Active listening helps to build strong relationships with donors



Fundraisers are often taught and trained to be great writers and speakers to inspire, motivate and to build strong relationships with prospective donors. But what we are often not told that we can also build ‘stronger relationships’ with our supporters by listening to them more ‘actively’ and ‘empathetically’. Until we realise that effective communication is the two-way conversation and listening to our donors is an important part of the donor relationship equation we cannot be active listeners.

I have found that active listening is one of the simplest yet most powerful tools to connect with donors. Active listening encourages our donors to express what they think and feel about the work we do and how they see their philanthropic interests aligned with our cause. Also, active listening allows us to focus less on being ‘interesting’ and focus more on being ‘interested’ in our donors.

Professor Tanya Drollinger shares in her latest research that active empathic listening can help fundraisers in their efforts to connect in a meaningful way with donors by enabling them to work with more accurate information regarding the donor’s motivations, interest, and desires, as well as instilling a sense of trust and genuineness between both parties.

Pay attention

Why is it natural that we have greater rapport and trust with those who actually listen to us? Because we feel safe and confident with people whom really listen to us.

Michael P. Nichols, The author of ‘The Lost Of Art of Listening’ answers it perfectly. He says that “being heard means we are taking people seriously and it satisfies their need for self-expression and their need to feel connected to others. The need to be heard and connected with people is something we ordinarily take for granted, yet it turns out to be one of the most powerful motive forces in human nature.’’

Feeling Valued

We simply feel respected, acknowledged and valued, when someone really pays attention to us and listens to what we may have to say. Similarly, as fundraisers we need to keep in mind all the time that donors are real people, they are human, they have similar emotions and needs to us and they are more likely to open up and come live with fundraisers who listen to them and show genuine interest in what they have to say.

Breaking the connection

To jump in and keep talking about our organisations or about our experiences, before we have even found out what our donors have to say about our cause and why they are interested in our work, is like snipping an electrical cord in two, then plugging it in anyway, hoping somehow that something will light up. As a fundraiser most of the time we might not deliberately set out to break the connection, but we might be doing it subconsciously and that is detrimental to building strong relationships with our donors.

Speaking this month at the Institute of Fundraising’s Fundraising Convention 2018, Jonathan Andrews, the founder of Remarkable Partnerships, said that by speaking too much and listening too little we make it all about us, who we are, what we do, where we work and who we help. “We do that because we suffer from the curse of knowledge.”

Ken Burnett in his book ‘The Zen of Fundraising’ says that “good askers are often good listeners and will have a great deal of sensitivity and affinity for others.” Only a good listener will be likely to be more effective in striking up a thoughtful conversation with the supporters and then turning that into a successful relationship.

The psychologist James Pennebaker explains in his research why active listening helps to build rapport with the speaker. He calls this phenomenon a ‘joy of talking’.

In his research, he divided strangers into small groups and gave them fifteen minutes to talk to the group about a topic of their choice. When fifteen minutes were up, he asked people how much they liked the group. It turns out that the more you talked, the more you liked the group. This isn’t surprising since people love to talk about themselves.

Pennebaker found that the more you talk, the more you think you have learned about the group, you believe you have actually come to know the people around you, even though they barely spoke. This is because most of us find expressing our thoughts an enjoyable experience.

So, actively listening to our donors not only helps to have a great conversation with our donors but also helps to build a great deal of rapport and to gain the trust of our donors. Ultimately it helps convert these genuine communications into a long-term commitment for our organisations. #fundraising #philanthropy

This is the part II in the ‘Listening Series’, which I am be writing exclusively for UK Fundraising: This blog was published by Uk Fundraising on 9th May 2018 at

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