Are You Listening?

Most people think fundraisers love to talk. That is an understatement, we do love to talk!! However, the most successful development professionals are truly the best listeners. Listening skills typically do not appear on resumes nor are they asked about in interviews but effective listening in fundraising is crucial for a Development Director or Officer.  

Effective listening skills build strong relationships with donors. Listening for what the donor's interests, motivations, needs, and concerns are even more important than being able to explain the organization's case.

I remember visiting an Engineering alum early in my career. I know my colleagues in the College of Engineering hoped for a significant gift from this alum. As he began to tell me about his time at NC State University, it was clear he appreciated his engineering degree, but his heart and passion was with the marching band. He voluntarily played for the NCSU band all four years and he happily told me the experience changed his life. But he remembered wearing the very old, over-dry cleaned and hot uniforms and so he wished he could have provided new uniforms. I came back to Raleigh and informed my engineering colleagues that he was not interested in making a significant gift (he did support their annual fund) but wanted to connect with the new band director to see what he could do. I helped him establish this relationship and by listening it made our relationship stronger.  

I have also had donors tell me, please do not arrange any more visits with a certain development staff member. The sole reason is that they talked more about themselves and did not seem genuinely interested in their interests and just delivered the organization’s sales pitch. We, as development professionals, need to recognize the donor’s story is just as important as the organization’s story. Acknowledging this will only increase their support of your organization.  

How to Improve Your Listening Skills: LISTEN

L: Learn about your donor: Research and understand your donor’s history and interests before the meeting.

I: Initiate open-ended questions: Initiate a dialogue rather than a monologue. Ask questions that allow your donor to share their story, their motivations, and their giving goals. For example, “What motivated you to support our cause”?

S: Show engagement: Pay attention to both verbal and non-verbal cues and give your full attention to the donor. Avoid interrupting. Show that you value the donor’s input by actively listening and responding thoughtfully.

T: Thwart assumptions: Do not assume you know what the donor wants. Clarify and confirm their interests. (Note, the engineering example.)

E: Enhance your communication: Personalize your follow-up note to reflect the conversation and express genuine appreciation and understanding of what their interests are in your organization. Refer to your notes in future conversations to show that you listened and remember previous discussions.

N: Note and document: After donor meetings, document and reflect on what you heard, what went well and what could be improved. Documenting what you heard will help personalize future solicitations.  

By neglecting these key aspects of effective listening, fundraisers risk alienating potential donors and losing out on significant contributions.  

When a fundraiser listens attentively, asks insightful questions, and demonstrates a genuine interest in the donor’s goals (not yours), it is much more likely to lead to a successful major gift.

So, when you are hiring your next development professional, during the interview, observe if they use active listening such as nodding, maintaining eye contact, and not interrupting. Especially notice, if they summarize or paraphrase questions before answering, showing they understood correctly. You can then check the “listening” skill box.  

If you make listening and observation your occupation, you will gain much more than you can by talk." --Robert Baden-Powell (founder of the Boy Scouts)

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