Fundraiser’s mindset: Communication

publication date: Feb 7, 2017
author/source: Jenny Mitchell

Jenny MitchellLast summer I achieved an amazing milestone in my personal life. I won the National Women’s Tennis over 40 doubles Championship. We were the underdogs in this Canadian women’s finals – we knocked off the #1 and the #3 seed to win the title! 

What did we do to win, you ask?

We kept the ball going back and forth over the net. We reacted to their ball, and responded appropriately.

Tennis is a fabulous analogy for great communication. Great communicators know that the ball must go back and forth over the net in order to have a meaningful dialogue.

Great fundraising communicators build trust with donors by keeping the ball bouncing back and forth.  

In-person communication will always be #1 for fundraisers. The intimacy of our work, the power of the human connection means that our go-to way of connecting will always be face-to-face: meetings, events, conversations, tours, and donor dinners.  

What does a great communicator sound like?

They sound very quiet. Great communicators start by listening, and by watching, and by putting out their very best fundraiser radar. Gold star communicators rely on so many other things than just the words coming out of people’s mouths:

  • Body language – are they guarded, arms crossed, or leaning forward?
  • Energy level - are they passionate, engaged, speaking fast?
  • Engagement – are they listening for your next words, or are they checking their watch?
  • Intention – what message are they conveying to you through their words? Is there a subtext for you to understand?

There are so many non-verbal cues that can help you be a great communicator. Watch for them, react to them, and you’ll be able to connect in a more meaningful way with your donors, your staff, your boss and your board.

The single biggest mistake a fundraiser can make is to talk too much.  This is a natural instinct: when you’re new to something, and when you’re nervous, we tend to “fill up the air around us” with dialogue.

Fight your instinct to fill up space in the conversation with words. Remember that you’re playing tennis: bounce the ball over, see how people react, and send a different ball back for them to connect with. 

Great communication skills matter

Listening is an active activity. Taking the time to get to know people – the people that are your donors, your staff, your board – builds trust. Trust is a fundraiser’s single most valuable commodity.  The three steps to trust sound like this:

I hear you.

I know you.

I understand you.

Your Turn – ready, set, go!

In your next meeting or conversation, commit to using this listening technique. I call it the paraphrase technique. It takes what you have just heard, and reframes it back to the other person for validation and clarity. It sounds like this:

“Suzie, thank you so much for outlining this problem/issue/idea for me. From what I heard, I understood the following: X, X and X. Does that sound about right?”


Great fundraisers are naturally curious about other people. Like tennis, you’ve got to figure out people’s interests, weaknesses and strength. Being a great listener is the first step to connecting in a meaningful way with people. It is one of my greatest joys as a person, and as a fundraiser.  Drop me a note at to let me know what your greatest joy as a fundraiser is. I’d love to hear about it!

Jenny Mitchell, CFRE, helps not-for-profit leaders change the world, one mission at a time!  Connect with Jenny at, or through her website at


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