The Art of Listening (Not Broadcasting)

US columnist Doug Larson said ‘Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you’d have preferred to talk’.  The need to get across your own narrative instead of paying attention to the person with whom you’re conversing is an all too human flaw, but in donor interactions it can be especially damaging. You may be armed with metrics and have your case for support down by rote, but it is your ability to listen and observe that will give you the X Factor as a major donor fundraiser.

Paying attention is a state of alertness that allows you to get a more holistic sense of someone’s motivations.  If you truly pay attention you won’t dominate the soundwaves and miss when their eyes glaze over or flicker longingly towards the door.  Ultimately, you need to be someone that people want to spend time with and, in the densely populated world of the high net worth donor, you have a lot of competition.  So, how can you give yourself the edge?

Understand your audience

Major donors are often used to doing the talking.  They could be captains of industry, maverick entrepreneurs or establishment figures, but they expect to lead the conversation and to be heard, so let them.  Your main task during any early encounters is to be on reconnaissance and to find out about their philanthropy and what matters to them.  Hold yourself back from giving a broadcast on behalf of your organisation and confine yourself to a brief introduction before drawing them out with open questions.  Remember, this is not about you telling them how wonderful your charity is, it’s about giving them an opportunity to shine and show you who they are.

Be flexible

Being fully prepared and on top of your brief is essential, but don’t be surprised if the meeting doesn’t go in the direction you expected.  You may dream about going in and delivering a knock out presentation that wows them into submission but they might have other ideas.  You may not even get to give your presentation this time – or indeed ever – but you should be led by their wishes and not impose your own pre-conceived structure on the meeting.  Test the temperature and be alert – if a pleasant and informal conversation is what is being expected, be dextrous enough to change tack, but always ensure you walk away with an agreed next step. 

You can’t be interesting unless you’re interested

How often do any of us have a genuine and attentive audience and how pleasurable is it when it happens?  For me, being interested is the key to any social interaction.  In order to oil the wheels of your engagement with the donor, you do need them to like you.  However, this is not about your ability to perform people-pleasing tricks or tell hilarious and enthralling anecdotes.  If you don’t already have this you may be in the wrong job, but develop a fascination for the human psyche and see every interaction as the opportunity to learn something.  Major donors – particularly those who are self-made – have often had interesting lives and many will be happy to tell you about their experiences.  Don’t pry, but be respectfully curious.  

Ways to encourage listening in others

If you’re running a major gifts team, here are some of the ways you can encourage this essential skill, particularly in a networking situation:

  1. It’s important to give your team talking points in an event brief, but make sure they understand it’s not their primary role to force out these messages. This should happen during a focal point, such as a CEO’s speech.  Your team members are their to act as hosts, ensure the guests have an enjoyable time and to get to know them by listening and asking open questions. 
  2. The tendency to broadcast can be particularly and understandably strong for curators and experts whose role is to be didactic.  Don’t be afraid to gently guide them towards being more inquisitive and show them how this will benefit them and the work they wish to fund.  You should be building a personal rapport with your experts as these are usually the people donors most want to meet, so aim to set up a comfortable environment in which to make this point tactfully.
  3. If you or your team see a donor begin to glaze over, intercept fast!  Nothing will turn someone off more than being bored.  Deflect the conversation back onto them. 
  4. If they are amenable, allow your prospect researcher the chance to attend networking events and engage with the people they are researching.  This will give them a real-life, rounded perspective that will make sense of something that can seem academic. Too many prospect researchers are desk bound and divorced from their subject and these interactions can often improve the quality of the briefs they provide.
  5. Always have an event debrief the following morning where everyone is encouraged to share knowledge and learnings from their conversations.
  6. How you run your regular internal meetings is important for encouraging good listening.  Discouraging interruptions and allowing everyone – including quieter, more reserved members of your team – a platform to speak is essential.  Operating with a revolving chair is a good way to not have any one person dominating your weekly catch up.
  7. If you want to take listening onto the next level, here is a good exercise you can use to flex this muscle.  Get into pairs and ask each person to speak uninterrupted for five minutes about something personal that is a shared experience, for example their school days.  After which they must relay back the salient points of what they’ve heard from each other.  How well did they do?  Were there any subtle nuances they picked up above and beyond the words spoken?  How easy was it not to interrupt?

Give someone an opinion and an internet connection and they can now broadcast their views across the world, but the focused ability to listen is becoming a lost art.  The very best way to establish a long term relationship with your donor is to provide them with the gift of being a good listener.