom. The first thing that I always share with people is let’s make sure we know the facts. That’s something very few people bother to do these days on any topic.

Do you mean like due diligence on an organization?

Right. I hear a lot of things, and I want to make sure that what I’m hearing is a fact. The first thing I’m going to do is I’m going to research it. I’m going to study it. I’m going to call somebody that works there or has intimate knowledge of the organization and ask what’s going on. I did hear this. I read that. Is it true? If I find out that it’s not true, which is the case sometimes, I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that someone knows that what they are saying is inaccurate and correct it because the more someone repeats something, it hurts the charity and the mission. If I go in there and I find that what they are saying is correct, and there has been some type of mismanagement, what I generally look for is, “Is this intentional or accidental?”

You don’t have to go and ask someone for money when you’ve invested in them.

If it’s intentional, you can generally be certain that the IRS, at some point, will get to the bottom of it. That will take care of itself. If it is accidental, that’s another thing. I had seen situations before where things were paid for by a nonprofit that they did not understand that maybe it should not have been paid for, or it was a legitimate expense, but they did not stop and take into account how that would look.

The concept of perception.

There was an organization one time that it became known that they had paid for first-class airline tickets for a celebrity to come in and speak. What happened was it got out that, “The charity pays for first-class airline tickets for people. You don’t want to support an organization that pays for first-class airline tickets.”

The other half of the story that did not get repeated was, “The celebrity had waived their speaking fee in exchange for a weekend at the five-star hotel in Palm Beach and two first-class airline tickets,” which was a phenomenal deal for the charity. However, when that got booked, one of the questions that the IRS has was, “Does anyone in your organization fly first-class?” That’s a question that the IRS asks of nonprofits and it got reported as such.

Is that information confidential? How would that get leaked?

If you are a nonprofit organization, you are required to file your tax returns and it is a public record. You can go online to Any nonprofit, you can key in their name will come up. You can see their tax return. It will show you who the highest-paid, top five employees are, who are their top five highest-paid vendors. It shows you how much money they have raised and have spent. It’s all in there.

One of the questions is, “Does anyone in your organization fly a first-class?” I look at it from the perspective of they made the right decision to buy two first-class airline tickets and put them up at a five-star hotel. How I would have done that differently is I would have estimated the cost of those tickets and that we can give some invoice with a speaking agreement for that price instead of picking up a tab on that. No one would have questioned a speaking fee. That’s what I would call an accidental problem, not an intentional problem.

How does an organization do damage control with that? That’s a great example. People read the headlines or they read the tweets.

That will be picked up as a headline. What I find is people don’t read the story and someone is going to use that as clickbait to tell that story. A few people are going to read that, and it will be shared and forwarded to millions of people because of the headline and the headline alone. That being said, the first thing an organization has to do, they have to own it. They have to accept it and say, “Yes. This is what we did and this is why we did it.” I think it was during Watergate that they said the coverup was worse than the crime. One of the worst things that can happen is you try and cover something up that it’s public record and finances of nonprofits are public record.

It’s interesting that you are saying that because one of the things about an organization that has trust is the closest to the incident where there was something that was a breach of trust happens, the closer to the incident, the higher the level of trust in that organization. Not that you can get ahead of it because it’s already out, but as soon as it comes out, you immediately address it and you think of organizations when something happens, they take responsibility. They recall a product, whether they need to or not, and then others brush it under the rug. You either pay now or you pay later.

What happens with donors? Everyone that’s been in fundraising for any length of time has raised money for a project, and then you get into it and realize maybe the project is not exactly what you needed or there has been a shift, and you need to change course. What you don’t want to do is to have the donor hear from a third party. “That building that you donated, they are not building the building anymore.”

You don’t want to be on the receiving end of a phone call from the donor saying, “What have you done with my money? I heard you are not building that building. Where’s my money?” You better get out in front of that before it’s announced to anyone that you are not building the building, you better sit down with the people that have donated for it, to it, included it, wherever they fall on this spectrum. Share with them, “This is why we need to make the change and this is how we would like to use the funds that you donated or to have it redirected for the greater good.”

