Advancing Philanthropy

The Art of Communication: Know Your Audience

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When communicating, whether it’s with one person, in a small informal group, or a formal meeting, it’s best to know as much as possible about your audience.

In my consulting role, I often encouraged organizations to use a simple one-page form to collect personal and professional background information and other involvements on each board member, other committee members, and volunteers. This information should not be shared widely in your organization but can be of great value for better understanding people, whether you and other senior staff are meeting with them individually or in formal meetings. In terms of your roles in development, this information can also be of enormous value in better understanding what motivates each person and possible connections they may have to others.

Go the Extra Mile

Knowing your donors and potential donors is essential to developing and maintaining ongoing relationships with them. How much do you know about your supporters and potential supporters? Social media and other online sources can be good sources of information about individuals, their families, and other interests. But also, formal and informal in-person interviews and meetings can generate helpful background information and create a better understanding of each person, their interests, and what motivates them.

Don’t forget to get creative because other online sources can sometimes be surprisingly useful as well. I was once tasked, as a volunteer, to interview several alumni from my school about their interests in increasing their giving. One person had only been giving small amounts over the years. I first found his biography online and noted he is a major player in the movie industry. I then used Google Earth to locate his home, which was in an area I am familiar with; it was located in an exclusive area on a river, was very large, and had a pool, a dock, and a boat anchored at the dock. I was able to make a mental note of these things. During our next conversation, while I did not mention I had seen his home, we discussed the area he lived in and his career in the movie industry. Including these personal and career details allowed us to talk more broadly beyond his giving. Subsequently, he considerably increased his giving levels.

Not Knowing Your Audience Can Be Costly

When I think about the importance of knowing your audience, I’m reminded of an experience I had many years ago at the community foundation where I worked. I was meeting with a major donor and his family to find a project of interest to them at a large city museum. Our foundation provided funds for the museum to hire an architect who would design a new children’s section for the museum. The architect and museum presented a series of detailed concept drawings and floor plans on slides as the family members watched. I sat directly behind the patriarch of the family, who was hard of hearing and did not have great eyesight. As the oral and slide presentation continued, he would make comments such as, “What’s that on the screen?” or “What are they saying?” or “I don’t understand the picture.”

At the end of the presentation, the museum director asked the patriarch what he thought, and he rose from his seat, answered “no,” and left with the family. Did the presenters know their audience? In this instance, they could have taken the time to do more research about the family. In doing so, they likely would have realized he needed a more personalized presentation where he could see and hear more clearly. Mistakes like this can have a significant impact on your fundraising abilities. Always go the extra mile to learn as much about who you’re meeting before you meet. It not only helps you better connect with them on a personal level, but it also allows you to tailor your meeting based on their needs, like using visual aids, a translator, or anything else that might make the meeting run more smoothly.

In another instance, I remember interviewing a CEO from a large company. After we introduced ourselves, he asked, “Do you know what my company does?” Fortunately, I had done some research and said, “Yes, you make these products,” and I listed out some of them. He went on to tell me that the last time he did one of these interviews and asked the same question, the guy had no idea what we did. He said he immediately ended the interview and asked him to leave. Preparing to meet with potential funders should be treated in the same way you would prepare for a job interview. Review the website, gather your talking points, know key facts and figures, and learn about leadership and the company’s mission. This might seem like basic information, but if you’re just starting out—or even a seasoned professional who might want to skip this part—these initial steps are critical and can make or break your initial meetings.

Here are a few simple, easy-to-remember tips to help you better understand your audience:

  • Identify your key audiences and prioritize them.
  • Be sure to include your board members, other essential volunteers, donors, non-development staff, prospects and others who could be important to your organization.
  • Use simple forms, online research, interviews, historical relationships with your organization, and other sources to better understand possible priorities for the person (or people) you are meeting.
  • Keep your information updated and add your own notes, contact reports and other information you might have gathered from others.
  • When initiating direct contact with your various audiences, add in bits of personal information to get the conversation going in a direction related to something other than giving.
  • Avoid putting people in boxes. Allow people to be who they are—and show you who they are—so you can have a better, more authentic experience.

Going back to my community foundation experience, I was always impressed that before our executive committee meetings, the executive director would meet individually with each member to go over the key grant proposals being considered, any issues each might have and any possible sensitive areas. This helped with avoiding major conflicts during the full meeting.

These things might seem unnecessary or like a lot of work—and this exact strategy might not work for you—but there are benefits to doing pre-work that helps you better connect with your audience. Find what works for you, and I guarantee it will only strengthen the relationship you have with your donors.

Eugene Scanlan, Ph.D.Eugene Scanlan, Ph.D., spent over 40 years in the nonprofit sector, including 25 years as a development and management consultant. He has taught graduate courses, led seminars and presentations, and authored over 20 articles and two books.

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08 Aug 2022 President's Perspective Blog
01 Aug 2022 President's Perspective Blog
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