Listening with Half an Ear

How many times have you made a discovery call on a donor prospect, only to leave having done most of the talking?

As fundraisers, we are often the first contact a prospect or donor has with our ministry or organization, and we are responsible, therefore, to inform them about its important mission and vision. Yet that can leave precious little time to find out about their spiritual and philanthropic needs.

Exacerbating this is society’s decreasing span of attention.  The social media lifestyle has lowered our capacity to really listen to what another is telling us.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls it “impatient, inattentive listening.” (See Bonhoeffer full statement below.)

Every major gift workshop you have attended has told you the same thing−that successful major gift fundraising begins with relationships.  These cannot be cursory relationships, however.  The most successful fundraisers I have known are those who truly cared about their donors and their donors’ lives−who celebrated life’s joys and mourned life’s sorrows side by side.  It is in relationships like this that we experience and share the true spirituality of fundraising.  Relationships like this start by listening with no preconceptions.

The next time you visit with a donor or donor prospect, be aware of how you are listening.  Use your active listening skills, and spend the time to find out what is truly important to them.  Ask questions that require more than a “yes” or “no” answer.  There will be plenty of time later to make the case on behalf of your organization.

The following is from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community”:

“There is a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say. It is an impatient, inattentive listening, that despises the brother and is only waiting for a chance to speak and thus get rid of the other person. This is no fulfillment of our obligation, and it is certain that here too our attitude toward our brother only reflects our relationship to God. It is little wonder that we are no longer capable of the greatest service of listening that God has committed to us, that of hearing our brother’s confession, if we refuse to give ear to our brother on lesser subjects. Secular education today is aware that often a person can be helped merely by having someone who will listen to him seriously, and upon this insight it has constructed its own soul therapy, which has attracted great numbers of people, including Christians. But Christians have forgotten that the ministry of listening has been committed to them by Him who is Himself the great listener and whose work they should share. We should listen with the ears of God that we may speak the Word of God.”

Overhead vs. Outcomes

As donors clamor for greater transparency from nonprofit organizations regarding the use of charitable support, the default tendency is to trumpet minimal overhead as good stewardship of donor funds. But is minimal overhead really the best stewardship of those contributions? Perhaps our focus is misplaced.

Some organizations, such as the American Red Cross, have built strong reputations on directing a high percentage of contributions to specific mission initiatives. While this approach serves some organizations well, more often it leaves others with underpaid staff and underfunded budgets, limiting the potential reach of the cause. Instead of seeking the best, some organizations must compromise for the cheapest.

I’m not advocating high overhead for nonprofit organizations. It is imperative to maintain careful consideration of use of funds for the greatest impact on those served through the ministry. Rather than champion the cheapest of charities, let’s shift our focus—and our language—from one of simply redirecting donor funds to leveraging those contributions for greater impact. Let’s talk outcomes.

If current donor support can accomplish X (number of people served, new ministry initiatives begun, etc.), how much more could be accomplished if donor support doubled? Tripled? To really inspire donors, don’t just double or triple your statistical numbers. Consider the broader, non-tangible benefits.

Instead of reporting how an organization spends donated support, donors are seeking greater impact—desiring to see the needle move on causes about which they care deeply. How are monies pooled together to address new needs, new areas of ministry that are reaching new people—or people in a new way? Sure, it may be that those gifts are used to fund a new position (thus, increasing the dreaded organizational overhead). But instead of focusing on the new hire, highlight the currently untapped work the new hire will accomplish, ways that work will broaden the ministry and how the ministry will be better positioned.