I rarely have I had an instance when I have sat down with someone and explained it in that manner that they have said, “That makes sense. Yes. Use it towards that,” but I have seen instances where organizations did not get out in front of it, and you have donors that are calling. It’s better you be on offense to explain something and then defense and having to defend it.

TTD 16 | Relationship Building
Relationship Building: You want donors to give their hard-earned money because the mission of the organization resonates with them.


That’s not a fun place to be and it does go back to the trust issue. I would like to think that if and when something does go wrong, so many of my donors would call and say, “I have heard this and I know that this can’t be true because you are there, and you would have sounded the alarm if there was no problem.”

That speaks to the trust. Let me go back to what you said about the seven touchpoints. Can you encapsulate each touchpoint?

What I like to say to people is that a relationship asks or a presentation, you can’t condense it and say, “This person is only going to get seven steps, whether they like it or not.” You get some people where relationships don’t come naturally that automatically see the average is seven steps. I have got to plan out the seven steps and if it does not happen according to the seven steps, I’m done. I have done the best I can. I am not that way.

Relationships are so fluid. Full disclosure. I’m not a step person, either. People are like, “Give me your top three.” I’m like, “I don’t know. It’s relationships and its fluid.” That’s what I want to speak of.

I had a boss one time. He’s not on Facebook, so I can share this story. He won’t see it promoted on social media, but we had a very wealthy couple when I was raising money for the largest biomedical researcher in the world. A very wealthy couple presented to us, and they somewhat gravitated to me and me to them and we had some things in common.

They invited me for lunch and my boss was very excited. This was a huge win that they had invited me to lunch and went to lunch. I was gone for almost three hours and I came back. He was arms crossed and it’s like, “What diseases are they interested in?” I said, “I don’t know. We did not talk about that.” “You have been gone for almost three hours. What did you talk about?” I said, “I did not talk about anything. I listened.”

The methodology going that he went out with was what about things was very different. My thing was, “I’m going to listen.” He said, “What did you learn?” I said, “I learned that their grandmother died of breast cancer.” That’s what I learned. I did not have to ask them, “What diseases are you interested in?” If you tell me that your grandmother died at an early age, I’m going to say, “I’m so sorry. Was it an accident? What took grandma so early?” I’m going to ask them open-ended questions that get me to the same place without me coming across as being the type of person that point-blank asked the question. I am not that person to go in and immediately cut to the chase and, “Will you write me a big check?” That’s not me.

You might have a shorter lunch, and you will get your question asked, but you might not come back with the check.

When I work or go to a different organization, if I know the individual does not have an interest in what I am working on now, I’m not going to ask them for money, but I’m going to keep in touch with them. I have had countless people say, “Tell me what you are working on,” and I said, “Research is not your thing. This is not your thing.” “That’s okay, but tell me. I’m interested in what you are doing.”

I have had them write me a check because of the fact that I did not ask them for something because I listened. It’s the relationship. The crazy thing is when you listen, the connections you find when you stop and you listen to people and you let them talk. There’s a rapper called Eminem and I saw him in an interview. I’m not a rap music guy, but he talked about how there’s no word in the English language that rhymes with orange. The more he talked and the more he said other things, he was able to get orange to rhyme with something else, and apparently, in the rap, he’s known as the man who can make things rhyme.

In the fundraising arena, the more you listen, the more you get to things that rhyme. I will give you an example. I was doing some work for an inner-city youth program, and there was a particular philanthropist in the area who happened to be throwing around a lot of money, and his bent was the art. He had no interest, had never given to an inner-city youth program before.

This group had given up and said, “We would love to have some of their millions, but we are not an arts program.” I said, “You are not an arts program yet, but you will agree that your inner-city programs to help the kids learn can benefit from some arts education to help channel those that are not college-bound to express art and that type of thing.”

