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The Importance of Listening and Why People Give: In Every Contact, a Billionaire's Gift

This article originally appeared on

To the general public, tax benefits top the list of why people give to charity. But is that what motivated Joan Kroc to leave an estate gift of $1.5 billion to the Salvation Army—one of the largest gifts to a single organization?

In a 1998 article reporting how Joan Kroc gave $80 million that year to the Salvation Army's San Diego Corps for a community center, Joan recalled how her husband used to dress up as Santa Claus during the holidays and ring the bell for Salvation Army donations on the streets of San Diego.

Sure, the Krocs had known wealth, but what did the Salvation Army do to motivate what were at the time the two largest gifts the organization had ever received?

Certainly, they valued their relationship with the Krocs. They likely involved them in important discussions of key direction. More important, when Joan and Ray talked, they surely listened.

It's easy to sit up, listen, and take note when you have the billionaire founder of the McDonald's empire sitting before you. People of that stature are incredibly astute, engaging, and offer tremendous insight into business and life's lessons.

But what gifts would you cultivate—how would your organization benefit—if at every contact with a donor or prospective donor you gave the kind of attention that you imagine you would to a Ray Kroc?

A few years ago, we all learned about the Millionaire Next Door. You know. Lives in a house under $250,000. Drives a Ford Taurus. Buys his/her clothes off the rack at a moderate-price department store. Can't judge a book by the cover was the lesson.

So, how does that lesson translate to us as fund-raisers? Get to know your donors and do not assume that because they do not drive the fanciest cars or travel to the most luxurious of places (or travel, at all, for that matter!), that they do not have the capacity to make an impact on your organization with a life-changing gift.

So, here is your challenge: Treat every contact as if you are listening to the billionaire donor.

Postscript. Imbue this same commitment in your staff. You never know the potential of the $100 first-time donor and what may grow from a very positive giving experience.

Sit Still, Shut Up, and Listen

Sounds like advice for a grade schooler, but take heed.

In training staff and volunteers to make major gifts solicitations, there is considerable emphasis on setting the appointment, sharing the vision, and how to ask for the gift. It's all about what you say in the call. But is it really about listening that makes the difference?

It is in sitting still to hear what your donor tells you about his or her life story and experience—how a single instance or set of instances helped them or changed their life. In doing so you learn why they are passionate about your organization and your mission.

It is in those moments that human nature tells you to fill the quiet with a remark, a quip, or a rejoinder. Maybe you're a bit nervous. Maybe you're anxious to impress. Certainly you want to make a connection that you can build on later.

But it is in those quiet moments that you, as a volunteer or a professional fund-raiser, "go to the well" to become recharged with the passion about what you are doing. Those stories carry you through the unanticipated declines and the less-than-hoped-for gifts.

You might hear how your healthcare organization saved someone's life. You might learn that a relative was a longtime volunteer. You might learn how your disaster relief organization provided food and shelter to the donor and his family when he was a child and lost everything the family had in a devastating flood.

So your challenge is to resist the urge to talk about you. Ask the donor about him or herself ... and listen to what they say.

And Finally, Care about What's Being Said and What You Hear, Commit to Memory

Take notes when you leave if you have to do so. This kind of active listening and remembering stem from truly caring about the donor. Don't let the prospect of a gift keep you from truly caring and listening to the donor's words. If you are listening and caring (and remember to ask for the gift), the gift will come.

Jeffrey Byrne, Jeffrey Byrne & Associates, Inc.
© 2004, Jeffrey Byrne & Associates, Inc.

Jeffrey Byrne is president and CEO of Jeffrey Byrne & Associates, Inc., a nonprofit capital campaign consulting firm based in Kansas City, Missouri, with offices throughout the United States. Reprinted with permission.
Topics: Charitable Giving