Our Ask An Expert series features real questions answered by Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE, our very own Fundraising Coach, also known as Charity Clairity.
Today’s question comes from a nonprofit employee who wants advice on how to tactfully ask for donor feedback without making promises.
Dear Charity Clairity,
What kinds of questions would you suggest asking donors to help them feel heard—without making promises about acting on their ideas?
I don’t want to say no to them, but sometimes the ideas offered aren’t feasible. I’ve gotten in trouble with board members “reporting” me to my boss, saying I didn’t listen to the donors or even that I rejected their advice. What should I do differently?
— Not Always Tactful
Dear Not Always Tactful,
To be honest, tact has never been my strongest suit either! Luckily, I’ve learned a thing or two during my nonprofit journey, and I’m happy to share.
First, be careful about the way you ask for donor feedback.
Tell donors you’re collecting ideas from a number of leaders like them. You’ll ultimately consolidate them, taking into account the ideas that are most resonant and feasible at this point in time. It’s swell to share the finished product, reminding them of some of their ideas you did honor.
In terms of what questions to ask, you don’t so much ask, “What should we do?” Instead, ask questions like these:
- “What’s really resonating with you about this challenge?”
- “What’s the bottom line of what bothers you about this situation?”
- “What are you curious about?”
- “What would the dream be?”
- “What might be other possibilities to make this dream come true?”
- “What feedback are you hearing in the community around this problem?”
Avoid asking why questions like, “Why do you think this?”
“Why” questions make people defensive and put them in an argumentative stance because they feel like they have to defend a certain viewpoint or come up with a “right” answer. You want them to be in a relaxed and co-creative stance.
Second, end the conversation with a smile.
Even if you’re on the phone or conversing over email, make an effort to smile as you talk or write. It will shine through! Let the donor know how grateful you are for their feedback and even how interesting or stimulating you found it. Tell them you’re going to consider their feedback and that you’ll share it with others as well. This will make them feel heard and valued.
Third, close the loop.
If you’re not going to act on the idea, be sure to get back to the donor and update them on what’s happening. You might tell them you consulted with a number of other stakeholders, and the consensus was not to go in that direction at this time. You’ve got the idea in your file for when the time may be right, and you hope they’ll keep those ideas coming!
If you’re going to act on the idea, be sure to let the donor know and give them the credit they deserve! For example, if you’re in a public meeting with the donor, let others know this plan, strategy, idea came from them. If you’re writing to your board to let them know about upcoming plans, mention you’re using feedback from this donor.
People love and need pats on the back. And the fact they contributed may inspire others to engage with you more actively as well!
Thanks for wanting your donors to feel heard.
PS – Remember: Active listening is half the battle!
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