Listen with Your Eyes

When visiting prospects and donors, it is essential to listen carefully. You will want to learn about their philanthropic aspirations and legacy hopes. Listening to your prospect or donor rather than simply pitching your organization is a big part of what donor-centered fundraising is about.

For thousands of years, wise people have understood the value of effective listening. For example, Epictetus, the ancient Greek philosopher, said:

We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”

Last week, I wrote about the importance of gettListening and Seeing by Rob Knight via Flickring out and visiting prospects and donors (“Want to Know the Secret to Raising More Money in 2013?“). Now, I want to suggest that while we should certainly listen with our ears during those visits, we should also “listen” with our eyes.

Let me explain.

We often see without really perceiving. It’s one reason why criminologists tell us that eyewitness reports can be highly inaccurate. By paying attention to what we are seeing, we can act appropriately on the information we gather.

When meeting with a prospect or donor, listening with our eyes will allow us to:

1. Observe the other person’s body language and respond accordingly. For example, if a prospect has his arms folded across his chest, he’s probably not comfortable with the general subject, something you’ve said, or the environment. Observing this will allow you to take corrective action rather than simply just pushing ahead.

2. Look for clues in the surroundings. You can learn a great deal about an individual by noticing the personal items in her office or home. These clues can help you better understand the person’s interests. The surroundings (i.e.: furnishings, artwork, the home itself) may help you estimate the person’s giving potential. In addition, you’ll find that some items (i.e.: photos of children) make great and, sometimes, meaningful conversation starters.

When meeting with someone, you’re not just there to talk and hear. You’re there to see. So, be sure to use your ears and your eyes.

The best place to meet with a prospect or donor will usually be that person’s home. Generally, people will feel more comfortable in their own home than they would in your office. Sometimes, a donor or prospect may wish to meet at a restaurant. But, restaurants can be noisy, and having a private conversation can be awkward in a public setting.

Meeting in the home of a prospect or donor also has the benefit of giving you the opportunity to uncover clues that will help you to understand the person much better. As I wrote in my book, Donor-Centered Planned Gift Marketing:

If visiting in someone’s home, one can look for awards, books, and other items on display that can provide clues to how the individual engages with the community and what other organizations they might support. In addition, clues will be found that will help gauge the individual’s ability [to make a gift].”

Let me be clear. I’m not suggesting that you should snoop around someone’s house once you’re invited in. I’m simply suggesting that you should take-in what you see in plain sight:

- Observe the type of house you are visiting. Is it grand or modest?

- Look at how it is decorated. Are master paintings hanging on the walls? Is the furniture antique or from IKEA?

- Notice personal items. Are there family portraits? Awards from other charities? Knickknacks from a country club or cruise line?

By actively observing your surroundings, you’ll in effect be listening with your eyes.

Let me give you a few words of caution, however. Just as you should not snoop, you should not be tacky. Don’t ask people how much something cost or how much something is worth. “Gee, what a nice Picasso, how much do you think it’s worth?” That’s a question that won’t earn you any points and will likely put the person on the defensive. “Gee, what a nice Picasso, what attracted you to this piece?” That’s a far better way to engage.

While you’ll use some of the information you gather during your meeting, other details may become more valuable in the future. So, after you meet a prospect or donor, be sure to update your organization’s database. Include recollections about what you saw in the person’s home, as well as what the person told you, that could be useful in the future.

Taking notes during a meeting can be awkward. Therefore, you will want to jot down some notes after you leave the house. I’m not suggesting you lurk in the driveway. Instead, drive down the road to a coffee shop or parking lot and take the time to create your notes while your memory is still fresh. Then, updating your database back at the office will be a breeze. Or, better yet, enter the information from your laptop.

By listening with your ears and your eyes, you’ll be more able to build a stronger relationship more quickly than would otherwise be possible. This will benefit your prospects/donors as you work with them to facilitate the philanthropic support that will benefit your organization. And, when that happens, it’s good for you as well.

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

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7 Responses to “Listen with Your Eyes”

  1. Michael,

    Great follow up to your last blog post. When meeting with a potential donor and their spouse/partner, it is quite advantageous to do so in their home where they are most comfortable, and it does provide opportunities to learn more about them and what they feel is important. A picture of their family, heirlooms displayed with pride, souvenirs from their travels, and other items are all great conversation starters and can provide valuable insight in your quest to make them partners in your organization’s mission. One needs to pay attention to what surrounds you as much as one needs to listen to what the potential partner tells you. Clues are all around you, it’s your job to understand what they mean and how they will help you determine your next step.

    • Richard, thanks for commenting. I appreciate the positive feedback. You’ve mentioned something that I’d like to underscore: When possible, it’s a good idea to meet with the prospect AND his/her spouse/partner. Particularly where large gifts are concerned, the decision is often a family one.

  2. Michael:

    I have found that particularly with planned gifts, engaging a donor TYPICALLY TAKES TIME. Usually these folk are much older and have few people in their sphere with which to engage in conversation. It may take 3-4 visits for them to trust you and engage, at least in this culture of university fundraising.

    Yes, you can tell alot about a donor’s surroundings, but in this atmosphere of distrust (particularly in minority communities) again, it takes time.

    Also, I share stories about the current plight of students and then I keep quiet to give them time to reflect and respond.

    Case in point. I had been visiting a donor prospect for over three years. No matter how much I tried to engage her, she was not a talker and her house was a rather modest dwelling. Operating on a hunch (oh yeah, a real winner when pleading a case of cost effectiveness as to why you keep visiting and spending time with this donor – smile), I hosted her for lunch for what appeared to be the 6-7th time. Many times, we simply sat in silence and ate.

    On this day, she sighed. Finally, she said, “I am so tired of dealing with these renters.” “Huh?,” I said as my ears became highly activated. “You have renters? How many properties do you own?,” I asked. “Seven houses,” she responded.

    SHAZAAAAM —-ya think?

    Moral of the story? Never judge a book by its cover!!

    • Michelle, thank you for your comment and for sharing your terrific story. You’re correct. The cultivation process usually does take time and patience. A development professional will almost never make an actual ask on the first visit with a prospect, especially for a planned gift. Frequently, multiple visits will be necessary to effectively cultivate a prospecct. And, particularly with older prospects, those visits can be unpredictably lengthy. So, when setting appointments, one needs to be careful about how tightly those visits are booked.

      You’re also right when you state that we should “never judge a book by its cover.” By carefully listening and observing, we’ll gather a great deal of information. However, we need to make sure we do not prejudge or misjudge the situation. Warren Buffett lives in a modest house in Omaha, not a fancy penthouse in Manhattan. But, we all know that he’s a supremely generous philanthropist. It would be a mistake to make snap assumptions.

  3. A visit in the home (or office) is especially insightful. I like to ask about what I see on display — it’s a way to let them talk about what’s important to them, and I get to learn more about them in the process. People love to talk about themselves (and, by extension, their loved ones).

    BTW, Michael, I always read and appreciate your posts. In fact, they get posted to the Facebook page for our local PPP chapter: http://www.facebook.com/pppoc

    • David, thank you for sharing your thoughts. Everyone’s favorte subject, for the most part, is themselves and their families. It’s human nature. Because philanthropy is an expression of an individual’s values, it makes perfect sense to talk to someone about them, not us. That way, when we do get to talking about our organization, we’ll better understand how what we do fits into what the prospect wants to accomplish. As you well know, facilitating a donation comes down to matching an organizational need to the prospect’s philanthropic aspirations.

      I also want to thank you for letting me know that your PPP chapter shares my posts on Facebook. I’m honored to know that you and your colleagues value my posts.

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