Active listening helps us to fully understand our donors

Ikhlaq Hussain | 9 May 2018 | Blogs

Human ear - photo: Pixabay

Part one in the Listening Series by Ikhlaq Hussain.

I came across this great quote about active listening from Ralph Nichols: “The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.”

If we want our donors to understand us, we must first understand them. Well, how do we do that?


The more actively we listen to our donors the more we will be able understand what makes them tick, and how, when and who can make them tick. The knowledge and information that we gather from actively listening to our supporters enhances our ability to be better able to engage, motivate, encourage and inspire them to get involved and support our cause.

William T. Sturtevant, the author of ‘The Artful Journey, cultivating and soliciting’. “The key to being a successful Major Gifts Fundraiser is to be an effective listener which the goal is to encourage the prospect to talk, listen to understand their views, and their unique needs and fears related to the decision”.

When I go to meet with major donors most of the time I find myself listening to our donors, because that’s what helps me to gain a fuller understanding of their motivations to support our cause. If we don’t listen we not only end up dealing solely with the symptoms of their motivations – instead of learning their deeply rooted philanthropic interests – but we might also lose them completely.

The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them". Ralph Nichols quote.


So active listening helps us to be better prepare to ‘Ask’ them for the right things (money, advice, their network) at the right time in a right way. Thus, through actively listening we can fully unlock the full philanthropic potential of our perspective supporters.

Linda Lysakowski ACFRE has authored more than a dozen books, including Fundraising for the Genius. She says that “Listening for what the donor’s interests are is even more important than being able to persuasively explain the organisation’s case.”

Active listening enables us to ask right questions to know as much possible about our supporters.

Abraham Lincoln once said: “When I am getting ready to reason with a man and sell him on what concerns me, I spend one-third of my time thinking about myself and what I am going to say. Then I spend two thirds thinking about him and about what he is going to say. Then I just sit back cross my legs and listen. If I listen long enough and carefully enough I will sell my program.’’

"Listening for what the donor's interests are is even more important than being able to persuasively explain the organisation's case". Linda Lysakowski quotation.

It’s about them, not you

A leading major gifts fundraising expert and an author of Fired-Up Fundraising, Gail Perry, says that in her view “Listening and follow-up skills are tops on the list of the skills of best fundraisers. Fundraisers think they need to be able to make a dynamite, enthusiastic presentation. That’s great! But even more important is the ability to engage them in conversation, to listen to their thoughts on the issue, to carefully consider their questions, and to explore the topic in more detail from their point of view – not yours.

We need to show to our supporters that we are paying attention and we respect what they are saying by showing interest and support through maintaining eye contact, nodding, smiling and encouraging them to express their thoughts and engaging with them in a genuine conversation. As a good listener when donor is speaking we must avoid engaging in immediate judgment, assumptions, rebuttal or criticism. Not only listening to spoken word, but also to body language and listening to what is not being said.

Ears – and eyes

Dr Travis Bradberry, the co-author of Emotional Intelligence says that: “Beyond the spoken words, there’s invaluable information to be deciphered through tone of voice, body language, and what isn’t said. In other words, failing to keep your ears (and eyes) open could leave you out of the game.

We need to understand that fundraising is not only about powerful PowerPoint presentations, it’s about ‘conversation’, and real ‘conversation’ goes in both directions and it will only happen when we are prepared to listen to other side too.

Malcolm Stevenson Forbes was an American entrepreneur most prominently known as the publisher of Forbes magazine once said that “The art of conversation lies in listening”.

Ikhlaq Hussain is Head of Major Gifts at Orphans In Need, Trustee of Mind in Harrow, Board Member at Institute of Fundraising South East & London, a mentor at Institute of Fundraising.