You can hear a lot by listening to donors

One of the delightful benefits of the fund raising profession is the chance to meet people who might never have crossed your path. As a fundraiser, I’ve had glimpses into places and lives that, as a child from a simple blue collar background, I couldn’t have imagined knowing…

… I’ve sipped tea from china cups in spectacular mansions overlooking the ocean.

… I’ve drunk coffee from mugs in humble tenement kitchens overlooking an alley.

… I helped pick the late famed newscaster Walter Cronkite up from the airport in the same minivan that I transported paint splattered teens to a service project.

… I’ve listened to presentations on factory floors and in corporate boardrooms.

… And I’ve sloshed through the mud of a recovering salt marsh in New England and a fish market in Senegal.

All in all, it’s been a great privilege to peek into the lives of so many different people and go different places. As fundraisers, we connect with people every day.

A big part of the fundraiser’s job is to help donors realize their dreams. To do that, we’ve got to understand what people’s lives are like, to learn what they care about, and how to ignite their dreams.

Unfortunately, sometimes we get so focused on making our own case, we forget to listen to what people are saying.

Here’s a story that illustrates that point.

I once was the development director at a youth service organization. I had been hired to help the organization significantly increase philanthropy from individuals and businesses.

Now, this organization already had a pretty fabulous prospect engagement program. It was almost always a thrill to meet these young people and see them at work.  If we couldn’t bring prospects to us, then we brought our program to them. After witnessing a youth-led presentation that included music, skits, and some incredibly moving life stories, only the hard of heart could turn away.

But getting excited didn’t automatically ensure a financial donation. And a financial donation didn’t automatically mean a large gift.

Baseball legend Yogi Berra is credited with saying, “You can observe a lot by watching.”

From a fundraiser’s perspective, Yogi is absolutely right. And I’ll add one more aphorism to his – “you can hear a lot by listening.”

Sometimes we get so good at our presentations, so good at making our case, that we forget to observe, forget to listen to what our donors want and need.

For three years prior to my arrival, this very same organization had been cultivating a local company for a major gift – an annual corporate sponsorship of $30,000. Success eluded them.

If asked, this company’s corporate giving staff would tell you how much they loved my organization. Indeed, their employees volunteered at the annual service event and the company had donated printing. Yet only once in those three years had they made a cash gift, a one-time donation of $5,000.

So, the Executive Director and I arranged to visit the general manager of the company – to thank him for their past support and, once again, to explore the idea of a team sponsorship.

After initial pleasantries, our inexperienced but fearless Executive Director, in his nervousness, completely forgot our advance preparations and reverted to the standard pitch: what great work our organization was doing for young people in the community.

From my vantage point, I could see that this approach just wasn’t working. The general manager wasn’t hearing anything new. We were only telling him what we wanted.

What he didn’t know, and neither did we, was how my organization could help him fulfill his company’s needs.

So, when my Executive Director stopped for a breath, I refocused the discussion.

“So, Peter,” I asked “what new community projects is your company working on these days?”  (Peter and I knew each other from a previous job and I knew that they frequently launched projects of their own.)

Suddenly, Peter got excited. He told us about the struggles they were having in their new diversity initiative (something our group specialized in) and how hard they were working to reach new communities. As he spoke, he mentioned that the company was floating an idea to help build playgrounds in some of the inner city neighborhoods in town.

Well, not only did my eyes light up, but the Executive Director practically jumped out of his chair in excitement. I felt like Groucho Marx hearing the secret word on that old TV show “You bet your life.

“Playgrounds!” “Why we specialize in playgrounds.” (both of us were thinking).

To make this long story shorter, this conversation kicked our relationship to a new level. The company went on to become a $30,000 team sponsor, their charitable giving manager became a very active member of our local Advisory Board, our teams started holding their end of the week meeting at corporate headquarters, and the company has continued to be one of that nonprofit’s most generous supporters.

If there’s a moral to this story, it’s one you already know.

Listen to your donors.

When they share their dreams, beautiful things can start to happen.