Listening is a lost art in fundraising. We use our mouth a great deal, but our ears not so much. We spend countless hours on messaging strategy, pay outrageous sums to PR firms for help with our logo and tagline, and pore over every word in our direct marketing appeals. All that matters, but it’s not enough.

It’s fashionable to talk about fundraising as relationship building, but what we mainly do is talk at our donors without making any effort to hear what they have to say.

Chances are you’ve been invited to join a customer community for an airline or a bank or a store you shop at. You sign up and get regular surveys. jetBlue will give you frequent flyer miles for every survey you complete. Retail stores offer discounts and freebies.

The benefits are two-fold: the company deepens connections with customers, the likely consequence is increased loyalty and word of mouth. And meantime they keep their fingers on the pulse of their best customers – what they like, what’s important to them right now, what they expect as customers, etc.

In 2018, we set out to duplicate that model for nonprofits with a particular focus on two high value and often neglected groups: monthly sustainers and midlevel givers. We launched our first donor insight panel with National Audubon Society in February 2018. Now in its fourth year, the Insight Panel consists of more than 4,000 donors. Average response rate for monthly surveys hovers around 25%.

Audubon panelists have shared stories of wonder and discovery and occasionally heartbreak. They’ve helped Audubon navigate the complex terrain of the pandemic, the 2020 election and the nonstop assault on conservation during the Trump years. They’ve provided important feedback on the Audubon birding app and other content. And they have surfaced concerns and complaints in a way that lets Audubon address them quickly.

So if jetBlue gives out frequent flyer miles, what do Audubon panelists get? They get an opportunity to be seen and heard by a cause that is dear to them. Listening, it is said, is an act of love. They also get a monthly report back with highlights of the prior month’s survey results. And increasingly, they get a sense that their voice matters.

Today we have active panels with Audubon, Best Friends Animal Society, the ACLU and the No Kid Hungry campaign. In each case, the story is similar – donors are eager to share, eager to be heard.

How about you? Your donors are talking. Are you listening?