I said, “You will also agree that your kids could benefit from being exposed to the arts at our local theater. That becomes your rhyme with this particular philanthropist because you are now speaking their language. You are taking your program and you were rhyming it with their philanthropy.” It’s much the same way. Pushing your agenda would be going to them with this inner-city program and saying, “Will you give us $1 million for it?” Getting onto their agenda is you have made a commitment to the arts.

We all agree on the 80% that we want a better education system, better roads, lower taxes. We want to take care of poor people. But what we disagree on is that 20% and how to get there.

I have got a segment in a demographic of people here that need the arts in order to become all that they can be. Here’s how we can work together to further your expansion and awareness of arts into all facets of the community. That speak their language. That’s rhyming with their philanthropy. That’s getting on their agenda. I like to think I pride myself on that and that’s key.

You make the connection beyond the first degree. It’s not the obvious connection, but these kids could become future artists or will support future artists. It’s interesting what you are saying about listening because people ask me all the time, “What’s the most important skillset for developing healthy relationships in all areas of our life?” The answer is always communication, but it’s the aspect of communication that’s active listening.

Listening is actively present and engaged. What you are describing is when I tell people the active listening pieces and you are only asking questions from a place of curiosity. Tell me more. Let me understand because we usually listen to either have the person hurry up and finish what they are saying. We can say what we want to say, we want to sound smart or we want to prove them wrong.

It’s a very different experience. When you have the experience of someone listening to you, genuinely as you do with potential donors, it resonates and it creates a connection, and that connection is your genius. They say, “Nobody will care about how much you know until they know how much you care,” and that’s what you had to teach a boss.

I love talking with people. I love to find out what they believe, who they vote for. I thoroughly enjoy that and one of the things that so often and I think this is so indicative of this world is that number one, we cannot agree to disagree. We are unable to be adults and to have a conversation and disagree, but yet, we still love one another, and we are unable to talk to find our similarities.

I have worked with people, politicians at the highest levels on both sides of the aisle, and what I find is we all agree on about 80%. We all agree on 100% that we want a better education system, better roads, lower taxes and want to take care of the poor. We all 100% agree on those things, but we disagree on is that 20% and how to get there. Often what happens, we so focused on that 20% that we say, “If we don’t agree 100% all of this, we are throwing it all out.”

The word what I say is, “We forgotten how to agree to disagree respectfully.” I don’t know the exact stats, but Supreme Court decisions, 90% of them are unanimous. I remember hearing that saying, “It’s because we only hear what we disagree with,” and social media has played a big role in that. I want to ask you a question. Would you be willing to share a story of how a relationship went off the rails and how you brought it back? You are making this sound so easy. This is not easy, the work that you do. You are a master at developing relationships, and part of that mastery is when it goes awry and brings it back in.

I can tell you about a situation one time where it was a very prickly donor that felt they were not getting enough attention for their donation. I made it known and also, I made it known that they would take their future support elsewhere unless they got some more love.

See how Ben is so politically correct. What a great choice of words.

This person was a well-known philanthropist and she came out of a very social type background where there was a lot of applause, fireworks and hurrah around her donations. She gave out a lot of gifts that started at $1 million and went up. When people saw her walk into a room and an entourage surrounded her.

The generosity was acknowledged.

It was acknowledged and people understood that was what she wanted.

Name that change to protect the innocent.

TTD 16 | Relationship Building
Relationship Building: The crazy thing is the connections you find when you stop and listen to people and just let them talk.


She also let it be known that not only would her donation cease, but she would also remove the organization out of her will. This had the potential to be a transformational gift upon her death. We immediately scrambled, and what was put together was we had an event coming up and it was near her birthday. We decided to turn this event into a surprise birthday party for her, with her favorite food, flowers, music, friends and anything. We made sure that there were some ads were taken out in the right publications to feature photos from this event. It worked and it worked well. All was forgiven. That’s one of those things where on her part, it became, “You all did not need to do this.”

Think nothing of it.

