Societal norms teach us to take conversational “turns.” First your conversational partner talks, then you talk, then your partner…and so on. Discomfort can arise when silence replaces the conversational turn. Don’t fear that silence. You can learn a lot about potential donors by merely listening.

In one of our research interviews, a donor informed us, “People will tell you anything if you’ll just sit there and listen.” Knowing when to implement the power of silence will help you shepherd potential donors toward meaningful giving.

Here are four key times when you can utilize silence:

  1. When Securing a Meeting with Potential Donors

You can harness the power of the pause when you make initial phone contact with potential donors. For example, allow a short pause after introducing your organization and again after mentioning who referred them to you.

Hello, Mrs. Sanchez. This is Omar Jones, calling on behalf of the Metro Scholarship Foundation. (Pause.) Dr. Gene Severino suggested I give you a call—he’s one of our long-time supporters—because of your interest in helping students earn a college degree. (Pause.)

Waiting briefly for a response can elicit important information about how the potential donor feels either about the organization or the person who made the referral—and give you valuable clues about how to proceed with the relationship.

2. When Building Rapport

In the early stages of donor development, utilizing silence actively to listen will help forge trust-based relationships with donors. It’s natural to feel a little nervous when conversing with a potential donor, and sometimes when we’re nervous, it seems that silences can stretch forever. Rest assured, it only seems this way. Utilize high-value questions—those questions that are both useful to you AND meaningful to the donor. Then pause, allowing the donor time to answer thoughtfully. Relax and fully concentrate on the donor’s response.

3. After Asking the Passion Question

Many donors get asked to donate frequently by many organizations. However, these “asks” are simply that—a request for a certain amount. The Passion Question is a completely different kind of “ask.” Its purpose is to discover what is truly meaningful to the potential donor. So, after you ask, “What would you like to accomplish with your money that would be meaningful to you?” it’s important to remain quiet. Allow the potential donor some silence to reflect. Then listen attentively.

4. After Presenting an Opportunity

The natural inclination is to interpret silence as a negative response, creating another instance when your nerves might encourage you to rush in and fill the void. Unfortunately, donors don’t jump at every opportunity presented to them. They may need a moment to consider. Perhaps they have important questions they need answers to before making a commitment. Consider asking a colleague to help you practice presenting the opportunity—complete with a few moments of comfortable silence.

We show donors respect by allowing them the time and space to speak. We risk missing the opportunity to address the potential donors’ concerns, needs, doubts, or priorities by failing to listen.

Remember the adage, “A meaningful silence is always better than meaningless words.” On either side of the conversational equation, silence is your friend. When you don’t immediately jump in with a response or nervous conversational filler, you operate from a position of strength, allowing yourself the space for thoughtful responses from both yourself and potential donors.

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