A couple of years ago I wrote about 4 Strategies to Listen so Others Will Talk, noting the secret to building authentic relationships is to use your two ears and one mouth in that proportion.
It’s a good start, but there’s more.
You can’t just listen passively.
Active listening, supported by powerful, succinct, to-the-point generative questions – that’s what will draw you and your donor (or anyone with whom you’re in relationship) closer together.
But not all active listening is created equal. And you may think you’re actively listening, when really you’ve listened for a hot minute; then gone down your own rabbit hole of reality.
In that rabbit hole, you become the narrator. It thus becomes your story, not the donor’s.
Today we’ll explore how to draw your donor out so you truly hear their voice and sense their emotions, not your own.
10 Tools to Connect and Co-Create with Donors
1. Economy of language.
This is something I value, as an outsider looking in.
I’m not good at it.
With a tendency towards obscurity.
I’ve come to understand this can make it difficult for me to be heard.
I’ve learned, from years of schooling, how to engage people’s brains.
A discourse of intelligence is a cerebral one.
Technocratic language can be thought provoking, for sure.
But only someone who wants to be provoked will listen to a long discourse.
Everyone else will get lost.
TIP: If you’re a “diarrhea of the mouth” type, practice saying a sentence or two and then stopping. Maybe ask a question like “Does that make sense?” Even better, turn it into an open-ended question that invites the other person’s participation: “What about what I’ve just shared makes sense to you?“
2. Extra connection.
Diarrhea of the pen or mouth is just that.
It’s excessively explosive.
When you can’t keep it in, the other person probably can’t either.
It’s just too much.
It’s perhaps a useful style when you’re working with academics who will go back later, study, and hang on your ever word.
Didactic presentations have their place.
But not in fundraising.
Rather than connecting with folks, I’m often disconnecting.
Rather than being emotionally attached, I’m detached.
In trying to reach the truth,
I’m losing sight of others’ truths.
TIP: This reminds me on a favorite proverb I happened on in high school, and I’ve never forgotten it: “Beware of a half truth; it may be the wrong half.” Every story has at least two sides. Look for your donor’s side of the story so you can authentically connect.
3. Emotion, not data.
Our emotional lives are just as valid a source of information as hard facts.
For me, the heart is harder to find than the head. You?
At least with people I don’t know.
The head is safe.
I know what I know.
I feel in control.
When I share what I know, I feel helpful.
Sometimes, I hope, I am.
I’m coming to understand I could be more helpful. How?
Economy of language.
And something else that goes hand-in-hand.
4. Energetic listening.
When I speak or write less, I listen and read more.
It’s not passive listening.
It’s listening to expand my notion of what is truth.
Not just my truth. But your truth.
Ultimately, our truth.
It’s a deepening process.
But not the way we/I have tended to look at what it means to go deep.
It’s not “reading between the lines.”
TIP: When you read between the lines, you bring your own stories and lived experiences into the situation. This strays away from the other person’s truth. They may read between the lines differently.
5. Engrossed curiosity.
How does someone else see the world?
That’s what we need to be curious about.
How do they sense the truth of the situation?
I’m engrossedly curious about philanthropy – how we can expand the way we approach “love of humanity.”
Since this is a big project, there’s no way I can objectively know how to do this.
I see only one “truth.”
I need to know what you think.
As a fundraiser, I need to be curious about what the donor thinks.
Your perspective and feelings must engross me too, because we need to work together on this big project.
Which means something else profound.
We must collaborate with each other in the act of creation.
6. Experienced story listening and telling.
Consider yourself a writer in space with other people, building a story. Together.
Donors are not a “donor” first. They’re many, many other things.
How do you come to understand and make sense of observations that come from a donor’s lived experiences?
The story is not yours alone. Nor your organization’s.
The donor’s experience matters.
Be in engaged conversation with them about their own life experiences and stories.
TIP: You are a sociologist, looking for truth and connection. Don’t ask “why are you this way?” Ask “what” and “how” questions to learn more, in the most non-threatening way possible. A way that demonstrates your interest and genuine curiosity. Move the story along using generative, open-ended questions.
7. Enthusiastic wonder: what and how.
“Why” questions can be perceived as accusatory.
“Why are you interested in that? Why aren’t you interested in this?”
Donors shouldn’t have to defend their positions.
Ask “How do you feel about this?” “What about this interests you?” What would the dream be? What stirs you about that? What else may be possible? What would you like to do next?
Channel the donor’s enthusiasm, not your own.
They are the hero of their story. Everyone is.
Wonder about that.
Could their story intersect with your cause’s story?
TIP: Consider how can the other person’s hero’s journey can include your organization’s quest. How can you help them make it part of their quest?
8. Extra voices.
Answers aren’t always easy to come by.
The social benefit sector encompasses thousands of organizations and people working on solving the world’s most pressing, often extremely complex, problems.
We’re not going to fix things by competing against one another.
Or by trying to stuff our version of the truth down others’ throats.
To change policy and power, it’s imperative we depart from pre-conceived notions and seek out extra voices and other forms of knowing.