We wanted to. It worked out and let me say this particular donor was somewhat estranged from the family. The organizations have become family. Sometimes you never know what someone’s background is and what their relationship is with the family and otherwise. Oftentimes in a philanthropic relationship, it becomes very familial and the void of a family is filled by the philanthropic family. It’s important to pay attention to those cues and to understand someone.

Things like birthdays, anniversaries and Valentine’s day. Do they have anybody that’s going to remember them? Who’s going to celebrate them on these special days? My way of thinking is if they are important to the organization, they are worthy of flowers, lunch on Valentine’s day, birthdays, and a birthday party and that sort of thing. I have a birthday that is close to Christmas. I like to say that I was scarred from birth being overlooked on my birthday. That is one thing that I send out somebody’s birthday cards.

What’s your birth date?

December 19th.

It’s very close. Do you want one big present?

I tell people all the time, “Unless you are buying me a Rolex watch, you are not combining Christmas birthday because your birthday’s in July and I don’t say, ‘Here’s birthday and Christmas together.’ You don’t get that,” but that being said, that has made me very attuned to people that are overlooked on their birthdays.

When people are like, “I don’t like to celebrate my birthday.” That stems from some disappointment where they were not celebrated. Your birthday is one time a year when everyone should celebrate you whether you want to be celebrated or not. One thing that I absolutely love doing for others is to have a little birthday party for them. Get 5 or 6 of their friends together at a table and party hats, balloons and you all surprise, and a cake to come out with full of candles. People make a mistake. They ever tell me how old they are. I will put that many candles on your birthday cake because that was a big thing with me.

A woman will never do that by mistake. If a woman tells you her age, she’s doing it.

When that happens, I will get a 2 and a 9, a 29, and I will have 29 candles on there and we will clap and applaud and wish them a happy 29th birthday. They love that.

Twenty-nine again. You touched on two things that I think are important too with relationships and your type of work. You were talking about people that are estranged from their families, and it could be the curse of having a lot of money and no matter how much you have, sometimes you still fight. Money is not an interesting energy driver. I will put it that way.

I see that because I work with family businesses where relationships go awry and sometimes it’s about the money, sometimes it’s about the alignment ships and who trusts to and who does not trust to. That’s why they say it takes three generations for a family business to be wiped out. We could talk about that forever. I think what you mentioned is important that after the donation, it sounds like it’s still very important to keep the relationship. It’s not like you cash the check and you are gone. Speak a little bit about that.

If you want to know what it takes for a billionaire to support your organization, the best thing you better do is go and ask a billionaire.

Unfortunately, there are many in my profession that would say, “They have already donated. I have got to move on and focus on someone else.” My way of thinking, I was mentored by some incredible fundraising professionals who taught me and introduced me to a number of the two dozen billionaires that I have worked with.

Give them a shout-out. Is it all confidential?

I will tell you about one of the billionaires because that is one that taught me fundraising from the donor perspective. That was Rich DeVos, founder of Amway. He took me under his wing and was always so gracious to share his perspective. “Ben, I think you want to go and see this one, and this is what you need to talk with them about. This is how you need to say it. I think your pitches are wrong on this. Here’s how I would do it. This is what resonates with me.” I never heard him refer to himself as a billionaire and if it was ever on his introduction for something, scratch through that. A very humble person. What he would talk about is from the perspective of, “Is this project sustainable and long-term? How is it going to change the world?”

Those are the things that a textbook won’t tell you. It’s one thing to learn fundraising from a peer. It’s a whole other perspective to learn fundraising from the philanthropist to say, “From my mind, not the textbook, not your colleague that does not have any money. From the mind of my self-made billions of dollars, this is what I am looking for in a philanthropic opportunity.” That’s invaluable.

That would be akin to I’m a Ferrari salesman and me learning how to sell Ferraris from someone that would never be able to afford a Ferrari. What’s the point? To learn from someone who is a Ferrari buyer, this is what I look for when I’m considering a Ferrari or a Ferrari-level vehicle. That’s invaluable. I think we so often overlook going to the horse’s mouth to learn. A lot of people are intimidated by that, but a lot of people also want to take the path of least resistance. “I will get a book and I will read it.”

