Listening to Donors

Posted on 06/01/2024

Are you a good listener? Effective fundraisers need to be. Listening helps you learn about a donor’s (or a prospective donor’s) history with your institution, their personal passions, and their philanthropic motivations. Strong listening skills can also build rapport with donors and increase your credibility during meetings, by demonstrating that you are engaged with the conversation. When you listen well, you’ll be better able to align a prospect’s individual interests with your institution’s specific needs and priorities.

But listening is not a passive activity. There is an important difference between hearing what your donors are saying and actively listening to them. Active listening involves being proactive and deliberate about what you say and what you do. Here are four ways to do just that:

  1. Ask open-ended questions. These will force your prospects to think, help them participate more in the conversation, and uncover a deeper understanding of their connection to your institution and their interests. Use follow-up questions that start with phrases like “Tell me about that…” or “How so?” to peel back the layers.
  2. Use body language that demonstrates listening. Making eye contact, nodding your head, and leaning forward are all expressions of interest. Mirroring the prospect’s pace of speech and even tone of voice can also help them feel more comfortable during the conversation.
  3. Restate what you have heard. Repeating what you have heard shows that you are actually listening and gives the prospect an opportunity to clarify and correct a point, if necessary. Employing phrases such as “What I’m hearing you say…” or “It sounds like…” can help you better translate their feelings into concrete opportunities or delve deeper into a particular topic.
  4. Limit your own speaking to 25 percent of the conversation. Talking too much prevents you from gaining insight into your prospect. Whether you are naturally extroverted or just feeling nervous, resist the urge to fill lulls in conversation with words. Remember that the meeting is not about you—it’s about the prospect.

Listening is hard work. Whether you are a seasoned fundraiser or someone new to the profession, it takes effort to keep donors talking and to avoid filling awkward silences. By focusing more on what your prospect is saying, you’ll be better able to match their interests and desires with your institution’s needs and plans. So set your agenda aside and open your ears—you’ll be well on your way to a stronger and more productive donor relationship.

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