Major Donor Visits: Your Questions and My Ruthlessly Practical Answers

Visits with major gift prospects can be scary. How do you handle them? What do you say?

Here are my answers to all your questions from last week’s webinar:

Q: What if your donor hijacks the conversation and you lose control?

That will certainly happen sometimes!

Try to have the donor doing most of the talking!

Try to have the donor doing most of the talking!

You have to dive in and gently steer them to – “I have something really interesting I need to run by you.”

Q: What do you say to someone who is not a major donor yet, but has the capacity to be one?

I’d ask their advice. I’d say to them –

  • Here’s our project – what do you think of it?
  • Here’s our goal – what do you think?
  • How can we raise the money?
  • Who do you think would be interested?
  • How can we best present our project to potential donors?

Q: How do you pivot from small talk to what you need to ask the donor?

It’s a delicate dance.

Try to get the donor on YOUR side!

Try to get the donor on YOUR side!

The donor might start going on and on and the clock is ticking.

You have to politely dive in at an appropriate point and see if you can shift.

You can say, “there’s something I really want to ask you about. . . .”

Q: How can we encourage board members who are reluctant to open the door to their contacts?

See if you can get your board members to invite their friends to an event.

Then you can meet the prospect and ask him if you might come visit him.

Or ask them if they’d like to come for a visit to your facility. Or ask her why she is interested in your cause.

Q: Do you prefer meeting in an office rather than over a meal, coffee, etc?

It depends on what my objectives are.

I don’t like to make solicitation visits in public. Restaurants are particularly bad.

If I am going to talk about anything confidential that I don’t want anyone to overhear, I like to be in a private place.

“Get to know you” visits are ok in public. But discussing your fundraising campaign or screening a potential donor list should be in private.

Q: Will you weigh in on giveaways/leave behinds for meetings with prospects/donors?

Well a little gizmo is ok but don’t go overboard!

Q: What if donor is not talkative?  Some don’t want to talk, and I need icebreakers.

If your donor doesn’t want to talk at all, then I’d be worried.

Asking your donor what she thinks will get her more interested than ever!

Asking your donor what she thinks will get her more interested than ever!

I’d do anything in the world to get them to talk.

Otherwise I am striking out completely.

Q: When do you write a note vs. email vs. call?

Take your lead from your donors. Are they email people or note people?

A note is always very good manners and sets you apart.

Q: When you start talking with your donor about what you know about them, how to not seem like you’re stalking them?

Be gracious.

For example, you can say – I understand you are a fan of our local sports team. I understand you are a big deep sea fisherman. Or I understand that you recently received a big award.

Or I understand you just took your company public. :)

Q: What if the most influential person in the room is not the host? Do you insult one prospect by catering to another?

Well, manners call for the most influential person in the room to be somewhat catered to.

But you need to be gracious to the host too. It can be touchy but try to honor both of them.

Sometimes it is simply out of your control too.

Q: How do you balance priorities when you’re a one-person shop?

Ruthlessly restrict your major gift prospects.

Only go after 10 or less. Or just 15.

If you are very small, be careful about spreading yourself too thin.

If you can get your major gift prospects to volunteer you are almost at home base!

If you can get your major gift prospects to volunteer you are almost at home base!

Q: We are a very small nonprofit, and can’t afford the time to meet with people without asking them for a gift in the first visit.

Studies show that the more times you are in front of a prospect BEFORE you ask, the bigger their ultimate gift.

If you ask too quickly, you will end up with a much smaller gift.

I am all for soliciting when I can.

But I would far rather have a warm up visit with my donor first to see where she stands and find out her hot buttons before I do my ask.

If you can develop a long term relationship, they will give over and over, right?

Q: Can you touch on celebrity prospects?

They are really tough. Hard to get through the multiple gatekeepers.

If you can find a shortcut, then go for it!

Q: Everyone is so busy these days including major donors. It’s hard to believe they’ll have time to chat if I’m asking for their input/advice?

Correct. They ARE busy.

You have to show up as an interesting person with a project or question they want to think about.

You have to show up as someone who will not be a waste of their valuable time.

