Shelley Feist

When You Listen First, You Build Trust

photo Shelley Feist

High Trust Content Marketing for Nonprofit Organizations

In this post:

  • Top three challenges faced by nonprofit leaders and how listening first helps
  • 80/20 listening rule
  • Active vs. passive listening
  • Triggering talk and the value of making the effort to listen
  • Listening and your content operation

First, a story from a nonprofit leader regarding an exit interview with a staff member:

Just did an exit interview that made me cry.

For all the moments of feeling like I’m not being the leader I want to be, this person told me I’d been showing up as exactly the leader they needed. I wasn’t doing anything fancy, just active listening, and respecting them as the phenomenal person (and professional) they are.

They reflected that their past managers hadn’t listened to them when their communication style was long-winded or jumbled. She had often found herself in toxic work cultures, and this org was the first one they felt “walked the walk” and reflected on my role in creating that.

I may have a ways to go to be a great (or some days, even good) leader, but if you would have asked me what compliment I would most yearn to receive, this was it.

                                                                      — nonprofit executive director

Cultivating your ability for deep listening sets you up to build trust with clients, your community, your staff and donors.

Top three challenges faced by nonprofit executive directors and how “listening first” helps

In applying deep listening to the most critical challenges of leading an organization, nonprofit leaders get to possible solutions faster and cultivate deep trust with others in the process.  

Nonprofit Leader Challenge #1:  Bring money in the door

listen to prospects and donors

How much is listening built into your approach to fundraising?  

The very act of building relationships with potential donors requires that you listen to their needs, ideas, and their desire for making change. 

How can you ramp up listening activities throughout your organization’s donor cultivation cycle?  It may seem that the most pressing topic for your donor communications would be the impact your organization has on the world.  But consider first that your potential donor is showing up for a conversation with you because they have common concerns and interests and they think they can help.

Find out early in the relationship what those specific concerns and interests are.   

Apply the 80/20 rule (see below) consistently in your conversations with potential and current donors.

Build more listening into your development operation and build trust.

Nonprofit Leader Challenge #2: Save time

listen to yourself and to your team

Do you often find yourself with a list of tasks much longer than anyone might reasonably accomplish in a normal 40+ hour work week? 

Apply deep self-listening to sort out your unruly task list, and to sort through why it might be the case that you are in a pattern of overload week after week.

Carve out time for this “self-listen.” Be open to solutions that pop up pointing to ways to lessen process constraints and delegate tasks to others.

Take the solutions that come to you to your staff.  Collaborate on options that have the potential to streamline processes and trim the time required to execute tasks.

Nonprofit Leader Challenge #3:  Manage the board

listen to your directors

Not all nonprofit executives benefit from having a board of directors in place that supports more than it drains energy, resources and time.

A found nearly 19 percent of executive directors planning to leave their positions within a few years cited inadequate board support or performance as the reason they would plan to leave.  

It might feel as though it would be more difficult to apply the 80/20 rule here.  Nonprofit executive directors typically are in a position of reporting to the board, and meetings often are structured around the ED briefing and presenting on the organization’s progress against mission. 

Using a consent agenda for program and operational reports frees up time in board meetings for open dialogue on aspirational ideas. 

Future-focused dialogue among board members offers you an opportunity to be present and to listen actively. 

What do you learn about your board members and their commitments to your organization when you hold back from talking and stay present in active listening?

With what you learn in the act of listening, can you identify new avenues for the organization – and you, as leader – to benefit from increased engagement and commitments of board members? 


These concepts and resources can support nonprofit leaders in realizing all the benefits of listening:

The 80/20 Listening Rule

In Power Listening: Mastering the Most Critical Business Skill of All, author Bernard Ferrari says that good listening is the key to developing fresh insights and ideas that fuel success.

According to Ferrari, although most people focus on learning how to communicate and to present their own views more effectively, this approach is misguided and represents missed opportunities.

Ferrari suggests a variation on the 80/20 rule – where your conversation partner should be speaking 80 percent of the time, while you speak just 20 percent of the time.

He also suggests using that 20 percent of time to ask questions rather than using it to have your own say.

We are driven to say what we think we need to say.  It’s difficult to suppress the urge to speak, and this is true for organizations as well as individuals.

Does your organization listen more than it speaks?

Active vs. Passive Listening

In clinical and mental health writer Kristen Fuller, MD, acknowledges the difference between listening and hearing.  

