Listen and Learn: How to Handle Donor Feedback on the Frontline

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I have a good friend who works in the development office of one of the world’s leading universities. Several years ago, he was meeting with young alumni in an effort to raise money for the annual fund. (All people and places will remain nameless is this retelling.)

One of those alumni, who had been recommended to my friend by a handful of big donors, had strong opinions about how the university could improve young alumni giving participation. This alumnus worked for a well-known investment and consulting firm, but was beginning to dabble in nonprofit work. He saw a lot of promise in the event fundraising model—especially for a younger demographic—and advised his alma mater to incorporate events into their strategy.

It’s important to note that this university had, and still has, one the strongest annual giving programs in the country. Their success was based on direct marketing, leadership giving solicitations, and major gift solicitations that included annual giving components.

With that in mind, my friend listened to the alum’s suggestions like a true professional and thanked him for his commitment to the school. Upon returning to the office, he politely and quickly discarded those suggestions. The school was the best in the business and their business did not include event fundraising. End of story.

Fast forward five years later and the story is not so simple. Annual giving is changing nationwide as millennials look for more transparency with their donations. And that alumnus? Today, he’s one of the most famous people in the American nonprofit community and has written a New York Times bestseller about his work and his organization, which found its footing among young donors thanks to (you guessed it) event-based fundraising.

Should my friend and his colleagues have taken a harder look at the alum’s suggestion? Should they have explored the idea with a pilot program? Who knows. They’re still very good at soliciting annual fund support, and the university is still one of the best in the world.

But if they had taken this alumnus more seriously, who knows what he could have helped achieve as a trusted partner with his alma mater.

Forming relationships is the foundation of frontline fundraising—and the key to making these relationships last is to listen more than you talk. As the saying goes, you have two ears and one mouth; listen twice as much as you speak.

Sometimes, however, an alum’s wishes or feedback may run counter to your organization’s practices. This begs the question…

How do you decide which opinions to share with your staff?

The answer stems from assessing the level of the expertise of the donor. For example, in the story above, the donor had expertise in a specific area of fundraising that his alma mater did not possess: events. That skill set, if it had been properly identified and harnessed, would have helped the school recognize that the donor had a better grasp of the fundraising landscape than they did.

Only once you’ve identified the donor as having a high level of ability or experience in a certain area should you move onto the next question…

Who in your office needs to hear the donor’s idea?

Once thing is for sure: no development office needs more meetings. Adding another meeting to your calendar isn’t the answer.

Instead, a good first step is to informally run the idea by a trusted colleague who is connected to the subject of the donor’s idea. If the colleague likes what he or she hears, then you can insert a brief discussion of the idea into your next team meeting or 1:1 with your boss. That allows you to get the right people in the room without clogging up your colleagues’ calendars.

Finally, how should you follow up with the donor?

Once you go through these steps, you’ve created an ideal stewardship opportunity. If your office ends up adopting the idea, you can alert the donor to the change in your organization and thank them for their impact.

If the idea is not adopted, you still have the opportunity to let them know how seriously their idea was considered and encourage them to keep the feedback coming. Either way, you’ll be able to improve relations with the donor by showing that you’ve listened to what they have to say.

Remember that, as a development officer, you’re on the frontline of communication with alumni and donors. No matter what school or organization you represent, you’re in a unique position to hear from talented donors who are eager to help you succeed.

Don’t turn a blind eye to their feedback. Tapping into this talent pool and listening to donors’ advice can help improve your programming in ways that your staff may not be able to identify.

Dealing with an unresponsive donor? Learn how to understand and overcome donor silence in Matt’s last post.


Matt Chittim is a major gifts officer at Providence College, where he works with alumni and parents in Metro New York and southern New England. Matt is also the host of the Providence College Podcast. In his non-working hours, he is chasing after his two young kids, running, and following New England sports. You can follow Matt on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn. You can also subscribe to the Providence College Podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud, StitcherGoogle Play, and Tune In.

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