One of my favorite cartoons shows a lady stretched out on the couch at her shrink’s office. The caption reads, “Maybe I’m depressed because I have to pay someone to listen to me.”

The cartoon says it clearly. People want to be heard. We want to think our feelings, thoughts, and opinions matter to the people in our lives – and very importantly to the people behind the causes we choose to support.

Too many nonprofits drop the ball when it comes to listening to donors. A survey once a year just doesn’t cut it. You might think, “Well since most nonprofits aren’t doing a good job of listening, I’m safe, right?  There’s no competition.”

But there is expectation – and believe me it is increasing with each new generation.

Enter in the opportunity! You have a chance to set the bar – to distinguish yourselves from other organizations with their head in the sand. You, on the other hand, will have your finger on the pulse.

So what should you do? This list is by no means comprehensive, but it will get you started thinking about simple and creative ways you can listen to your donors.

The Basics

  • Answer your general email. If a donor or activist responds to your general mailbox – they should receive a timely and thoughtful (no form letter) response.
  • Surveys – surveys are great tools for soliciting feedback – but do so with a purpose. Use the survey to inform a donor reactivation campaign strategy, benchmark your organizations net promoter score, or find out how the economy might affect your donors’ giving plans this year. A survey just for a survey’s sake is a waste of or your time (and your donors).
  • Report back what you learned – this is critical – donors want to know that you’ve heard them.
  • Charity Navigator and Guidestar both allow donor user reviews – think Yelp for the non profit set. Your donors may be talking about you there. Read those reviews and respond as appropriate.

Social Networks

  • There are a lot of social networks out there. The key for a small non profit is to focus your resources. Maybe you can’t tackle Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Gather, Ning, and an organizational blog all at once. But choose one or two and do them really well. You can always ask your donors where they spend their virtual time and go from there.
  • When I say do them really well – this is where the listening part comes in. Social networks are all about two-way (five-way, hundred-way, maybe even thousand-way conversation). Don’t think of them as just another push channel. You’ve got to respond to what people are saying if you want a real community.


  • Online discussion panels – think of this as a virtual focus group for particular subsets of your donors. It’s cheaper than a focus group and creates intense cultivation value among participants.
  • Passion Panels for high value donors. This is an intensive, invite-only online community that aims to increase giving engagement by providing a high-touch relationship with the organization. Panels can also can provide ready advice on messages and programs and track longer term trends in donor thinking and attitudes.

Ok – so with that said, now it’s my turn to listen. Please respond to this post and tell me other ways that your organization is listening to your donors. Share a case study of something that worked – or maybe something that didn’t. I’m all ears!