During the election, I was excited to get involved and I looked for ways to connect. But it wasn’t easy. Unfortunately, my party’s local website didn’t have a lot of information about how to get involved. For example, it lacked a list of upcoming events or an option to sign up for a newsletter. And as a busy person I never got around to reaching out to them to ask.

Until one day when two canvassers arrived on my doorstep. When they introduced themselves to me as belonging to my political party, I replied, “My people! Hello!” (Really, I said that. I’m that lame.) We had a brief conversation about how stressful the election cycle had been so far. I then explained that I was still relatively new to the area and was looking for ways to learn more about the local candidates, their platforms and other people involved with the local chapter. I mentioned how I had been on their website, but that the information I was looking for was hard to find. Here’s the conversation that happened next:

Canvasser: I know one way to meet people. Would you be willing to go door-to-door for us and ask your neighbors who they will be voting for?

Me: Um. Well, no. I’m new to the area and feel a little uncomfortable asking such a personal question of people I don’t know. They’re my neighbors. I don’t want my first meeting to be around such a polarizing topic.

Canvasser: How about making some phone calls for us, asking people to support our local candidates?

Me: I don’t feel like I know enough about the local candidates or the issues to ask people to support them. Like I said, I’m new and still getting to know the area. I was thinking more along the lines of attending a party meeting or mixer to get to know the people and the issues.

Canvasser: Well, I think the local chapter may be having a mixer in a few weeks. Thanks for supporting us and have a good evening!

Me: Oh. Ok. Thanks. Bye!

Can you see what went wrong during that conversation? I left the exchange feeling confused and frustrated. I bet it wasn’t great for them, either.

Here’s why.

For the canvassers, I believe they were trying to respond in the best way they knew how. Certainly, this election was stressful and everyone was doing everything they could to get out the vote. When they heard I was interested, they jumped straight to the areas where they needed the most help. It’s understandable.

It’s also understandable that they were pressed for time. As canvassers, their job was to get to as many homes as possible. They really didn’t have the time to have a lengthy conversation with me or to come up with an action plan that would be appropriate to my comfort level.

I bet it was frustrating when I kept saying no to the solutions they offered. They must have thought I was being insincere.

I wasn’t. Instead, I was being cautious, like so many people are when they approach an organization for the first time. Before I am willing to lay my reputation and resources on the line, I want to make sure an organization and its people are credible and worth my time. Therefore, I needed ways to learn more about my local government officials, the candidates and their platforms before diving in (and potentially alienating my new neighbors).

I felt like I wasn’t being heard when they suggested volunteer opportunities instead of ways to get information because that wasn’t what I was asking for. – At least not yet.

By the time they mentioned the upcoming mixer, I had given up on the conversation. I think they had, too.

Likely, door-to-door canvassers aren’t trained in the fine, nuanced ways of listening to cues to potential supporter’s interests and motivations. But as nonprofit fundraisers and advocates, we are. – Or we should be. Yet I often see organizations make the same mistake of going too fast and asking too soon and have similarly failed exchanges as the one above. Consequently, organizations are missing out on great people.

Here are a few simple ways to avoid that:

  • Make it easy for new people to find the information they need to feel good about your organization. Have a newsletter sign up option online.
  • Have an email or phone number they can call to speak to someone and ask their questions. Make sure it connects them to a real, live human being! Being hospitable helps put people at ease.
  • If you have upcoming public events, make sure the logistics are easily accessible.

Here’s where it gets a little harder, but the good news is that the following steps are part of developing any relationship, something you already know how to do:

  • Slow down. Let the other person set the pace. You could lose out on a great supporter by pushing them too hard. (On the other hand, you can also lose a great supporter by never following up with them—don’t make that mistake either!)
  • Take the Long View. Yes, you’re pressed for time and have organizational needs you’re hoping this person will help fulfill. Keep in mind that relationships are marathons, not sprints. If someone feels pressured to do something they’re not ready to do they might not stick around at all.
  • Listen. When it comes to engaging people, you need to listen closely for the cues. Generally speaking, people tell you what they need. It’s your job to hear what they are saying. And, as much as you are able, give them what they need to be supported and well-equipped. By doing so, your supporter will feel heard and valued. (If you don’t, they might end up writing an article like this one.)

There are great people out there who want to make the world a better place by volunteering, donating, advocating and more. There are people who want to help. By making a little extra effort to make information accessible, taking time to slow down, listening for their cues and helping them find the ways to engage that feel right to them, you’ll develop loyal, passionate supporters you can rely on time and time again. Do you have a good story about a time when you helped connect someone to a cause they were interested in?

Do you have a story about a time when recruiting a donor or volunteer could have gone better? I want to hear it! Email me at [email protected]