When we don’t welcome in others’ stories, we live in alternate realities.
Red states/blue states. White/black. Straight/gay. Young/Old. Native/foreign. Abled/disabled. Rich/poor. Educated/uneducated. Employed/unemployed.
There are many ways to divide the world.
This happens when we narrow our idea of whose voices should be believed, and who is/is not a credible informer.
Everyone’s voice matters in a world we all inhabit.
TIP: Philanthropy – love of humanity – is about creating one container within which no divisions exist. Our commonality, humanity, is the song we sing.
9. Enquiring conversation: possibilities.
The truth we live is profoundly human.
Debate is useful, but debating for its own sake leads nowhere.
We can debate endlessly.
You can’t have a useful conversation that offers only rebuttal after rebuttal,
Without looking forward to what could be.
Imagination around possibilities is crucial.
If we look outward at the legacies and lessons of other people,
Rather than just inward at what we already think we know,
We can begin to see an opening forward.
TIP: The more openly curious you are, the more you’ll learn. Allow possibilities to creep into your conversation.
10. Engage: To love is human.
The more you come from a place of love of humanity,
The more likely you’ll find something positive you may not have imagined before.
When we’re each able to look at flaws and strengths, accepting the imperfect,
We can begin to reckon with those flaws, lead from shared strengths, and make repairs.
Allow your love to illuminate your line of questioning.
Open yourself to possibility.
Even the possibility of changing your opinion.
We may not yet be prepared for the world we want to create, but we can get there.
If we practice.
If we’re open to the possibility of growth and change.
Set up a listening visit.
- Right now, before the impulse evaporates, pick at least three people to call or visit this week or next.
- Select people you want to get to know better. A donor, colleague, direct report, supervisor or anyone else with whom you would benefit from building a more meaningful relationship.
- Invite them to have a quick chat right now if they’ve got the time. Or invite them to have a visit later. Leave a voice message if you miss them, including contact information so they can reach you back. Tell them you’ll try again.
- Follow up with an email to verify the meeting, set it up, or thank them for the chat.
TIP: If you’re calling donors, remember this is not a request for money. Not at this time. Suggest virtual coffee, tea or cocktails. Or offer to visit or take them out for a snack. Or maybe take a walk together. Get creative with opportunities to engage with folks proactively. One genuine face-to-face or voice-to-voice conversation – where you listen more than you talk – can be as powerful as a full year of mailings, email and your whole range of content marketing strategies.
Conduct a listening visit.
- Take a few minutes for normal conversational chit-chat. Don’t get stuck here; you have a different purpose. If either one of you talks nonstop, that’s not a conversation. You may not know exactly where you’re going with today’s conversation, but you do know it’s a journey of exploration. Your job is to guide your donor towards something new, or at least to encourage them to look at something in a new way. Remember: Being a philanthropy facilitator is a full-time job. Put another way, you are the “ donor experience transformist.”
- Energetically check in around something you, and or the community or world as a whole, have recently experienced together. This may be a current event around which you’d like feedback (e.g., recent Gala, conference call, free Zoom event, annual report mailing, online appeal, volunteer activity, new program announcement), an event in the news and how it may be related to your mission, or just a general inquiry around what they’re thinking about your organization’s role in the world this year vs. last.
- Choose your words with economy. Ask brief “how” and “what” questions to get to the heart of what’s on their mind. “What is the heart of what’s bothering you about this?” “How would you describe the kernel of truth for what’s troubling you?” “How did this miss the mark for you?” “What could have been better?”
- Listen energetically for the places where their own energy shows up. Notice if they smile, breathe deeply, relax their stance or fold their arms, hunch their shoulders and furrow their brows. Ask questions that bring them back to their own relaxed or energetic place – a place from which talking with you feels freeing and perhaps fraught with possibility. “What would be a metaphor to describe how you’re feeling about this?” “What image comes to mind when you think of how this could be better?” “What would it be like to work from that image?”
TIP: Two-way beats one-way every day – especially when the “incoming” is two-to-one in favor of your donor. Only through active listening and encouragement that draws the donor out do you really learn and get close enough to the other person to understand where they’re coming from. Rather than falling back on just guessing or assuming, instead, actively imagine the possibilities together. Co-create.
To Your Future!
To co-create to change the world, the key is to keep your donor at the center, not yourself and not your organization.
This is their journey; you’re their guide. It’s an important role.
The 10 tools described above may be different than the tools you’ve used before.
I think they’ll work better for you, giving both you and your donor more energy and space to create.
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You’ll learn LISTENING, plus all the steps along the way that will get you comfortably to the point of being ready to ask. I’m taking a break from teaching my own major gifts course to partner with The Veritus Group to offer you their amazing Certification Course for Major Gift Fundraisers. It helps to be taught by the very best in the business, and Richard Perry and Jeff Schreifels of Veritus 100% share my approach to fundraising. You’ll get incredible ongoing support, peer connections, actual certification and 36 CFRE credits. Most important: You’ll walk away with an action plan so you can put your learning to work — right away!
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Image courtesy of Mark Paton on Unsplash.