Love Your Job More: Practice Selective Listening


Let’s Recognize & Respect the Unique Skill Sets of Nonprofit Professionals

Every day, part of a fundraiser’s job is listening. To donors. To higher ups. To board members. The list goes on.

And depending on who is doing the talking and about what, it’s important that we tune in and learn what we can.

But sometimes, it’s equally important to close down and shut off those ears, too. Call it self care, or simply a sanity/job saver.

Respect & retention linked

I have over 20 years of experience in conceiving and growing multi-million dollar individual giving programs, with a specialization in direct response. I’ve practiced my craft in diverse nonprofit sectors including food insecurity, animal welfare, health and higher education. There’s also that master’s degree in nonprofit management.

And I can’t tell you the number of times I have been wordsmithed, (not edited, which is a good thing) questioned on a photo, had my expertise called into question, and generally micromanaged.

This usually comes from people who are less experienced in fundraising than me, especially in direct response fundraising. I wonder if they question other professionals, like their surgeon, half as much! (“Are you really going to use that scalpel?”)

Honestly, I think this is primary reason why the fundraising profession has a hard time retaining staff longer than 16 months.

When listening hurts the bottom line

I know that certain changes to appeals will actually make those appeals less successful. Many best practices in direct response are simply counter-intuitive, because human behavior is rarely logical.

But sometimes I have to make changes anyway because the person who wants them has authority over me. And guess who gets held accountable when that appeal underperforms? That person who simply couldn’t “live with” so many exclamation points in an appeal? No!!!!!!! (See what I did there?) It’s the fundraiser. ME.

This can lead to some pretty big insecurities, job dissatisfaction and a feeling of hopelessness.

How to better support fundraisers

The best bosses I’ve had let me do my thing, and serve as a sci-fi like shield between me and everyone who wants to disrupt my work. It doesn’t mean that I’m not open to improving, or won’t take suggestions.

But there comes a point in your career when, most of the time, you will know a ton more than the people who are commenting. And they rarely make comments with the intent to learn more about the field of fundraising and its peculiar, but effective, quirks.

This means listening to them will make work less effective. And that’s something fundraisers literally can’t afford to do.

  • Have these well-intentioned folks read all of these blog posts?

  • Have they been to and even presented writing for fundraising workshops?

  • Have they worked as a professor at a university teaching fundraising?

I wouldn’t assume that I know more than a plumber or banker or graphic designer. And yet the minute you say you work at at a nonprofit, there’s a general assumption that this must mean you 1) don’t know much 2) haven’t studied 3) couldn’t get a job at a “real” company 4) are willing to work for less than you’re worth. In summary, damaged goods.

It’s time to change this and elevate all nonprofit staff and the unique skill sets they have to employ every day to help change the world.

And fundraisers, it’s past time for us to practice selective listening. Email from a board member about a recent appeal? Ignore it. (Might want to get your boss on board for this one.) Suggested changes that will weaken what you’re doing? Push back with best practices or ignore it.

And if you can’t do that, test the change with a small percentage of your list instead of rolling it out to everyone.

“You really should” statement coming from someone uninformed? Tell them you’d be happy to get them everything they need to do that themselves, because your annual plan has been set already.

We are smart, we are skilled, and we’re not going to take it anymore.

Who’s listening?

Terri Shoemaker is Chief Strategy Officer of Abeja Solutions, a fundraising-marketing firm that specializes in helping nonprofits create more reliable revenue. A professional fundraiser, Terri has raised millions of dollars for nonprofit and higher education institutions. Read more from Terri.

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