Attending a donor meeting unprepared is the surest way to secure a bad outcome. Successful major gifts fundraising inevitably requires developing comfort with—or, really, a passion for—in-person meetings with your organization’s active and prospective donors. Major donor meetings are crucial to developing the trust necessary for maintaining long-term relationships with donors—and if your organization is like most nonprofits, major donor meetings are crucial to securing the majority of your annual revenue. However, lack of preparation almost always results in donor meetings going painfully awry.
As any fundraiser knows, you can never guarantee a particular outcome from a meeting but good preparation for each donor meeting will provide you with the best hope of success—and the assurance that a negative outcome was not the result of your negligence. As you prepare for your next donor meeting, keep in mind the following 5 points:
Donor Meeting Tip #1: Know your donor’s organizational history.
Any meeting with a current or past donor to your organization should be informed by gratitude for their historical support and awareness about how and why they became involved with your work in the first place and continue their support today. Review your data and remind yourself:
- How much has this donor given, and for how long?
- Are you prepared to thank them for being a supporter for X years?
- What was the last ask made or gift given? Was it general operations or program restricted?
- What was the last action item with the donor? Did you follow up on that last step?
- What was the last communication this donor received from you?
- Are they a former board member or volunteer? What events of yours have they attended?
If you run into trouble pulling or reviewing any of this information from your database, consider conducting a database audit to uncover deficiencies and growth opportunities with your CRM.
Donor Meeting Tip #2: Know your donor’s personal history.
Donors are not ATMs. Never forget that your donor is a person. Surprisingly, the list of things that your donor cares about most in life probably looks quite similar to yours, and they will appreciate being treated accordingly. Think about what you would remember before visiting a friend:
- Did your donor recently sell her business or get a new job?
- Has she made any large gifts to other groups?
- Are her kids in college? Are there medical issues in the family?
- Are they in the news for any reason? Are there topics you should avoid completely or make sure you bring up during the meeting?
Some of this can be researched, but most of it will be learned through good donor cultivation and note-taking when you meet and communicate with your donors.
If you don’t know these important details, you may be ill-prepared for your next major ask and could land yourself in a very awkward situation. For example, you don’t want to begin your meeting by asking a donor who is going through a messy public divorce about a spouse or by inquiring about the business of a donor who is currently under investigation for fraud. Beyond reviewing your database, a quick Google search the day before your meeting can alert you to many potential landmines such as these.
Donor Meeting Tip #3: Know your organization.
Updating a donor on your work, or asking them to continue supporting it, requires you to be deeply versed in your organization’s past results and what you plan to accomplish this year.
This sounds obvious, but it’s worth the reminder. I could spend hours recalling countless stories where a nonprofit executive or gift officer fumbled during a meeting, trying to remember basic details about their organization and its programs.
You must be well prepared to address more than history and vision, however. Most donors considering a major gift to an organization will, understandably, have some questions about what exactly they’re funding, and it is your job to have answers for them. Make sure you are informed about the administrative and financial side of your organization:
- Do you know your organization’s biggest financial needs at any given time?
- What is your annual budget? If you run a deficit or large surplus, why did this happen?
- What do you spend in each program area? Is one program particularly pricey, be prepared to answer why.
- What is your endowment, if you have one? If it's massive, why? If it's tiny, why?
- How many staff do you have? What are the departments?
- How much do you spend on fundraising and administration? (This question irks me for good reason, but you must still be prepared to answer it!)
Make sure that the staff in your organization are equipping you with the information you need to communicate with your donors. Check-in with your colleagues before a meeting to make sure you are clear—and have memorized—important details about your organization. Whether you are a CEO or major gift officer, organizational details are paramount in a donor meeting.
Donor Meeting Tip #4: Know your purpose and know your ask.
Do yourself and your donor a favor: don’t attend your meeting without clearly understanding why you’re there. Are you going in order to thank and update them on the last project they funded? Are you just trying to get to know them better? Are you making an ask?
If you are making an ask in this meeting, consider:
- Have you considered exactly what you’re asking for and how you’ll frame it?
- Have you developed your personal meeting plan and meeting “schedule”?
- Have you rehearsed your ask and meeting plan? This is especially critical if more than one person from your organization is involved—two bumbling, fumbling idiots is not quite the motivator for making a major gift or inspiring confidence!
- Have you anticipated—and are you prepared to address—the questions this particular donor may ask and the details he may wish to know about?
- Do you have a proposal or one-pager to leave behind? (Again, your donors are people—they have a million other things going on that day, so leave something behind to remind them of you and your group!)
- Can you answer why you need this donor’s money and involvement?
Donor Meeting Tip #5: Know what you want and be prepared to pivot.
Here’s a big shocker for all of you, I am sure: donor meetings don’t always go as envisioned, and sometimes they can get downright wacky.
This is why fundraisers need to be prepared for anything to happen in a meeting and have some idea of how you might roll with the punches. Articulate for yourself ahead of time an ideal outcome, an acceptable outcome, and a minimum acceptable outcome so that you know what your backup ask will be should your ideal prove out of reach. (Remember: not every meeting requires an ask, and not every ask is financial!)
And when those meetings get wacky or go completely off the rails: pivot, pivot, pivot. Deal with whatever the donor throws at you and try to get the meeting back on track! The skill to pivot can only be acquired by putting yourself in as many donor meetings as possible.
If the meeting outcome is favorable, what should your follow-up be? What is your stewardship plan once you get what you requested?
The best-laid plans of mice and men . . . are unpredictable, at best. Again, you’re dealing with humans. Nevertheless, good preparation shows respect for your donor’s time and will equip you with the confidence you need to do your job well. The most important thing, as always, is simply to build and maintain a trusting relationship with your donor and then ask for the help that you need.
About the Author
Justin Streiff is a Partner at AmPhil and provides full-service strategic consulting to nonprofits, particularly on capital campaigns, planned giving, and development department management. Prior to joining AmPhil, Justin served for several years as the director of development with the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE). During his tenure there, FEE experienced average annual growth of 30%. Prior to FEE, Justin led the fundraising program for the Goldwater Institute in Arizona. He has also directed nationwide fundraising efforts for dozens of political campaigns, PACs, and non-profits.
Justin has been involved in raising over $100 million through major gifts, capital campaigns, foundation grants, independent expenditures, planned giving, and direct response fundraising, including phone and mail programs. Justin grew up in northern New Jersey and Saint Louis and graduated from the University of Missouri with a B.S. in public policy. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona, with his wife and four children. Connect with Justin on LinkedIn here or contact him anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org.