Significant major donor conversations can happen in a social situation. Be ready!

Significant major donor conversations can happen in a social situation. Be ready!

So how you go about approaching them for the visit is important.

Q: what do you think is the max number of donors for a major donor development officer can have in their portfolio?

It depends on how big the prospects’ potential is and whether they are being primed for a gift in the short term.

Certainly you can’t intensely cultivate over 60 people.

But you can work on 60 people with anther 60 prospects on your back burner.

But be realistic.

Q: Do you suggest sending out letters to all prospects before you call them for a meeting?

Definitely send a letter or email or run into them in person.

It increases your chance of success.

But be charming when you first connect.

Q: I fear asking for advice, because if I cannot take their advice, it will be a turn-off?

Hedge your bets.

Say “wow what an intriguing idea. But I am not sure I could get my board to go for it – wish I could!”

Q:  I am nervous because our prospects are much more experienced than we are with major gift solicitors and capital campaigns.

Then ask them to take you under their wing and show you how major gifts is done.

Go kiss the ring. They will be happy to help you!

Q: Tips for getting in the door with a current donor (mega capacity) who has never visited staff?

Try to meet them somehow at a social or civic event and ask them if you can call on them.

Q: Is it best to go by yourself on an advice visit, or bring a board member or our artistic director with you?

Depends on whether your other person can keep their mouth shut.

I find I can establish better rapport by myself.

Q: We have already done everything the wrong way with potential donors. Is there a way to repair the damage?

Go ask their advice and feedback about your fundraising program.

Ask for honest advice.

Ask them how you can do it better.

Q: is it ok to take notes during visits?

Absolutely! Hang on their every word and write it down if you want.

But your focus needs to be on the donor and not on your notepad!

What are YOUR questions?

Leave me a comment and I will answer them!

  • Andy Robinson

    Hey Gail — Would love to hear your thoughts on lone-wolf major gifts officers who always want to see donors alone. I worry about continuity with donors — when these lone wolves leave, there is often no one left behind who has an active relationship with the donor. Tricks for ensuring continuity?

  • Wendy Baird

    Gail, Thanks for the fabulous webinar and all the helpful responses above.

  • gailperry

    Hi Andy, definitely lone wolf devt officers can be a major problem. Their job is to foster the relationship between the donor and the nonprofit. Call reports are essential!! And it’s important to be sure additional people know the donor as well as the gift officer.

  • gailperry

    You’re welcome Wendy!

  • DavidmSena

    We use a five point rating system to make sure we get the right kind of information about each donor. We also meet regularly to discuss visits. Additionally, we try to get the donor to tour our facility or have a second person do an appreciation thank you call (that makes sense). Try to layer your touches without becoming a stalker. Emphasize the cause and organization often. Use events to introduce the donor to the organization which will limit the silo effect. Also hire well.

  • Betty

    I have a potential donor coming to our non profit (a private school). The donor’s mother graduated from the school and recently passed away, they are coming to visit the school that meant so much to her and they already expressed they want to make a gift. They definitely have the potential for a 6 figure gift but since their mother has passed away it is highly unlikely that they will remain connected to the school far beyond this first tour of the school. They want me to suggest options for them to give the school a gift in memory of their mother …how do I get the biggest bang for my buck out of this “one shot” opportunity? Thanks for any help!

  • gailperry

    HI Betty! Try this plan: first ask them what their mother loved most about the school. Then offer several options – from large to small. And dangle wonderful “results/impact” that they could achieve at each level.

    In these cases, I would also ask them if they had a dollar figure in mind or a type of project in mind. And I’d take my direction from them. Remember the AFP Donor’s Bill of Rights – that the donor’s interest and desire trumps everything else. Gail

  • melissa kate

    Gail, great advice. We have a small but steadily growing organization, but only my executive director and me for donor relations. I try to focus on the relationship between the donor and the organization – there has been lots of turnover in the past, and because of that we are finding new ways to keep records on conversations and who and when people have contacted our donors. Evernote is one tool we use to record conversations, and also we track phone calls, who led them, and any pertinent notes in our database. This is especially useful for donors who have given to us for years, and none of the current generation of staff know who they are.