Meeting a major donor – transform your approach

Here’s one simple approach that can transform your meetings with a current or potential major donor, and increase your chances of a large gift.

So you secure a meeting with a major donor or potential donor. What do you actually say to them?!

Before philanthropy and fundraising, I was in sales at Unilever. Buyers at Tesco and Asda would often keep us waiting before a meeting for hours. (the Waitrose ones were rarely late, & were the only ones to give us biscuits!). If we had a new product to sell, we worked up a pitch in line with the supermarket buyer’s priorities. These were often increasing sales, or making a larger profit from each sale. However, sometimes it was trying to have a competitive edge over another supermarket; sometimes they wanted to be leading the way with a certain audience e.g. families.

So what’s my point?

Well even in the transactional world of Unilever selling marmite to Tesco, and Tesco selling marmite to its shoppers, there was nuance. Although we pitched and negotiated hard at times, we understood where our buyer was coming from and what pressure they were under. We had already met and worked with the buyer and their colleagues, often over months or years, which helped hugely when it came to pitching.

When it comes to major donor fundraising there is soooooo much nuance! The largest major donor gifts are anything but transactional yet we can feel pressure to pitch to donors and do this the first time we meet them! When we don’t understand where they’re coming from.

I get why we do it. I’ve worked with many fundraisers and charity leaders who, although they may not view it as pitching, have gone to meet with a donor and mainly talked “at” them. I’ve done it myself.

Often in that first meeting, we pitch or talk at our potential donor because:

  • The (potential) donor is  busy right? Let’s save them time.
  • They’ll want to know all about our charity….
  • THIS meeting is THE time to impress them.
  • We’re nervous and so we talk a lot (I’m very guilty of this!)

The concepts of  “An elevator pitch” and even long-running tv series like The Apprentice and Dragon’s Den seem to support this approach. Yet if we don’t know where a donor is coming from it’s a huge waste of an opportunity.

So how do we find out where a donor’s coming from?

For the past 15 years, I’ve been helping hundreds of fundraisers find the confidence and tools to hit their major donor fundraising targets and take a different approach at these meetings.

We all have a natural curiosity about people, but the pressure to think about asking for a gift, to hit our targets or to “pitch” a project can often get in the way of this.

One of the elements of my Summit work I love most is interviewing charity’s major donors:

  • Where did they first come across or hear about the charity?
  • How has the pandemic affected their business(es) and family life?
  • Which causes do they give to and why?
  • What do they get out of their giving? How does it make them feel?

The openness and honesty I get asking open questions and letting a donor talk is fascinating, heart-warming and hugely enjoyable.

And you don’t have to be a consultant to be curious and ask these questions.

You could be meeting a long-standing major donor to your charity for the first time, or you might be having that first conversation with a potential donor at an event. In these situations, open, curious questions can transform your major donor fundraising. How?

  1. Your next step with that individual will become clearer. 
    Taking this approach with a major donor at a hospice, I discovered she’d previously worked as a counsellor and was fascinated by the bereavement support the charity offered. I offered for her to meet the Hospice’s counselling lead – two months later she doubled her gift.
  2. You’ll work out if their values align with your charity’s, at an early stage.
    Sometimes relationships don’t move forward when you discover a potential donor’s priorities. And that’s okay – it’s better to know than to have them on “a list” and never get anywhere with them.  It’s better to understand if a major donor could actually be a risk to your charity rather than assume their money and association will be a positive. It’s essential to partner with donors who believe in your organisation’s values and your anti-racism work. You can read more about this in my earlier blog here

Major donor fundraisers that are curious succeed.

If salespeople can understand the nuance when selling marmite to Tesco, we can definitely find the nuance in major donor fundraising.  If we can forget about someone’s wealth and their money in the first instance, and be genuinely curious we’ll raise far more – we’ll understand our donors, be able to give them a great experience, and have conversations to ask for larger gifts.

This was posted on 14 January 2022.


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