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Learning to Listen

When I was a young development officer, I worked for 5 years at the University of Nevada in Reno. Now, this is the REAL University in the system, not the basketball factory down in Las Vegas! The University of Nevada has a medical school and preeminent schools of mining and agriculture. This place was and continues to be the real deal.

Fundraising was pretty new at the University, and we all wore a number of hats. One of mine was to oversee a major fundraising gala for the academic programs at the University, kind of a counter-point to the huge events held in support of the University’s athletic department. One year, a local hotel (in Reno, they are hotel-casinos) offered us the opening night performance of a revival of a big Broadway show that was coming to town–“Hello Dolly,” starring Carol Channing. Of course, we jumped at the chance to raise academic funds from what we knew would be a very popular event.

One of my jobs as the “project manager” for this event was to help publicize and promote it, and in that role, I was given the task of interviewing Carol Channing for the University’s weekly television program a few months prior to the event (I know, some of you were assuming that TV had not been invented yet, but believe it or not, it was, and we were already shooting in color!). I prepared carefully for the interview, reading about Miss Channing’s career in detail, listening to her recordings, learning about “Dolly” and preparing a series of questions designed to get her to speak about the show and the University’s academic fundraising program.

The day came for the interview, and I will admit that I was more than a little nervous.  I had done a bit of television in the past, but here I was, a twenty-six year old development officer, interviewing one of broadway’s greatest stars. We met, sat down, she adjusted the cameras to her liking, and we began.

My first question was a softball–designed to get her talking. “So, Miss Channing, why did you decide to return to the stage in the role of Dolly Levy?” Simple question. As she began to talk, I was glancing down on my pad, to get ready with the next question.

I never got a chance to ask that next question! Carol Channing spoke for forty-five minutes without me ever uttering another word! Every now and then I nodded my head, perhaps laughed at her jokes, but mostly I marveled at how she took over the interview and covered everything that we hoped she would cover.

At the end, when the camera was off and the lights were dimmed, she turned to me and said “you are the best interviewer I have ever had.” In that moment, I will assume she really meant it.  I was a great interviewer because I let her go–I let her talk. The interview, after all, was about her, not about me. So, in that respect, I will accept her complement. I really did a great job of interviewing her, because I asked her the right question to get her started and then I got out of the way.

I am reminded of this story every time we train volunteers or new major gift offices in the art of soliciting gifts. Listening, not talking, is a vital skill in major gift solicitation. Sure, the prospective donor may want to learn more about your organization, or may have a specific question about one area of your work. But at the end of the day, you, the major gift officer or volunteer, is there to listen, to learn as much as you can about that prospect and to pick up clues that will help you more effectively solicit that prospect in the future.

I’ll admit that it is a good deal more complex than my interview of Carol Channing, but the principles are the same. Don’t plan to do all (or even most) of the talking. Plan on doing most of the listening, however.

By doing so, you will gain valuable information and knowledge that will help you be a more effective fundraiser with that prospect in the future.


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1 comment

A law school professor once pointed out to me that writing, reading, speaking and listening are the four forms of communication. Writing is used the least, but taught the most and listening is used the most, but almost never taught as a skill.

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