Fuller characterizes hearing as:

Involuntary; Natural; Using one sense; Perception of sound.

And listening as:

Voluntary – making a choice; Involving effort; Absorbing meaning; Requiring multiple senses.

Fuller also refers to two types of listening, passive and active.  Other experts refer to “shallow” vs. “deep” listening. 

Passive Listening

Is disconnected, and unreceptive. 

This is what you experience when you are not really willing to work with the other person to come to a solution 

Active Listening

Requires motivation, effort and curiosity.

You are in it to try to get to an understanding with the other.

The active form of listening is required if you are looking to solve a problem with another individual.

Listening is work, and it can be difficult.  Following the 80/20 rule and being actively present in the conversation will help you build trust with the other person and offer greater opportunities for developing understanding.

Triggering talk and the value of making the effort to listen

listening can be uncomfortable

When even in the best of circumstances we know it takes discipline and work to actively listen to others, what do we do in situations where we may feel under stress or even threatened?

The ability to inhabit another’s perspective – even for a short time- allows us to build trust. 

When we are able to effort ourselves into making an accommodation for another, we expand our understanding and we demonstrate a form of trust-building that we hope to receive from others, as well.

These situations do make listening uncomfortable for most, but they also offer the opportunity to expand our discipline and open new avenues for understanding, learning and insight.

The “wall of sound.”

Sometimes people encounter a wall of sound when in a place and situation populated by people who are generally more willing and confident in taking up space. 

In this situation, it can feel like you are not only not heard, but also not seen and not valued.

While no one wants to be ignored in an important discussion that may be determining the future of a critical activity or initiative, you may find that exercising humility and presence in these situations helps you avoid being triggered into a feeling of irrelevance or invisibility and also allows you to take away important deep insights.  

I can’t listen to this

When we feel a conversation is threatening our core beliefs, it feels like noise. It can be deeply uncomfortable and can trigger us to tell our own stories. 

On some level, it can feel like the person’s comments are aimed at changing our own views.  That is not generally the case.  Try to hear the person’s words as they are – as his/her own story or beliefs, remembering that their intention is likely just to be heard.  

You’ll notice an urge to move away from what can feel like rising tension or anxiety.

You in fact are receiving signals that you’d like to move away from being with that person and you may notice an impulse to interrupt or to use words to try to “fix” the problem.

If you can stay in a space of listening – for only a few more moments- you will be exercising a powerful skill. 

Remember again the power of deep listening and of momentarily inhabiting someone else’s perspective.

High Emotion

In a high-emotion situation, there is generally a human impulse to tell our own story, or to add to someone’s talk.  The impulse on our part to talk is because we think it will help the other person to be okay. 

We’ve all been in a situation where we are telling our difficult emotional truth, and another person tries to talk us out of it – telling us that, no, this is not what is happening or that everything will be “just fine”. 

When this tendency arises, simply try to notice it – in yourself and in others.

Name it silently.  “Ah! There’s me trying to fix this,” or “that’s them, trying to make things better” and gently return to listening.

Reimagining listening and your content operation

Maybe it is possible to allow nonprofit marketing communications teams to try a new way.

Instead of asking, “what are we going to put out next week?” consider turning the question around – “how are we going to hear from our audience next week?”

Is it possible to imagine your content marketing plan with the 80/20 listening rule? 

A content strategy is built on actively listening to your audience – and ensuring that the content you create is directly responsive to their needs.

I suggest free-flowing interviews with a handful of your users.  This helps you map occurrences and choices in their lives that align them with the change you are working to make in the world.

Even if you are unable to afford outside assistance with this kind of unstructured hour-long interview, look for ways to bring individual interviews and group listening sessions into the work of your purpose-driven organization. 

Ramp up listening across your organization’s programmatic and operational areas, and ensure data is captured and insights developed. 

Reimagining listening in the context of the digital space is critical to adjusting to your 80/20 listening rule.

There’s much more to be explored in this area, and I look forward to doing so here on my blog and in my LinkedIn and Twitter posts.

Are you ready to build more trust with your audience?

A documented content strategy is your orgs’ opportunity to build trust with your users/audience. I’m signing clients now for early 2023 comprehensive content strategy development. Schedule a call wtih me and we can talk about your organization’s needs for a smarter, more effective content operation.

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