Why Simply Listening Can Mean New Funding Opportunities

Mark Titi is a guest contributor for Nonprofit Hub. He’s the founder of Wobbly Nonprofit. He has over a decade of experience directing the financial and planning activities of  small nonprofit organizations.


I recently visited Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Everyone knows Lincoln’s Gettysburg address as one of the greatest messages in our nation’s history. But do you remember Edward Everett? Like many others, you may be drawing a blank. Everett got top billing and gave a lengthy speech at Gettysburg. It was two hours long. Mr. Lincoln and about 15,000 others patiently listened. 13,607 words later, what was planned to be “the” Gettysburg address ended. But few remember it today.

Lincoln followed. He was a storyteller with a keen ability to capture attention. Yet it was his careful, energized listening over the preceding months that truly prepared him. He delivered 272 powerfully crafted words in less than 3 minutes. The noise of the battle had ended but his impactful message still rings loud and clear today.


“Listen a hundred times; ponder a thousand times; speak once.” —Turkish proverb

Funding Opportunities Start with Listening

There are three key things listening enables us to do better.

Learn. We explore the needs of others rather than seeking instant gratification.

Adapt. We adjust our expectations accordingly.

Empathize. We find common areas of understanding.

It takes a lot of time and energy to make noise. But that doesn’t guarantee more attention. Until we realize these benefits of listening, we can’t forge meaningful relationships. Our communication can’t consist of just idle chatter. Small children cry to get attention or tell us that something is wrong. But your cause won’t make good first impressions that way.

“To be interesting, be interested.” —Dale Carnegie

No, Dale Carnegie didn’t mean posting more calls to action on Facebook. But he did believe in changing our behavior toward others. That could begin a favorable chain reaction in your nonprofit’s communications. Don’t come up with more stories to tell. Instead, focus first on hearing more stories. Yes, this is engagement of a different kind. Rather than latching onto funders, try attracting them instead.

  • Ask questions.
  • Speak to communicate—not to impress.
  • Create anticipation.
  • Take notes.
  • Discover problems.
  • Transform from peddler to active listener.

A Daily 15 Minute Listening Workout

Lincoln was known to have said that if he had six hours to chop down a tree, he would spend the first four sharpening his axe. On Monday, compile a list of three individuals who you would like to know more about. Your goal for today? Simply get their telephone numbers and tuck them away in a database. This could be:

  1. A person you follow on a social network
  2. A small business entrepreneur
  3. A corporate community relations specialist

Tip: Use your staff, board members, volunteers, clients or friend to help provide the contacts.

Tuesday is about anticipating interests. What common threads do you share with these individuals? A hobby? Financial struggle? A friend? A pressing problem? A dream? Your faith? Consider questions you could ask to break the ice.

Tip: Think in terms of what you want to learn about the other person and their organization—not asking for something you need.

It’s time to make some new friends on Wednesday. Go old school and reach out to the three individuals on your list with an introductory phone call. Express your interest in finding out more about what they do and how you could help their organization in some small way. *Just remember that not everyone has time for you or wants to be your friend right now (but maybe later!).*

Tip: Don’t let suspicion ruffle your feathers. After all, it’s not everyday that you run across someone who doesn’t prescribe to “me-first” thinking. Abandon any agendas and any expectations.

On Thursday, do some thinking and summarize your conversations. Take note of common threads, what you learned from others about their organizations and what they seemed to be interested in regarding your own nonprofit. Document your findings in a log. Then make plans to cultivate the relationships.

Tip: Consider a virtual open house.

On #BuildSupportFriday, use this hashtag to share your experience with other organizations. What did you learn and what surprises did you encounter? How did you adapt and what were the results? How would (or did) you tweak the process to make it more productive?

Now rinse and repeat starting with three new contacts next week! Rotate the responsibility too if you can.

But where’s the payoff, you ask?

“The ear of the leader must ring with the voices of the people.” —Woodrow Wilson

  • Listening opens the door to the possibility of deeper, long-term relationships. Asking strangers to hit your “donate now” button is a shallow approach that does not inspire sustainability.
  • It’s been said that the only way to have a friend is to be one. Investing time with someone only when you have a need is not a sign of friendship. Not listening to what they have to say doesn’t help either.
  • To get the biggest payoffs, you need to put your fears aside. Being transparent can create anxiety because it makes an organization vulnerable. Are you carrying out your mission as promised? If the answer is yes, there is nothing to fear. If the answer is no, you need to start bringing your A game.
  • Misunderstandings, distractions and even chaos can result without properly listening. Aim to improve your communications with potential stakeholders.
  • It’s much easier to initiate contact without expectation. Cling tightly to hope and faith instead. Simply trying to squeeze the most juice from the orange is not a sound strategy.
  • As you seek to attract resources, consider these steps consumers pass through to make purchasing decisions.

Potential donors must understand the need. What social problem(s) is your charity addressing? Remember that, without actively listening first, you may never invite this question. Failing to clear this first hurdle would result in unproductive fundraising efforts.

Creating awareness opens the door to a search for more information. What is the scope of the need? What would be the social consequences of your organization not existing to meet the need?

Next alternatives are identified. Is your organization the only one addressing this need? Most likely, it isn’t; therefore, it is your responsibility to demonstrate how you best meet the need.

Three cheers! Now a stakeholder can decide how to direct limited time and money. If you have listened carefully, you will have gathered important information enabling you to answer questions and possibly develop a relationship. Without listening, you risk the chance of leaving out important information and/or saturating someone with unnecessary information.

How well has your nonprofit deployed the resources provided to address the stated problem(s)? What were the specific outcomes and how impactful were they? This is the type of information stakeholders will need to review their return on investment. Although they expect it, they may not ask for this information: be sure you provide periodic updates to keep everyone in the loop.

The big question mark is now whether a stakeholder feels endeared to your cause or chooses to abandon it. At this final stage, your organization gets the thumbs up or thumbs down on a long term commitment.

It should now be clear that the chance of a stranger clicking on your donate now button without passing through this process is very unlikely. When your organization seeks to search for itself, listens, learns and adapts, the probability of fundraising success will increase.

The simple discipline of listening- each and every day- can indeed take your cause to new heights. The preparation it represents requires the same patience that Lincoln exercised. Building a legacy can be measured by the number of hearts touched. Is your charity ready to rise to the challenge?

“A wise old owl sat on an oak; The more he saw the less he spoke; The less he spoke the more he heard; Why aren’t we like that wise old bird?” —Charles Shultz


Mark Titi

November 17, 2015

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