Winston Churchill earned a place in history because he could accurately put his finger on the pulse of his constituency and deliver words that inspired them. “Courage is what it takes to stand and speak,” Churchill wrote, “Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” While Churchill is most famous for his fiery, motivational speeches, his ability to sit down and listen is what made his rhetoric so effective. Courageous listening will directly benefit you when you engage with donors.

1. Put aside your preconceived notions for the greater good of philanthropy.

As you prepare to meet with a donor—especially for the first time— you may think you know the priorities the donor will be interested in supporting. Perhaps that donor majored in a certain subject area at your academic institution or received medical treatment for a particular ailment at your healthcare institution. Or maybe the donor has direct experience with the social issue your nonprofit organization is striving to solve or alleviate.

Be careful of those preconceived ideas. Instead, plan the questions you will ask during the discovery meeting to uncover the donor’s rich constellation of passions. Then listen. What makes the donor’s eyes sparkle with excitement? At what point in the conversation does the donor become more animated or enthusiastic? Part of listening intently involves careful observation of your partner in the conversation.

You may well discover that the donor, based on his or her interests, should be introduced to a colleague of yours. Courageous listeners will hear the donor’s true passion and act in ethical ways to help the donor realize his or her philanthropic passions.

2. Involve the donor in developing his or her philanthropic concept.

One of the main reasons a donor decides to participate in philanthropy is because he or she has a need to work with respected people doing important work. Listen to the donor’s story. Then do all you can to facilitate the donor’s participation in the project that his or her contribution is helping to fund. By helping to fulfill this need, you are also strengthening the relationship the donor has with the institution.

This need to participate highlights a generational difference in donors. Donors from the Traditional or Silent Generation are oftentimes happy to cede decision-making to the institution. Donors of subsequent generations expect to provide some input. Listen for this desire. As you work with donors, do all you can to meet the need to do important work.

I am a pioneer of what is going to be in the future. No reward is finer than being part of something that is greater than ourselves. It makes me feel that’s what I was born to do.


3. Listen as a form of ROPI.

Once the contribution has been made and the project is underway, be sure to include the donor in further conversations. Listen to how the donor’s philanthropic passions compare to the reality of the project he or she is funding. Listening provides a personal touch that transcends many other forms of a Return on Philanthropic Investment.

Meet periodically with donors with the specific purpose of listening to them and answering any questions they might have. This small investment of time allows you to learn how the donor feels about the ways in which his or her contribution is being used and provides an opportunity to listen for other passions the donor has.

We hear people sometimes, but we don’t often listen and try to understand what the person is wanting to communicate. Being willing to take some time and listen is very meaningful. To get a letter with fancy printing on it is useful for general information, but to really touch people—there’s nothing that takes the place of personally listening and answering questions.



The organizational update is a great tool to provide structure for a “listening” meeting with a donor. If you are unfamiliar with how to provide an organizational update or want to learn more about effective development processes and concepts, please consider attending one of our public offering of The Art and Science of Donor Development in the coming year.