Fundraising and the Art of Listening; Discovering Unspoken Concerns that Hinder Giving Decisions

As part-owner in a company that recruits fundraising executives, I have had a lot of conversations with organizations and foundation leaders about “the ideal candidate.” Some of the typical skill-set requirements used to filter through applicants are:

  • They must have a background that enables them to relate to high net worth donors.
  • They must be able to make a compelling case for contributions to the organization.
  • They must be able to ask for a very large gift without flinching.
  • They must be able to close.
  • They must be good speakers.

Most of the major gifts with which I have assisted, the ability to engage in natural (not contrived) conversations has been essential to securing that gift. 

In the many conversations I have had with organizational senior leaders about candidates for a fundraising positions, no one has ever said, “They must be good at listening.” My experience, however, has been that most of the major gifts with which I have assisted, the ability to engage in natural (not contrived) conversations has been essential to securing that gift. Certainly, I don’t hold the patent on listening to people. Anyone can listen, however, the ability to dialog with potential donors as a genuinely interested listener is not as easy as one might imagine. The pressure to quickly produce large gifts makes genuine-interest listening more difficult. That pressure can be the result of several things, including unreasonable expectations, lack of experience, or the organization’s development strategy (See Institutional Sustainability: Making the Transition from Hunter-Gatherers to Cultivation-Based Fund Development).

It is no secret that people like to talk about themselves, if that is, they think listeners are sincerely interested. Have you ever gotten into a conversation with salesman who pretended to be so very interested in you? However, it was obvious that it was just a prelude to the sales pitch? That’s not what I am talking about. Donors who have seen lots of non-profit fundraisers can immediately tell if the interest is genuine or feigned.

The art of listening doesn’t automatically increase with knowledge, experience, and promotion.

Periodically, I take new fundraising executives with me to visit donors and charitable estate clients. On first-time visits I typically spend half the time talking about family, business, vacations, etc. The next meeting might be 60:40 the other way. Future meetings we spend more or less time catching up with each other before we get into the business at hand. In those first meetings, some fundraisers accompanying me get a bit nervous, anxious to get down to business. This impatient awkwardness is not confined to rookies. While some new fundraisers are natural conversationalist and have the knack for connecting personally with donors, for others it is an acquired skill. The art of listening doesn’t automatically increase with knowledge, experience, and promotion. Without intentional efforts to develop listening skills, those advancements and promotions can actually cause a person to grow worse at it.

Listening for Unspoken Concerns
Recently, I had a brief and casual conversation that illustrates the importance of listening.

Jim and his wife have a $50 million estate, most value being tied up in a business that he started from scratch and worked his entire life to build. They had only one child, a son who came late in life. Jim cared a lot about the business, but what he loved more than anything in the world was his son.

My friend had informed his advisors that he wanted to start transferring the ownership and operation of the business to his son. However, every time his team of lawyers, accountants, and financial planners would show him a plan, Jim resisted signing off on it. This went on for quite some time. Jim asked if I would join the discussions.

In my first meeting I watched the proposal-and-rejection scenario unfold again with the team of highly skilled advisors. The second meeting was turning out to be a revised version of the first. The professionals were getting frustrated. Jim kept saying he wanted to give the business to his son but kept rejecting proposal after proposal that eloquently accomplished that goal.

During a break I was having a casual conversation outside the room with Jim, listening to his goals for the transition as well as his frustrations with the process.

“Jim,” I finally said, “do you really want to transfer the ownership and operations of the business to your son?”

“Yes, Eddie, I really do.”

I replied, “Do want to turn it over to him now?”

He thought a moment and finally said, “No, not until I am dead.”

“Why?” I asked. We all knew that the longer he waited to start the process, the more costly it would be for the business and for his son.

“Well,” he finally replied, “What if he couldn’t manage it?”

And there it was. We talked a little longer, and I realized what Jim had really wanted to say all along. He did indeed want his son to have the business, but the truth was that he didn’t have complete confidence in his son to run the business. Like any loving father, he just did not want to publically say this to his advisors.

I pressed a little more: “So, do you mean your son is not ready to run the business or that you are not ready to pass it on?”

He admitted that it was a little of both.

Jim had a room full of highly skilled and well-intended professionals, anxious to help him achieve his goal. Perhaps people were so prepared and geared up to offer solutions, they were unable to hear what Jim was really saying.

I had had this conversation many times before — people with the desire to give but hesitating for unspoken reasons.

Though Jim and I were not talking about charitable giving, I felt I was in familiar territory. I had had this conversation many times before — people with the desire to give but hesitating for unspoken reasons. Some actual examples:

“I want to give, but I’m not sure the nonprofit will be around.”

“I want to give, but my wife doesn’t trust you.”

“We both want to give, but my wife and I have a deep disagreement on how much to leave our children.”

“I want to give to the cause, but I was really disappointed when you…”

“I want to give, but I am afraid that…”

In thousands of donor visits over the years, I have come to realize that the donor’s story is as important as the organizational story. Many times, it is more important. Occasionally, it is far more important. How different this is from an approach that assumes the organization’s message to be so important that it is the sole determining factor in a donor’s giving decision!

Eddie Thompson, Ed.D.

Copyright 2012, Eddie Thompson
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One Response to Fundraising and the Art of Listening; Discovering Unspoken Concerns that Hinder Giving Decisions

  1. drcristy says:

    Great post Eddie. I wish more nonprofit professionals listened to their donors and their other stakeholders. It isn’t easy to listen, as you have so skillfully shown.

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