Older man with grey hair and receding hairline smiling while shaking hands with someone. Text over the image says "The Art of Listening and Probing: Building Stronger Donor Relationships."

The Art of Listening and Probing: Building Stronger Donor Relationships

You’ve likely heard the adage, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” Attributed to Epictetus, a Greek Stoic philosopher, born AD 50, this saying has been around forever for a reason.

Listening is an important skill to master to be successful in any relationship and especially vital for fundraisers for building meaningful relationships with donors.

Over the next few weeks, we will explore listening and probing and provide tools to help you do both better.

The Purpose of Questions

Asking questions about your donors’ interests, goals, values and life achievements is the foundation of relationship building. When your supporters talk about something important to them, they become more engaged, and as a result, you become more effective as a fundraiser. You are more likely to uncover information that will help you to create a gift opportunity that addresses what is most important to them.

Come to your donor conversation prepared, but not so much that you sound canned or stilted. A few questions to use as starting points are enough. Base your initial questions on what you know about the donor through research or previous meetings.

Be ready to be flexible. Slow down, speed up, change topics if it feels necessary—and don’t feel like you must stick strictly to the agenda you walked in with. Pay close attention to your donor’s verbal and nonverbal responses and be prepared to adjust.

While listening, watch for body language cues:

  • Facial expression (smiling, furrowed brow, eyebrow flash)
  • Voice volume (softer may mean hesitation)
  • Rate of speech (faster = enthusiasm)
  • Posture (leaning forward shows interest, crossing arms can signal unease)
  • Eye contact (attentive or distracted)

Talk Less, Listen More

Donors should talk more than you. A good goal to set is for the donor to talk 70% of the time. Resist the temptation to do an “information dump” about your programs and initiatives, even if the donor asks a question.

When you provide information, try not to talk for longer than 30 seconds before getting a reaction or seeking a response. Even if the other person takes several seconds to answer a question, remain silent and use positive nonverbal signals (smile, nod, tilt head, raise eyebrows, etc.). If necessary, use a one- or two-word prompt to keep them talking, such as:

  • “Interesting…”
  • “I see…”
  • “What else?”

Note: Questions are warmer than statements. And asking questions, particularly follow-up questions, increases how likable you are. Follow-up questions show that you are listening, are interested and care, which makes for better conversation and a stronger relationship with your donor.

We’ll talk more about follow-up questions next week.

In the meantime, we have a couple of past webinars that dig into the topic of listening further that you can check out:

Jessie Pridie, Relationship Manager for TIAA Kaspick and former Gift Planning Administrator for Mayo Clinic, shares tips for becoming a more intentional listener.

Listen Up! Learning To Master the Skill of Listening

Pamela Jones Davidson, J.D., President of Davidson Gift Design, tells us that donors will tell you everything you need to know—if you only listen.

Cues and Clues: What Prospects Are Telling You and What You Need to Say, Then and There

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