Listening: An investigation into two-way communication with donors


At the ADRP regional conference in New York, Anne and Patricia led a session to explore what organizations are doing now and what could be done to create meaningful two-way communications with donors. This presentation will soon be followed by an article in the Journal of Donor Relations & Stewardship. Please support this research by answering the quick questionnaire regarding ways in which organizations create two-way communication with donors.

What constitutes listening in terms of donor relations?

Earlier this year, we were introduced to donor and alumni relations “listening” programs modeled after social listening, a recent evolution in the interaction between a company, or brand, and their customer base. This discovery led us to consider the balance between outgoing communication and incoming responses from our constituents. Is it possible to create two-way communication, a dialogue if you will, between an organization and the individuals that support it?

Types of listening

Let’s start with a dive into some definitions to explore our understanding of the basic concepts and create a structure from which new ideas may arise.

Discriminative Listening – hearing and differentiating sounds, thereby creating the opportunity to assign meaning to specific incoming information. This type of listening is the key to communication through audible language.

Active Listening – listening that includes attentiveness, encouragement of the speaker through gesture and comment, and demonstrated comprehension of the message being delivered. In one-on-one communication, much importance is given to active listening. Active listening is a crucial skill for those who have direct contact with donors, such as major gift officers. It is also a valuable skill for individuals who communicate with those on the frontline. Active listening by the donor relations professional may provide necessary insight and information as communication moves from a one-on-one conversation between the donor and the gift officer to the organization-to-one or organization-to-many style employed by traditional donor relations communications, such as email, newsletters, or print publications.

Relationship Listening – listening that builds trust, comprehension, evaluation, or therapeutic development in a relationship. Traditionally, this applies to one-on-one personal relationships, such as that between a child and a parent, spouses, or co-workers. As we begin to understand two-way communication between an organization and an individual or group of individuals, it is important to consider how the messages conveyed and the ways in which those messages are shared bolster relationship building. What are our opportunities to create mutual trust and understanding? What aspects in how we communicate now (often one-sidedly) might undermine trust?

Dialogic Listening – listening that emphasizes balanced participation between the two parties.   The word 'dialogue' stems from the Greek words 'dia', meaning 'through' and 'logos' meaning 'words'. Thus dialogic listening means learning through conversation and an engaged interchange of ideas and information in which we actively seek to learn more about the person and how they think.

Who is in place to do this listening?

The broadly stated goal in listening to donors or other constituents is to learn how they think – how they think about the institution as a whole, how they think about a recent decision or change, how they think about a specific event or piece of communication.  Donor relations professionals are poised to take leadership in defining the methods, limitations, risks, and benefits inherent in creating two-way communication with donors.

Managing the two-way communication process

Donor relations, alumni relations, and other communications teams are already creating multiple outgoing communications that begin the first step in two-way communication at the scale required, most nonprofit organizations address large groups of individuals. Most have specific teams who identify messages, carefully craft them and disseminate them to one or more audiences across multiple channels. The challenge comes in inviting, receiving, and processing the responses these outgoing messages may inspire. Some responses are subtle: a donor receives an invitation and attends the event. That choice alone is a nonverbal response to the initial communication. It should be tracked as such.

Moving the dialogue up a level, after the event, the organization sends attendees a brief survey about the event. The responses received are two-way communication and a chance to understand similarities and differences in the thoughts and actions of the individuals that make up that group. These responses, too, should be tracked. The listening programs that were the impetus of this research fall into this type of two-way communication on a grand scale. With significant volume, even small or routine communications can provide actionable feedback.

Occasionally, organizations conduct wide-scale donor surveys and interviews, thereby gaining insight into the thoughts, feelings, and expectations of a far larger set of donors. Because of the volume, these projects require a significant time investment and careful analysis to produce meaningful results. Participation in a survey should be seen as an act of mutual relationship building. Unlike the ubiquitous online surveys used in commercial environments, a more substantial survey creates the expectation that information shared will be considered and that alone builds trust.

In terms of major gifts, trust-building happens at the personal level, between the donor and a gift officer, key volunteer, or subject matter expert. In this case, the communication may flow freely but the relationship is safeguarded only if the information received is translated for use by the entire organization. Contact reports are important, but they are rather unwieldy for those developing institutional messages that are distributed by other channels. The donor relations professional can provide a critical link between those who spend time with donors and those who create the less individualized messages donors receive.

Managing expectations

Listening to donors, and more importantly, integrating their feedback into subsequent communication or action on the part of the organization has its risks. Being asked to share thoughts, feelings, and desires may create an expectation by the donor that the information shared will be integrated into the thinking and actions of the listener, in this case, the organization. Donors, individually or in the aggregate, may challenge best practice, stated policy, or even the mission of the organization. As with any other relationship, the organization must be prepared to explain its position and defend its decisions. The donor relations professional may likely be called on to represent the organization’s position. For that reason, it is important that we as donor relations practitioners think proactively, avoid creating unrealistic expectations, and initiate dialogue in ways that foster ongoing two-way communication.

Anne Manner-McLarty and Patricia Berry will be publishing the article, Listening: A Crucial First Step in Donor Engagement and Relationship-based Fundraising in Book 4: Communication in the Journal of Donor Relations & Stewardship. Pre-register for Book 4.

Written By Anne Manner-McLarty

Anne Manner-McLarty is the managing editor of the Journal of Donor Relations and Stewardship. She founded Heurista in 2011, a leading resource for consulting specific to donor relations and stewardship, with particular expertise in the donor recognition program design and implementation.