You think of it from somewhat of an elementary level where someone might go and get a cookbook because they want to learn how to cook, but yet they would not go and ask their grandmother who may not have finished school but raised eight kids and had a hot meal on the table 2 times a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks out of the year. That may not be able to read a complicated recipe, but this woman has cooked and has cooking secrets that more than likely will go to her grave with her because no one is bothered to listen, but yet don’t buy a cookbook. I am a believer in going to the right person and asking their opinion. I saw a meme not too long ago and I saved it on my phone.

Lamborghini was asked, “Why don’t you advertise it on TV?” The response was, “It’s because Lamborghini buyers don’t sit around watching TV.” If you want to know what it takes for a billionaire to support your organization, the best thing you better do is go and ask a billionaire. Don’t ask somebody that does not have $1 billion.

Rich DeVos used to give me this advice. It is so basic, but this was so much Rich DeVos who made his money, convincing people to buy this new method of vitamins door to door in direct sales, and he would say, “If you need to raise big money, don’t spend time talking to people that don’t have big money.” That’s what it goes back to. That night that we met down in and at Paul’s party, there was a man there by the name of Eric Carnevale.

I met Eric via John Maxwell a number of years ago, and he and I kept in touch. When he used to live up in Maryland, he sold high-end home theaters. During the time when I was working on a project in DC, I would see Eric and we would get together for breakfast every time I was in town. He said, “I’m exhausted. I’m going to all these networking events. I’m going to this and to that.”

I said, “That’s a wonderful thing. If your goal is to sell these high-end home entertainment theaters, how many of the people at the local Chamber of Commerce meeting or your BNI group can afford that? How many of your potential buyers are there?” “None.” I said, “You would be better off getting a membership at the country club and going and hanging out at the country club every day. You’ve got to go where your buyers are, not the people who hope, wish and pray. Maybe they can buy it many years from now. It does not do me any good.” That was something that Rich DeVos innately understood about the fundraising.

Is this in the pond where you fish? It’s like asking a bankrupt guy. “I went bankrupt three times, but now I know how to teach you to be rich.” I’m like, “No. That’s okay. I will talk to the rich guy. He’ll teach me how to be rich.” I do think a lot of people approach what you are saying and this is any type of sales. “Let me tell you what I can do for you and want to sell,” you as opposed to, “What are you interested in? What are you looking for? What do you need or want?” It’s brilliant to have had a mentor like that.

It’s incredible. I share with people and I often use an example because people can understand this. If you are a car salesman and somebody comes into the Chevrolet dealership and they are middle-aged with a potbelly, they are balding and they tell you they are recently divorced, and they are looking to get back out on the field and they are looking at a Corvette or a Camaro, your salesmanship to them is not going to be based on the width of the tire or how well the engine is built.

You give them with a babe magnet.

TTD 16 | Relationship Building
Relationship Building: The more we learn, the more we’re apt to temper our opinions and just love people where they are.


Exactly. “You are going to look so good in the top-down. You are going to look like Miami Vice here. The women are going to be all over you.” It’s understanding your audience. If the guy comes in and if your job is to sell Corvettes and he comes in and he’s got two kids in tow and said, “My wife sent me in here for a minivan,” you are not going to try and sell him a Corvette. The wife’s going to kill him. “By the way, my wife is waiting out in the car.” There’s not a chance that they are going to buy a Corvette because their marriage is going to end if it does.

I have four children. I have driven every minivan model on the planet. I can remember being in the dealership and having men say, “If it was up to me, I would want a Corvette, but my wife had three kids say, ‘We need the minivan.’”

It’s understanding the audience that you are talking to. It’s also big wise enough to understand I’m not going to talk to the husband about something that does not fit him. He probably can’t afford it with young kids in tow. That’s going to cause a problem in his marriage. Maybe I need to show him what he and his wife have decided they need and let me give them a good price and keep in touch with them. Once these kids are graduated or he’s going through a midlife crisis, they will come in and buy that Corvette from me.

