Major donor fundraising meetings – when things don’t go to plan

I spend a lot of time giving people confidence in their major donor fundraising: confidence to have that conversation, to meet with an existing or potential donor or to give them the chance of giving a large gift.

As well as practical techniques and tools that confidence often stems from knowing that meeting the major donor “will be okay”.  

90% of the time?

It is!

I’ve had someone I’ve coached call me to say that the meeting they were dreading with a lapsed donor (read “forgotten about” with lapsed here) was fascinating and that the donor wanted to get more involved.

I’ve had a fundraising leader, fearful of meeting a “grumpy trustee” (not my words!) email me to say afterwards that he’d signed up to a direct debit and introduced her to three of his network.

Often the part of major donor fundraising that brings the most joy is meeting major donors – that human connection.

But what happens the other 10% of the time?

What happens when you get that coveted meeting and it doesn’t go to plan? And not because of your lack of preparation or your approach, but because of the major donor’s behaviour?

I was reminded of this earlier this Summer when I found myself in a virtual meeting with with a flustered, abrupt and rude individual.

  • Something had happened, he’d had a tough morning.
  • I offered to rearrange, he refused.
  • He was upset with me about the Zoom details (they had been in the calendar invite, on an email and he had a PA and I’d resent them). I apologised.
  • I acknowledged that I was particularly grateful for his time as it seemed he’d had a tough start to the day. He snapped back that it wasn’t about his time.

Things didn’t improve. He talked over me on about 5 occasions when I was trying to bring the meeting back and be positive. The final straw was a veiled threat of “I’m going to get irritated with you if…..”

I ended the meeting early. I said it clearly wasn’t the right time for him to meet and I hoped his day improved.

So, what can we do in situations like this?  It’s been a good few years since I’ve had an experience like this. I was a bit shaken up, and working alone at home, so I canvassed the world of Linked In and Twitter for some reassurance and some tips. People were hugely supportive and gave a whole range of approaches and advice.

Here are some tips for when you’re in major donor meetings that aren’t okay [and just to be clear here I’m not talking about racism, harassment or other more serious behaviour which you need to remove yourself from immediately, although I get that the two can be linked].

  1.  It’s not you.

This happens and has happened to so many of us. You could waste a lot of time and headspace thinking about what you said or did to cause the behaviour, but if someone else hasn’t treated you with respect, it’s on them, not you.

It’s easy to think it’s us. That we haven’t managed the situation and that other people have got this nailed. However, as shown by my chat with esteemed sector leader Felicia Willow, this is a challenge for us all. Oh and the T-shirt is brilliant, it’s here

2. You can end a meeting whenever you need to

However desperate your cause is for funds, however wealthy or powerful the donor, you don’t need to tolerate being made to feel small, uncomfortable or bullied. Have an exit strategy. If you haven’t terminated a meeting before it’s worth having a few phrases up your sleeve:

“Let’s reschedule this meeting for another time.”
“This doesn’t feel the best time for us to be having this conversation. I suggest we rearrange it”
“Thank you for your time and input. I’m now going to bring the meeting to a close.”

3. Empathise

Often you might not need to end the meeting.  Although empathising and offering to reschedule didn’t work in my meeting, it will be effective with some individuals. Sarah Hughes, an expert in leadership and innovation, spent many years working with successful, wealthy tech entrepreneurs and founders. Sarah’s perspective is that:

“People have bad days and can bring their worst selves to work. Hard though it is, some empathy helps to build the bridge we need to put in place and allow the rude person to step on it – and eventually cross it. One way to do this is to use words that sympathise and give them a timeout.”

Sarah Hughes

These could be:

 “I am so sorry to hear you’re disappointed in how we’ve managed your gift”

“Would it help if we shortened, re-prioritised the agenda or re-scheduled?”

4. Confront or challenge the behaviour

Sarah Jane O’Neill, who has many years major donor experience, describes how we can challenge the behaviour subtly but effectively with body language: “maintaining open, upright posture and slowing down speech and movement to show that you can match power”.

Charity trustee, Bridget Waters, fundraising manager and trustee, highlights that others need to call out bad behaviour if they’re in the room when it happens.  This is particularly incumbent on leaders and managers: “Could you please let my colleague finish what she was saying.” “We don’t tolerate our staff being spoken to like that.”

Some charities have a policy of at least two members of staff attending any donor meeting. Although this can seem resource-intensive, the benefits, particularly for those meetings that don’t go as planned, are huge. It can be incredibly difficult to think about our next step and to challenge this behaviour when we’re on our own.

5. Be clear on expectations

It’s important your organisation and your donors are clear about what is expected. Karen Robinson, a leadership expert, recommends always outlining the expectations you have from people, regardless of the seniority of who you’re meeting.  She believes that if you make this a habit, it gets easier to hold people accountable when expectations aren’t met. Anj Handa, Founder of Inspiring Women Changemakers, has done a lot of work on helping people to set boundaries:

If you do not clearly demonstrate and communicate your boundaries, how can you expect others to respect them?

Anj Handa, Founder, Inspiring Women Changemakers

One way of doing this is through a behaviour code.  Shaun Polley, now CEO of ME2 Club, told me that when he was at Missing People, they developed an ‘expected behaviours code’ for supporters, which they shared ahead of meetings or events.  

I hope you find these tips helpful. It’s easy to think that these donor behaviours are a product of wealth as we’ve become more aware of wealth inequalities and more critical of big philanthropy  – Dr Beth Breeze explores this in her fascinating book “In Defence of Philanthropy” (and I’ll be chatting to her about it on the next free Summit Power Hour)

Whilst some high-net-worth individuals may display a level of arrogance or rudeness, it’s worth remembering that these situations can and do happen at all levels of wealth in all areas of society and our community.

Charity leadership and management need to consistently remind fundraising and donor-facing staff that it’s okay to lose a powerful donor. You might lose some income in the short term, but the cost of losing great fundraising staff and the damage to organisations who tolerate bullying and disrespectful donor behaviour is far greater.

Louise Morris, Major donor fundraising specialist

And for every arrogant, disrespectful major donor, there are many more who are humble, compassionate and ready to partner with you to change the world! Enjoy meeting with them and connecting with them!

Louise Morris is the Founder of Summit Fundraising. She is a major donor fundraising specialist and has worked with over 200 charities helping them raise large gifts.

This was posted on 9 September 2021.


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