“Knowledge Speaks, But Wisdom Listens.” This quote is usually attributed to philosopher extraordinaire, Jimi Hendrix. I’m in my fourth decade working in planned giving, and I’m more convinced than ever that listening is the single most important skill for planned giving officers. Strong technical skills may be helpful in closing some gifts. Strong listening skills result in gifts of a lifetime.
Science + Art = Success
Planned giving is a science and an art. The science is the technical aspect: plans, assets, tax laws. The art is relationship development—a relationship between donors and not only us as an individual gift officer, but with our institutions. The gift officers who endeavor to truly understand who their donors are and why they want to give and have the technical abilities to then help them figure out what is best to give, when, and how—those are the ones who will be most successful.
Our planned giving technical skills are based on our knowledge, generally on finance and tax law. This knowledge is simply what we know. It is quantifiable. Our planned giving wisdom comes from experience. Wisdom is qualitative and unquantifiable. Knowledge is knowing what to say. Wisdom is knowing when to say it.
You Can’t Beat In-Person Visits
Where do these concepts fit in our planned giving practice? They play a critical role in our most productive activity: communications in donor visits. Sure, we engage in various communications with donors.
Although written communication (letters, email, etc.) can serve as supplemental and beneficial elements of the gift planning process, they can’t replace spoken conversations and an in-person exchange of ideas. Our conversations in donor visits are our best opportunity to advance gift considerations.
How can we maximize these opportunities? Are we there to present our institution’s programs and priorities and share cool tax-wise ways to support them? Then we should plan on doing a lot of talking to share our knowledge! And we will probably close some transactional gifts. But gifts of a lifetime rarely come through this process. They come from a donor’s heart and soul. To bring these to the conversation, we must let the donor talk while we listen to find their passion. Donors may give a little to our priorities, but they will give a lot to their passion.
The Optimal Donor Meeting
The best donor meetings are all about asking effective, strategic questions and listening carefully to the responses. Steven Covey wrote: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Too often our reply is about us or our institutions, thus missing golden opportunities to keep the donor talking and sharing more from their perspective, their heart and soul. Listen deeply to what they are saying and reply with a question for more information and insight about why they are saying what they are sharing with you.
Sometimes when you ask about their “why,” they will not respond right away. Most likely they are reflecting on your question and their feelings and their life. This can lead to “the pregnant pause,” which many find uncomfortable. This discomfort can move us to jump in and talk. Resist that urge. Wait for the donor to talk. This moment of silence and reflection can be the most powerful tool in listening. When the donor does respond, you may get a profound glimpse into the donor’s heart and soul.
Sarah Dessen wrote: “This is the problem with dealing with someone who is actually a good listener. They don’t jump in on your sentences, saving you from actually finishing them, or talk over you, allowing what you do manage to get out to be lost or altered in transit. Instead, they wait…… so you have to keep going.” It is when the donor talks that we learn about their life, the people in their world, their values and priorities, their plans and hopes for the future. Listening is how we learn their dreams and passions. Gifts of a lifetime begin here.
MGO/PGO Joint Visits
If you understand and practice the wisdom and power of listening, don’t assume all of your fundraising colleagues do. Planned giving officers are often asked to go on joint donor visits with a major gift officer under the rubric of “they know the program; we know the plans.” Major gift officers need to practice deep listening, too, not just present the programs. If not, then all too often these joint visits, while enjoyable, are less effective than a solo visit. MGO/PGO collaboration doesn’t have to mean joint visits, but rather joint coordination.
Joint visits also change the whole relationship dynamic for the donor. Donors are likely to be much less willing to share personal information with two gift officers than one. Like Yogi Berra said: “It was impossible to get a conversation going, everybody was talking too much.” It is never about our story, it is not about trying to make our points, it is all about our donor’s story and listening is the best marketing tool we have.
Listening for the Secret
Imagine George Harrison was a donor when he sang: “You’ll never know how much I really love you. You’ll never know how much I really care. Listen. Do you want to know a secret?”
If you are doing all the talking, you won’t hear the secret. Wisdom listens.
Questions to Ask at Your Donor Visits
Consultant Karen Osborne offers this great list of questions to have ready in your mind before you visit with a donor:
- What do you know and how do you feel about our mission, vision, and work?
- Why do you support us? What inspired your first gift to us?
- In what ways do you feel good about the gifts you make to us?
- As you think about the future, ours and yours, what are some of your worries; what are your hopes?
- What do you hope to accomplish with your philanthropy?
- Which organizations are your top three and why?
- As you think back on all the philanthropic investments you and your family have made over the years, which gave you the most joy?
- You’ve been so supportive of us over the years, have you thought about including us in your estate plans? Can you tell me about that?
- What do you want this relationship to look like going forward?
- What would you parents think about your philanthropy? (one of my favorites!)
Try to respond with open-ended follow-up questions like:
- How so?
- Can you clarify that?
- Can you give me an example of what you mean?
- Can you say more about that?
- Did I understand you correctly when you said…?
Jeff Comfort has 38 years of gift planning experience. He is Vice President of Principal Gifts and Gift Planning at Oregon State University. Previously, he spent 18 years as Director of Planned Giving at Georgetown University.