Editor's Note: Listen Up!
It's been a while since I've written regularly for newspapers — and riled up people in the process. So long ago was it, in fact, that people who wanted to respond to something they read had to put pen to paper to compose letters, mail them, and then wait for them to arrive in the newsroom and appear, possibly weeks later, in print.
The writer/reader relationship certainly has changed. A few weeks ago, I had an op-ed published in The Philadelphia Daily News. The subject (beside the point) was a pretty hot topic in the City of Brotherly Love.
By 10 a.m. on the morning the piece appeared, there were 30-something comments on the paper's Web site and nearly as many e-mails in my inbox. The numbers grew as the week wore on. I responded to as many messages as I could and got into some extended conversations with strangers who read what I had written and cared enough to respond — whether they were incensed or inspired. It was a concrete and immediate reminder that people (readers or supporters) want to be heard. They want to be acknowledged. They want to be engaged. If you aren't doing that, you risk losing them.
And speaking of engaging
Last month I whined about life in general and about getting a fundraising appeal that I thought was a card from a friend. Many of you took the time to send thoughtful e-mails or handwritten notes to cheer me up or to chat about fundraising. I can't tell you how much I appreciate that kindness!
But one e-mail excoriated me for my sometimes willy-nilly approach to giving. The writer said I made a mockery of the donation process and did a disservice both to donors and to the people who dedicate their lives' work to fundraising. She also called for my immediate dismissal.
My apologies to anyone who might have taken offense to that column. I have the utmost respect for donors, fundraisers and the philanthropic sector in general — and I'm fairly certain that most of our readers know that.
Still … donors are human, and humans are prone to all kinds of wonderful and confounding unpredictability. I stand by my belief that fundraisers who don't look beyond "profiles" risk paralyzing their organizations' fundraising efforts. The sector is leaning increasingly toward personalized treatment of donors that acknowledges as much as possible their individual needs and, yes, quirks. Plus, with the rise of the Internet as a donor-cultivation tool and the aging of the donor base, more nonprofits are reaching out to younger donors who are well-intentioned but sporadic — and whose slowly emerging giving habits are difficult to predict.
I guess, ultimately, the caveat is to assume nothing; don't get too comfortable; and give your supporters as many opportunities as possible to talk to you, hear from you and tell you what they want. Fundraising, like most relationships, is as much about listening as it is talking.