5 Things to Do Before Your First Meeting With a Major-Gift Prospect

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Congratulations! You’ve successfully set up a meeting with a potential major donor. Now it’s time to prepare.

We asked veteran major-gifts fundraisers and consultants what they do ahead of time to make the most of the first meeting. Here’s their advice.

1. Research, research, research. Before the meeting, you want to learn as much as you can. The goal is to determine the donor’s areas of interest, connections to your organization, and capacity to give.

Start with your own database to understand what the organization already knows about the donor. Use Google, LinkedIn, and other publicly available information to gain basic knowledge about who the donor is and what he or she cares about. Talk to people who know the donor.

“What you don’t know will hurt you,” says Margaret Turner, a senior major gifts officer for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Here are some questions to answer before the first meeting:

  • Has the donor given to your organization before? If so, how much, how often, and for how long?
  • What is the donor’s philanthropic history with other organizations? Does the donor sit on any boards? Has he or she made political contributions? A donor’s giving record is often the most reliable indicator of his or her interests.
  • Has the donor volunteered for your organization or attended any of your events?
  • Do any of your board or staff members know the donor?
  • If you’re at a university or school, do you know other donors who were in the same class or live in the same geographic region?
  • Can you estimate the donor’s wealth? What do you know about the donor’s neighborhood, property holdings, and job title?
  • What are the donor’s hobbies?
  • What do you know about the donor’s family?

At the same time, keep in mind your organization’s resources. Small organizations with little research capacity should limit the time and money they spend on research, says Amy Eisenstein, a fundraising consultant and the author of Major Gift Fundraising for Small Shops.

If the information isn’t readily available, fundraisers can just ask the donor, says Peter Drury, director of development at Splash, a water charity in Seattle.

2. Prepare good questions for the meeting. The first meeting is all about listening to what the donor has to say. Come armed with open-ended questions that will help you learn about the donor. The questions will vary depending on the focus of your organization and the donor’s history, but here are a few you might ask:

  • Why are you involved with our organization?
  • How do you want to be involved?
  • How did you come to the decision to give in the first place?
  • What makes you continue to give?
  • Why is our organization important to you?
  • What do you like most about our organization?
  • What would you like to see changed or improved?

“The biggest thing I always ask is, ‘Where are we in their philanthropic priorities?'” says fundraising consultant Laura Fredricks. Many people overlook that question, she says.

Just because a donor has significant wealth doesn’t mean he or she wants to give to your cause, Ms. Fredricks says. If you don’t know how important your organization is to the donor before the first meeting, it’s something you need to discover in your initial conversation.

3. Determine who should attend the meeting. The list of attendees will vary depending on the size of your organization’s staff and its resources, as well as the donor’s connection to the charity.

“We often talk about the right person at the right time asking for the right amount for the right project,” says Karen Gallardo, a fundraiser who spent more than five years as director of gift planning and major gifts at AARP and the AARP Foundation.

She likes to have two people attend each meeting, if possible, to get two perspectives on the conversation.

Jamie Roseman, senior associate vice president for development at Planned Parenthood of New York City, recommends having a longtime donor or board member make an introduction or come along on an early visit.

At a small organization, says Ms. Eisenstein, “whoever has the strongest relationship should go.”

Bringing in heavyweights, like a board chair, is a bad idea for an initial meeting, says Donna Frithsen, associate vice president for institutional advancement at Drexel University’s College of Medicine.

In fact, she recommends that just one person from the organization attend. You want to make sure that you don’t gang up on the potential donor, Ms. Frithsen advises.

4. Plan for the time you have. If a donor can meet for only 30 minutes, respect the time constraint and plan the visit accordingly, says Ms. Turner of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

If you have an idea of what the donor’s interested in, be strategic and steer the conversation toward your goals in the time you have.

5. Set goals. Have a clear sense of the meeting’s purpose, says Ms. Eisenstein. You should have a list of goals before you go in to a meeting so that you don’t leave until you’ve accomplished them.

Some examples of first-meeting objectives:

  • Thank the donor for past gifts.
  • Get to know the donor better.
  • Find out what level of giving the donor would consider going forward.
  • Invite the donor to an event or to volunteer.
  • Find out what project or part of the organization interests the donor most.

Addressing these points will help you plan the next step, such as inviting the donor for a tour of your operation, introducing the donor to a board member, or providing additional information.

Says Ms. Eisenstein: “Everything they say will lead you to your next step, if you listen.”

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