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Listen Up! Ways to Improve Your Listening and Observation Skills With Donors

Resource Center - Foundation

(Jan. 26, 2009) When you meet with a donor, of course you listen to them. But are you really listening? Learn some simple ways to tune in to your donors and record the telling details.

Become a Deep Listener

(This article is an excerpt from the book Winning Gifts: Make Your Donors Feel Like Winners by Thomas D. Wilson. It is available for purchase in the AFP Bookstore.)

What does it mean to be a good listener? We all can think back to our school days and the different ways we listened (or didn’t). Remember the droning professor who restated everything that you had already read in the textbook? In real life we know it’s critically important to listen—like the careful listening I did prior to doing 100-yard zipline, canopy tours in the jungles of Costa Rica (where if I didn’t learn how to stop myself with the leather glove they had given me I would have slammed into a tree trunk at an exciting velocity).

All of us listen every day. Hopefully we’re paying attention, but frequently we don’t have to, want to or need to. Usually we only listen to the news with half a mind, or go to meetings and daydream until something important comes up. Remember your last job interview? Every word was critical. What was the person asking? What did she really want to know? What clarifying questions could I ask to understand where this person was coming from? Now, that was deep listening.

Deep Listening

How do you show active, deep listening? You take notes, you nod your head in agreement, you ask clarifying, follow-up questions to gather additional information and you restate to see if you heard correctly.

The next time you’re in a one-on-one meeting, look to see how active your partner is in her listening skills. Does he have a notepad to write down what you are saying? If not, maybe he’s not a listener. How can you tell if they heard you? A nod, a smile . . .that’s something. A restatement of what you said to see if he got it correctly is the best. Reflect on whether you felt listened to. Did you walk away feeling the other person understood what you were trying to say? Did the person perceive the emotion and energy behind your words? Was the listening empathetic? A tape machine can be accurate in recording what you say, but is it sympathetic to you? Of course not.

Can you empathize with a donor? Sure, just remember to seek the emotions and affect behind the words and facts you are hearing.  For example:  You meet with Mary, one of many mid-level donors who someday might become a major donor at your new job. During your conversation you ask how the fundraising department has done in the past year and what could be done better in the future. She comments that her gift last year was made in memory of her late husband, but her name was put in the annual report instead of his. She thought she had made her wishes clear to your predecessor and is not so much mad as disappointed. The good news is you were there to listen. You were able to find out there was a problem and note her angst. Clarify the situation by restating what you heard in terms of the facts and her advice on resolving the situation.

Take good notes so Mary knows you have listened intently. The real issue here is memorializing her husband. You need to admit your organization blew it. Be sure to slow down and ask for some stories about her husband. How did they meet? Why was he so special? Show interest in the person at the empathetic level, where feelings are expressed. Be genuine about your interest. This is easy as many of the stories you will hear are fascinating.

Note Taking

One way to practice your listening skills is take a notepad with you wherever you go. Take as detailed notes as you can during a one-on-one meeting. It’s a fine balance to take notes but keep tightly focused on the person’s facial expressions and body language. It’s critical that before 24 hours are up, you type up your notes, adding as much detail as you can remember. Include any follow-up promises that were made by either side. In fundraising, these contact reports are vital to your success.

Why is note taking so important and why are contact reports so critical to fundraising success?  While you can listen intently in the moment, if you take no notes your surface memory will keep shifting to the next topic and forget the last one—that’s the job of surface memory. If you take some simple notes, you can jog your short-term memory later that day.

To help cement your memories of the meeting, write complete notes. Just the exercise of fleshing out your notes helps you to remember them. Turning in this complete contact report is critical to your organization as you are establishing institutional memory of the interaction. Reflecting on the meeting during the contact report writing process will put the person’s comments into perspective and add background meaning to some of her comments.

With frequent turnover of fundraising staff, the only way for an organization to truly get its money’s worth from its fundraisers is to insist on contact reports for every call. If you are a star fundraiser or you want to be, you should be having 5 to 10 face-to-face meetings a week with donors (15 is okay, too). That’s an average of thirty per month. There’s no way to remember all of those meetings and discussions if you do not write down notes.

If you build the habit of taking good notes and writing thorough interview contact reports, you will be able to scan them before the next meeting with a donor and appear to have a photographic memory. You will find that the very fact of writing them up, of reflecting on the meeting and looking for meaning, helps to burn the experience into your memory.

Beyond Listening

In addition to what you heard, what did you see? Experience? If you were in an office, were there diplomas on the wall? If so, from where? Any family pictures? Hobbies? (golf, sailing, etc.)? How big was the office? Where did you sit? At a desk? At a conference table? Next to the donor or across the table? Did the donor smile? How was her sense of humor? Were there any mementos of your organization on the desk or in the office? Mementos of other organizations? Was the donor dressed formally or informally? Was there an administrative assistant? What is the assistant’s name? Did you make a connection with the assistant?

Similar observations can be made if you are meeting in someone’s home. What type of neighborhood is it? What style of home? How new is it? How is it decorated? Is there art on the walls? Sculpture in yard? Did you meet in the living room or the kitchen? Is there a dog or cat?

Will you need all of this information later? Who knows? Being observant can provide clues that are useful later. And your notes certainly provide topics of conversation during this visit or future visits.

A caution on listening—sometimes as people tell you their stories it brings up memories from your life. This is the good news. You’re empathizing with the person you are listening to. But, as quickly as you can, store away your memories for later. Don’t share them right now. If you are not careful, it may feel like you are trying to one-up the donor’s story with your own. Keep the focus on the donor and her story and save your story for your spouse/partner or your journal. If you start trading stories to top each other then you become ships in the night talking past each other rather than really communicating.

If you have accepted the concept that your first job is not to sell, but rather to listen, you will be fine. You do not have to worry about making a pitch at your first meeting. It’s a discovery call, not a solicitation call. Yes, you should be ready to respond if the donor tells you he wants to discuss making a gift. But that is not your goal today. You want to find out about the person and his connections to your organization.

This article is an excerpt of the book Winning Gifts: Make Your Donors Feel Like Winners by Thomas D. Wilson. Copyright © 2008 by John Wiley & Sons. Reprinted with permission of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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