You can go, “They got kids and maybe I can sell them this scotch guarding that they are going to need or the latest minivan with this.” It’s reading the audience and it’s being honest and sincere. Chances are, maybe your commission would be more on a Corvette. However, you can spend all afternoon talking to somebody and he can’t buy that, so you waste your time. Better to jump out and talk about what they expressly told you that they need and sell on that.

Sometimes the best sale I find is no sale. I was telling you early on. I was speaking to someone and I said, “Maybe we will do a VIP day.” He goes, “We will do it.” I said, “Wait a minute. Let me see if it’s needed. Let me talk to your business partner.” You play the long game besides you have integrity. I referenced earlier that I believe you are an introvert, but you very much sound like an extrovert. Am I right? How were you in front of people? You love people, but I feel like you are an introvert.

I love people. I love to sit down with people and enjoy a meal and hear their stories. I want to find out where they have traveled. I want to find out who they vote for and why. I don’t care who you vote for. I want you to be able to tell me why and give me good reasons why you believe. I want to find out about your faith and how that faith has changed your life. I want to find out every aspect about you. What makes you sad and happy? When was the last time you cried? What did you cry about?

It was an interview that was done with former President George Herbert Walker Bush and what had written a book in his late wife, Barbara. It was said in there that, “You don’t know a person until you know what breaks their heart.” I think how true in our relationship building. Often I would venture to say the majority of relationships that all of us have, very few of us understand what truly breaks the heart of our friends, acquaintances and business associates. As much as I love talking with people, being out and being surrounded by people, generally, once I get home at night, I can be quiet.

I want it quiet, and there comes a point too when you have been on that you got to shut it down. I used to travel extensively for work. I would be gone for three weeks at a time on the road, a different city every other day by air. It was a grueling schedule, but it was one that I loved for a while. What would happen? I could do this for so long, and then all of a sudden, I would hit a wall. I would come home and I would sit on the sofa in front of the TV for 4 to 5 days and absolutely do nothing. I did not want to hear from anybody.

I think you are regrouping and it’s interesting. You know my husband. He’s much quieter than me. I’m an extrovert. You Google extrovert and my picture is there, and yet I will go to events or conferences and I hit a time, and it’s a different time every day, and I’m done. I have got to go back into my hotel room when it’s over. Sometimes I will come home a day early because I’m done. I will pay the outrageous change fee and I need to regroup.

I think it’s because the connections are so genuine and so real. If you were just phoning it in, it would not be so exhausting, but it takes a lot of energy to care. I have two more questions for you and thank you for being so generous with your time. Here’s the first. What’s the one thing you have learned about life that you want everybody to know?

You have to listen to other people. There’s a new term that people have. It’s like, “What is your truth?” That drives me crazy when people say that because the truth is truth. What I have come to realize, especially from political perspectives and sociological types of perspectives, is we have different views based on how we were raised, the way we were parented, the way society has treated us or how we perceive that society has treated us. What I find is I can be much more forgiving and understanding once I know someone’s point of reference.

I have many friends that I don’t agree with politically, however, they can sit and they can articulate to you why and what they believe in a very intelligent three-point conversation that is brilliant. I might not agree with it, but I can fully respect that because they can tell me why. My head wants to explode when they say, “It’s because I said so.” That drives me crazy, but people have to be heard. I get paid to talk and I get paid to tell people what to do, but one of the things I’m constantly working on is listening to others any and more than listening to hear them.

It’s because you are listening for what’s not being said too, and I do think that’s part of your brilliance.

Understand the audience that you’re talking to.

I try. I have got a very bad habit of trying to diagnose a problem as someone is talking when they have not asked me to diagnose a problem. A couple of years ago, my new year’s resolution was, “I was not going to give advice or weigh in on a matter unless my opinion was solicited.” What I learned was I have a tough time being quiet. That was one thing that I learned because I want to help people. I want to fix it.

