The Why and How of Listening to Your Donors

“The deepest yearning of human nature is the craving to be appreciated,” said Og Mandino, the man some call “the greatest salesman in the world” (and author of a book by that name).

Dale Carnegie shared this same principle in his book “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” where he suggests we should always give honest, sincere appreciation.

It is important that you have donor recognition and relations policies in place so donors know they are valued. The top way to assure donors they are appreciated is really quite simple: Take the time to listen to them.

We once worked with a CEO who was so self-absorbed, his close board members and senior staff shared in exasperation, “He doesn’t listen.”

Even his donors began to echo this sentiment. Unfortunately, not even several board-imposed coaches could change him. People know if you are listening and recognize when you are sincere.

Successful fundraising is dependent on developing deeper, more meaningful relationships with your donors. And the key to a strong relationship is listening.

To be a good listener, you need to be good at asking questions to prompt conversation. Ask them open-ended, probing questions such as:

  • What are their values?
  • What made them successful?
  • Why did they first support and continue to support your organization?
  • What programs most resonate and why?
  • How can you and your organization improve?

And, when appropriate, ask donors who they know who might share their passion for your mission — and, by all means, ask them for a gift!

Here are five ways you can listen to your donors.

  1. Make personal visits. Nothing beats being face to face, even with today’s technology. However, if this is not possible, pick up the phone or Skype.
  2. Survey your donors. This survey can be segmented for various donor constituencies and sent by e-mail or snail mail. Be sure to acknowledge their response.
  3. Hold focus groups of donors. This is especially important when you have a topic of particular interest to them and when their expertise or perspective is needed.
  4. On your Web giving page, letters of intent or in pledge cards, provide the opportunity for donors to share ideas or ask questions. You can let them self-select for a brief survey or ask them to get more involved as a volunteer or planned-gift donor, for example.
  5. A feasibility and planning study is priceless if done correctly. If you are considering a major campaign, commission a study and have consultants you trust ask your best donors how they feel you are doing and to give feedback on your proposed plans. Be sure to assure their anonymity. I’m forever amazed at the valuable insight shared with a third party under the veil of confidentiality that wouldn’t be shared with someone from the nonprofit.

We all want to be appreciated — and be sought after — for our thoughts and opinions. This is especially true of close relationships, like those we work to build with donors. Honor your donors by listening sincerely. They, and you, will be glad you did!

Looking for Jeff? You'll find him either on the lake, laughing with good friends, or helping nonprofits develop to their full potential.

Jeff believes that successful fundraising is built on a bedrock of relevant, consistent messaging; sound practices; the nurturing of relationships; and impeccable stewardship. And that organizations that adhere to those standards serve as beacons to others that aspire to them. The Bedrocks & Beacons blog will provide strategic information to help nonprofits be both.

Jeff has more than 25 years of nonprofit leadership experience and is a member of the NonProfit PRO Editorial Advisory Board.

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