Murray Landa: When silence is golden – listen your way to more gifts

By Murray Landa

Over the years, a number of people have asked me “what should I say when I meet with a donor?”

I write from the perspective of a long-time gift planner, but the principles below apply to everyone seeking gifts of significant size, current and future. It doesn’t matter whether your title is Gift Planner, Major Gifts Officer, Executive Director, Vice-President, President or Board Chair.

We’re in the face-to-face, relationship-building business. Sound relationships are built on mutual understanding and trust. Good listening skills are an important part of building mutual understanding and trust.

Here’s the bottom line: when meeting with donors, don’t worry so much about what to say. Instead, focus on what to ask. Your goal is to get to know the donor and build a strong, sustainable relationship.

Seek to understand the donor and what she wants to achieve. You may not get all the information in one meeting (the relationship must develop in a natural way at the donor’s pace), but over the course of the relationship always keep these objectives in mind.

To learn about the donor and what she wants to achieve, prepare some thoughtful questions before you meet.  Develop clear, simple questions along the following lines (listed in no particular order):

  • What led to your interest in our work?
  • What motivated you to request information about . . . ?
  • What is your long-term vision of a better future for the people we serve?
  • What would you like to accomplish with your giving?
  • If you were to make this gift, what outcomes are most important to you?
  • Why are those outcomes important?
  • How would you like to see those outcomes achieved?
  • What is most important to you about . . . ?
  • What problem(s) do you most want to solve?
  • How often and in what ways would you like us to communicate with you?
  • If you were to make this gift, how often and in what ways would you like us to report to you/your executors about what we’ve done with your money, and the results achieved?

The last question, or a similar one, should be on your radar because it:

  1. Shows your organization is professional, systematic, accountable and transparent. You take the use of donor money seriously;
  2. Sets up future stewardship opportunities. Strong stewardship results in more gifts;
  3. Shows your organization values an ongoing, long-term relationship with the donor, and possibly family members and executors.

Also, think about “advice” questions:

  • What do you think of program X?
  • What do you think of potential idea Y?
  • What did you think of X or how did you like Y?
  • What are your thoughts about any new or enhanced programs you’d like to see us develop?
  • How can we raise our visibility in the community?
  • What do we do well? What can we do better? How can we do it better?
  • What other advice do you have for our board?
  • Open-ended questions beginning with words like “tell me about . . .” are helpful.

Most people appreciate being asked for advice. This provides another way for them to be involved with your organization. Good ideas will be given to you and your understanding of the donor will grow.

The way you phrase your questions is up to you. They should “sound” like you and feel natural to you. Your manner should encourage the donor to respond openly, freely and in depth.

Listen more than you talk. Spend at least two thirds of the meeting listening. The old cliché about having two ears and one mouth is true.

Earlier in my career, a very experienced major gifts officer and I met with a donor to discuss a gift. The wise old officer spent about 90% of the time listening. After the meeting, I wrote a note to self: “do more of that!”

Practice the art of silence. Ask a question and then give the donor time to share her thoughts with you. People need to absorb things. It’s only natural that some will pause to reflect, especially when a potential gift of significant size is being considered. 

Listen carefully and intently to the donor’s story. There’s a life story behind each gift.

Concentrate on the donor’s philanthropic goals. Leave the tax and technical matters to a later time unless the donor requests otherwise. Without first understanding the donor’s philanthropic goals, technical knowledge won’t get you very far.

If you’ve brought brochures, leave them with the donor at the end of the meeting. During the meeting, focus on the conversation and the relationship, not the print.

If you implement these disciplines consistently, your supporters will know they’re being heard. They’ll know you care. They’ll know your organization hires people who listen. You’ll have the immense satisfaction of getting to know some amazing visionaries with creative ideas.

In short, prepare well and focus on the right things. You’ll inevitably listen your way to more gifts.

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