What I learned most importantly is that once I had time to reflect on it, think on it, hear someone else’s version of the story and understand the politics or the environmental aspect of things. My opinion changed. It was best that I did not wake in at that time because I was not fully informed. I don’t like to be proven wrong. That’s not me. By me making a point to keep my mouth shut unless somebody asks and to understand that I need to fully understand what the situation is before weighing in on it, that’s key.

I know I said we have one more question, but I will comment on that where sometimes people will only share with us as much as they want to share with us from the perspective and it has nothing to do with you or us as much as it might be very difficult for them to share their vulnerability. Sometimes, maybe the best advice is to be present. Even if we have a hunch, you don’t know. I think they said, “If you don’t like somebody and if you heard their story, you would be much more tolerance because hurt people, hurt people.”

Can I give you an example? I used to work with a lady that every day when she came into work, spilled her coffee on the floor. It filled it up to the brim and it was spilled on the tile in the lobby. I am a big believer. I always had donors coming in that the floors had to be spotless because that’s what people looked at. An organization with a dirty floor, that reflected, and we needed to make sure it was clean.

That being said, it drove me crazy because I would go and I would clean up the coffee stain on the floor every single day because she would spill her coffee. I found out that she had signed up for caring for severely disabled adults during a period of time after a major hurricane where she went down there as part of this respite care team for the severely disabled, and she was changing adult diapers.

From that point forward, I never cared about cleaning up. I never complained about cleaning up the coffee off the floor again because I understood her. I understood that she had capabilities far beyond what I ever would, but she had a gift that I did not have, and to me, that spoke volumes about her heart. She might not have thought much about spilling coffee. She loved and cared for people to a greater degree than I ever could or ever would. If my job was to clean up the coffee that she spilled so that she could go and do these other things, I was happy to clean up the spilled coffee. I never complained about that again.

Did you ever ask her about the spilled coffee before you found that out about her?

She was very much a free spirit and she would come in with her purse, keys and her hands were full. She opened the door to go there and the coffee would somewhat slouch out. It was not a bunch of coffee, but it was enough that it was a lighter-colored tile and people would notice it. I would notice. I think I was the only person that noticed it, but I noticed.

That’s a great story. That is incredible. Sometimes when you hear what people have been through in your life, and then you will understand.

The more we find that the more we learn, the more we are apt to temper our opinions and to love people where they are. I don’t want to say I struggle with that, but I try and do a much better job of accepting people right where they are.

We are all only human. We watch Netflix now, but if you turn on the news, everybody’s yelling.

I still read the newspaper. I read three newspapers a day, but I no longer watch the new shows because that’s all they do. I don’t hear solutions. As far as I’m concerned, when I vote for someone and I’m paying your salary via my taxes, I’m paying you for a solution. I’m not paying you to point out a problem and that’s why I have told people when they come to work for me, I have plenty of people who tell me what the problems are, but I have very few people who tell me what the solution is.

If you meet with a problem, I will give a couple of solutions to go along with it. In my consulting work, when I work with people and I give them a report, they often pay me to come in and point out what the problems are. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a fairly easy thing to do is to point out a problem. Where your value comes in is pointing out a solution, offering a remedy.

You have to listen to other people.

It’s interesting you say that because when I’m coaching executives, I tell them, “When people bring a problem, tell them you want them to bring free solutions, no matter how outrageous,” and it shifts the mindset. Here’s another question. I don’t know if you have been asked this before, but if you could have a conversation with any fundraiser throughout history and people have been raising money from the wealthy since forever, who would you want to have a conversation with and why?

Let me say that I have already had conversations with the people that have made the difference because Jerry Panas, who is known as the international fundraising guru that has raised billions of dollars, the biggest campaign in the world, Jerry’s firm did those. He hired me to travel with him and work with him on a couple of large projects.

