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Understanding the Critical Role of Emotional Intelligence in Fundraising


In the simplest terms, fundraising is a meeting of needs. However, it’s more than a transaction between donor and fundraiser: it’s building a community of people with similar interests and goals. An essential part of creating a healthy community is getting to know those who are part of it.

As fundraisers, knowing your donors translates into understanding their individual stories, interests, and needs and seeing how you can help fulfill them. These skills—the ability to connect with donors, understand them, and inspire them to act (either by giving or volunteering)—are embedded in everyday fundraising work and are finely interwoven with emotional intelligence.

What is emotional intelligence and why does it matter?

Emotional Intelligence, or EI, as defined by the Institute for Health and Human Potential is “the ability to recognize, understand and manage our own emotions” as well as “the ability to recognize, understand and influence the emotions of others.” Essentially, it’s the ability to recognize when our emotions are driving our behavior and how they can impact those around us.

A white paper PUBLISH by the Institute for Health and Human Potential shows that “80% of competencies that differentiate top performers from others are in the domain of EI.” 

Emotional intelligence in the fundraising world

So, what does this have to do with fundraising? “Emotional intelligence can make the difference between a good donor interaction and a bad one,” explains Barbara Newhouse, CEO of The Children’s Heart Foundation. “It’s a balance between passion for the cause and good business.”

At its most basic, fundraising boils down to collaborating, building bonds, and inspiring others. All these activities are influenced by the five major components of emotional intelligence characterized by Daniel Goleman, who popularized EI with his book Emotional Intelligence:

  • Self-Awareness
  • Self-Regulation
  • Motivation
  • Empathy
  • Social Skills

Here’s how the five components of EI relate to fundraising:


  • Understanding the impact you have on people around you and using this to inspire your donors into action
  • Understanding what motivates and/or excites you about the cause you’re advocating for


  • Being able to control emotions even when under pressure (like meeting tight deadlines or not having enough resources)
  • Managing emotions when giving or receiving feedback
  • Managing challenging relationships
  • Dealing with change


  • Maintaining optimism even when dealing with setback and failures
  • Staying committed to your organization through the highs and lows of fundraising


  • Being able to put yourself in your donor’s shoes and see where they are coming from; adjusting your pitch to account for this
  • Paying attention to your body language as well as your donors’ so you can correctly interpret what they are not saying
  • Being able to respond to feelings appropriately

Social Skills 

  • Being able to handle conflict with donors and/or other stakeholders in a positive manner
  • Being able to accurately communicate information and need
  • Being able to position yourself and your pitch to get the results you want

Fundraising is a give-and-take relationship with donors—understanding the role both parties play in each other’s stories is the way effective fundraisers leverage their emotional intelligence to fulfill both donor and organizational needs.

Interested in learning more about EI in the workplace? Reach out to me at with any questions.

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Kris Landin McFeely
For more than 22 years, Kris McFeely has worked with Campbell & Company’s Executive Search team to find talented individuals that can make an impact on an organization’s mission for...
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