It’s a strange misconception, though understandable I guess, that good fundraisers merely charm or talk someone into giving away their money. If that power existed, I think you’d see a lot of fundraisers taking a lot nicer vacations and living in much bigger houses. Truth is successful fundraising doesn't need a magical, persuasive ability.

Simply “charming” someone into making a gift is not necessary - even if someone in this world has that ability. I’ve helped raise millions for dozens of causes and institutions, yet consider myself quite mediocre regarding my persuasive powers. Check family movie night at my house; my Netflix is always recommending Disney because it believes my taste are in the 9 - 12-year-old demographic.

There is magic to thinking of a potential donor as a person. Someone who has interests and desire to make the world a better place. A person that might want to help you or may not, but that’s okay. Furthermore, you’re asking them to participate in something that’s not benefiting you directly (DISCLAIMER: I’ve never worked for a fundraising institution that works off commission and strongly advise against that method for so many reasons). And if you need help finding donors, this blog might help.

After you realize they are just like you, the ability to ask someone for a gift boils down to a few essential elements.

But before that, let’s assume you've done your homework by finding out about the person, their relationship to the cause or institution, and understanding their relationship to you as well as what your role is with the institution. WARNING: this method is slightly different for staff and volunteers, but the core concepts are identical. No matter what, brush up on 10 Steps to Better Donor Engagement.

Elements of a Genuine and Successful Donor Meeting

Let’s also assume this is an in-person visit, and the person has shown genuine interest in hearing about the cause or institution.

  1. State your reason for the conversation then listen. If it’s the first visit with the donor, don’t ask for marriage on the first date - meaning, don't ask for them to consider making a gift when they barely know you or know much about your organization. Build a rapport, hear them out, and be prepared to accept they may not be that into your cause or organization.
  2. Engage and discuss with the prospective donor why the organization and its mission is essential. At this point, there is a bit of persuasion required, but more the persuasion of sharing your story of why you're motivated to support the cause or organization. Show enthusiasm for the reason and why you believe in the organization. Then ask them about their thoughts, with open-ended and thoughtful questions.
  3. Make a request (time, talent or treasure), or discuss next steps with them. In almost every case there’s the next step. Maybe it’s the consideration of a gift. Perhaps it’s having them meet the chair of the board. Or perhaps it’s discussing a program in more depth with another staff member. Even if the person has no time or financial ability, they’ll still want to be informed and may know of someone who’ll be interested in talking to you. Ask if they'd like to put them on the newsletter list to cultivate their interest, and they’ll appreciate the fact you’re thinking of them.

So, what you’ve established is a relationship. You’ve grown and cultivated their interest but also shared yours. You’ve treated the donor as a person.

The Real “Magic,” otherwise known as “the Work”

Let’s assume the meeting went well (90% of the time it does go well). No, they didn’t just hand you a check, but they are genuinely interested. Now it’s time for you to do your part. So within hours, or within 24 hours if possible, you should:

Follow-up: this is simply making sure that whatever you discussed at the meeting that you own. For example, “Yes, I’ll send you that copy of the annual report” or “I’ll ask forward the executive director’s member’s email to you.” Or maybe they suggested they’d do something on your behalf and you can remind them POLITELY, “Thank you for the offer to reach out to the Queen of England on my behalf. Here are my email and the Antiregicide (def. people AGAINST killing of their royalty) Facebook page for her to like.” If there’s not too much follow-up that’s okay, still thank them for visiting with you. But hopefully, there’s a next step from the visit.

Perform Administrative Hygiene: hopefully, your organization has a database or even a customer relationship management (CRM) software for organizing prospective and current donors as well as tracking relationships with them. You’ll need to update the system after your visit with immediately:

  • Phone, email, address, business, or any other changes to their information that will help your organization maintain the relationship
  • Narrative of the discussion, related and professional notes of how the meeting went. Again, same warning about volunteers and staff having different ways of interacting with prospective or current donors, but the general elements are the same
  • Code, task or ensure there's an internal procedure so the person remains on communications and event invite lists. If you have a newsletter list, add them. If you’re going to send out an appeal, make sure they’re on that list. If you’re holding an event, invite them.

Discuss the visit with others in your organization: relationships between donors and organizations should be as deep and broad as possible. Again, as DEEP and BROAD as possible. While most donors want to have a point of contact and develop a relationship with a specific person, they enjoy meeting others in the organization and hearing about their role or other volunteers, particularly board members. Learn more about this concept by reading a GREAT blog by Walt Rakovich titled, "The Secret Sauce For Great Teamwork Isn't Secrecy."

Determine and ACT on next steps: what are the following steps in the relationship, who will act on it, and how will you make sure they’re carried out? Perhaps the most common reason I’ve seen major gift opportunities vanish is the follow-up or next step, either too late or not at all. Yes, there’s almost always an obstacle or barrier, but in nearly every case the answer can be found with creativity and persistence.

Too often the next step or follow-up is classic “paralysis-by-analysis,” where the institution waits for the perfect opportunity to re-engage the prospective donor. Meanwhile, that prospect becomes frustrated, moves interest to another organization, or loses their excitement. Instead, determine to stay engaged with them and let them decide how much they want to participate. Most people will appreciate your help in helping them learn more about the organization.

There’s no magic, charm, or some mysterious ability I or any other person has to “talk” a person into a gift. Fortunately, there is a thoughtful engagement of those interested and a thorough follow-up that builds a relationship. Everyone involved in fundraising can perform this magic.