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Guiding Strategies: Donor Feedback—Start Listening to Learn

Posted: 2/14/2022

Click here to read on Advancing Philanthropy.

By Rachel Muir, CFRE

How much of everyday conversations do people spend talking about themselves? A whopping 60%. It's no surprise that on social platforms like Twitter and Facebook, people talk about themselves 80% of the time.

We're our favorite topics of conversation. Why?

Talking about ourselves feels good. So good, in fact, that it stimulates the same feelings we get from drugs, sex, food and money. It's the neurological equivalent of winning the lottery.

But how often do you invite your donors to share how they feel? What kind of feedback loops are a core part of your regular communications?

How Commercial Businesses Nail Customer Listening

Consider how often you are invited to give feedback in an average day by for-profit brands. I can't try on a shirt at the Gap without being asked for my feedback on each element of the experience. Did they have my size? Were the dressing rooms clean? Was the sales associate helpful and courteous? Would I shop there again? Would I recommend it to a friend?

There is a very good reason why you can't buy anything without being asked for feedback about the experience. Commercial businesses know that the best time to amplify a great experience or resolve a bad one is in the moment that it happens.

It shows in their higher customer retention. Commercial businesses enjoy customer retention rates as high as 70-90%. Smart businesses know that the customer experience is a key brand differentiator that even outranks price.

Nonprofits, on the other hand, have a 43% retention rate overall and a new donor retention rate of 19%. That number is down from a 45% retention rate overall in 2019, according to the Fundraising Effectiveness Project's 2020 Fourth Quarter Report.

The gap between customer retention for commercial businesses and donor retention for nonprofits is vast. Failing to solicit donor feedback is one of the contributing causes.

The Gift of Listening

Having someone listen to you is a gift. It makes you feel seen, and it makes you feel heard. It's one of the most profound ways to deepen your donor's connection to you and their long-term loyalty.

Imagine being a donor to an animal care organization that asks you how your dog wakes you up in the morning. Or being a bird lover and donor to The National Audubon Society and being invited to describe the first bird of the year that you saw. Or your first birding experience. Or where your love of birds comes from. Or a time when you introduced someone you care about to the wonderful world of birds.

social media icons on a phoneAsking just one of those questions can dramatically magnify a bird lover's feeling of connectedness to Audubon. One of the greatest gifts you can give your donor is the gift of feeling known by you.

I'm a mom of twins. When they were babies, my kids would play hide-and-seek by covering their eyes to hide. As toddlers, they hid by crawling under the living room rug. Not a great hiding place! But they thought that if they couldn't see me, I couldn't see them.

As fundraisers, we often play an adult version of hide-and-seek with our donors. We assume if we aren't hearing anything bad from them, everything must be OK.

Author and world-renowned fundraising researcher Adrian Sargent discovered that satisfaction is the No. 1 driver of donor loyalty. Yet, a lot of nonprofits never measure it or deliver it by providing meaningful, thoughtful consistent donor stewardship.
The simple act of asking questions can deepen your donor's sense of connection to your cause. Connectedness is one of the most primary and fundamental of basic human needs.

One of the greatest gifts you can give your donor is the gift of feeling known by you.

Think about how frequently you invite donor feedback. The chance to invite feedback and deepen your donor's connection to your cause is more present than you think.

Listening to Win vs. Listening to Learn

Most fundraisers go into a conversation with a donor feeling like they need to make their case and sell them on the gift. They are listening to win. Or listening to fix. The truth is, we don't convince donors. We help them realize they already care.
Instead of listening to win or listening to fix, we need to listen to learn.

In her book, "Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps: How to Thrive in Complexity," author Jennifer Garvey Berger explains that, "Most people are doing a second job no one pays them for […] spending time and energy covering up their weaknesses, managing other people's impression of them, showing themselves to their best advantage and hiding their inadequacies, uncertainties and limitations."

Sound exhausting? Imagine what we could tackle if we didn't work so hard to protect who we are.

Have you ever met with a donor and been so focused on predicting or controlling the outcome you forgot what they said?
The goal isn't to impress donors—it's to let donors impress you.

Authentic listening occurs when we are honestly prepared to put aside our own story and fully focus on understanding the other person's story. It isn't about winning or losing. It's about showing up with a deep curiosity and the courage to be authentic and vulnerable with your donors. As ashamed as we might feel about our own humanity, others are drawn to us because of it.

You can practice authentic listening with your spouse, kids or the person in line at the coffee shop. Ask open-ended questions, be caring and curious, and seek to understand rather than to be understood.

Authentic Listening vs. Persuasion

Think about the last visit you had with a major gift donor. Were you nervous going into the meeting? Did you spend more time asking questions or talking? Did you jump in to persuade or make your case?

When you give your donors the gift of listening—whether it's in person or by inviting their thoughts and feedback through a survey—you are giving them the gift of being heard and understood.

Feeling known by you is one of the greatest gifts you can give your donors. It's never too late to be an authentic listener and show your donors that you remember why they care, what they've said and what they've done.


Quiz: How often do You solicit donor feedback?

Give yourself one point for each thing you do to regularly solicit donor feedback:

  • A "get to know you" survey in the P.S. of our email welcome series
  • By asking, "What inspired your gift today?" on our thank you landing page
  • By sending a short follow up survey after our live or virtual event
  • An invite to take a "get to know you" survey in our new donor thank you
  • An email survey of all our constituents
  • A donor supporter connection survey
  • A direct mail survey of all our constituents
  • By doing donor focus groups
  • On donor visits by asking probing questions

Best Of: Rapport-Building Discovery Questions

Here are some questions to help guide your conversation with donors:

  • What do you love about what you do?
  • What mistake or failure in your life taught you the most?
  • What legacy do you most want your giving to have in the world?
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