Spending time with Jerry when he called, he said, “I would like to go over with you, but what I’m going to pay for this?” What I did not tell Jerry was, “I would not have cared if you said the pay was $1. I would have cared if you said, ‘You got to pay your own expenses, and you have got to pay me.’” For the experience to be able to say that I had worked with Jerry Panas, that was huge.

What was one golden nugget you took away from your time with Jerry? I’m sure you could write a book about it.

To listen to people. I watched Jerry when he went in with the heads of these nonprofits, as well as the trustees and the top donors. He did what basically Larry King did in his interviews. He asked open-ended questions and you let him talk. There were so many people that they wanted to be heard. They thought that their opinion was the right opinion, and a lot of times it was, but he let them vent and they thought Jerry was brilliant because Jerry listened to everything they said.

From the fundraising side, it was Jerry Panas. From the entrepreneurial business side or philanthropist side, it was Rich DeVos. Rich DeVos was an incredible friend and mentor. We spent many hours, meals, trips and everything with Rich DeVos and his wife, Helen. There are a number of people that I greatly respect in the profession. I feel that I have been to the mountaintop and I have had the best in those two.

How can people learn more about you? They want to find out more about Ben and perhaps find out what caused you. You are looking to develop a relationship with.

If they like to go to our website, there are a number of blog postings on there that are applicable not only to the fundraising profession but to relationship building. If they sign up for my mailing list, they will get twenty key tips for networking and people have found those things very helpful.

I try and produce content on there that is relevant in any type of relationship building and it’s not based on high in the sky or on theory. Everything that’s in there is based on actual case scenarios that my colleagues and I have encountered where we say that it’s common sense. We teach people how to work smarter, not work harder.

If I were you reading this, I would run and not walk to sign up for anything that Ben has given because tips are regardless of your business. It’s all about building relationships. That concludes. Thank you so much, Ben. This is the episode for restoring trust and enriching significant relationships. As I promised, Ben took you for a ride. Make sure you like, comment, share and subscribe to this show. Ben, this was so awesome. I can’t thank you enough.

It’s my pleasure. I’m honored to be on your show, Dr. Patty.


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About Ben Starling III

TTD 16 | Relationship BuildingCoupling family teachings of tithing and sacrificial giving with solid mentorship from three giants (Richard DeVos, Dr. Arthur E. Turner, and Frank Wright), Ben developed a fundraising philosophy steeped in hospitality and relationships.

Throughout his career with Northwood University, Ben’s oversight of the Outstanding Business Leader Association recognized Fortune 500 CEOs for their contributions to the free enterprise system. His stewardship engaged honorees to core curriculums and regional campuses raising support totaling in the tens of millions. Northwood founder Dr. Arthur E. Turner considered Ben a trusted friend and colleague.

In 2007, the state of Florida’s premier partnership with The Scripps Research Institute broke ground in Palm Beach County. Before the close of the year, Ben was invited to serve as director of philanthropy where his tenure realized the largest cash gift to the Scripps Florida campus and the largest single gift to Scripps’ graduate education program. Scripps remains the world’s foremost biomedical research organization.

With a call from a philanthropist friend, Ben was introduced to the Museum of the Bible. Hobby Lobby’s Green family took a cutting-edge idea and built a museum in Washington, D.C., dedicated to the book that changed the world: the Bible. This billion-dollar endeavor allowed Ben to serve as a major gift officer and consequently step in as interim leader of the development office during a transitionary period. A milestone achievement in Ben’s career was seeing the completion of the museum late in 2017.

Ben’s founding of Southern Philanthropy in 2015 was the result of a decade of calls and inquiries requesting guidance from fundraisers and philanthropists.

The greatest compliment Ben ever received was answering a call from the late, famed, international fundraising expert Jerold Panas. He asked Ben to consider helping with two client projects — the Armenian Missionary Association of America and The Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute. Ben was able to travel with Jerry during the process, and they remained dear friends until Jerry’s death in 2018. Ben continues to follow his teachings, serving clients to maximize funding and promoting worthy philanthropic missions.

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