How many conversations do you have each day with stakeholders in your nonprofit? How often do you speak directly with donors?
Out of all the conversations you have as a fundraiser or nonprofit leader, those with major donors are probably among the most impactful. Do them well, and you reinforce the relationships that will help sustain your work for years to come. Get them wrong, and you risk undermining the foundations of that support, putting your nonprofit on shaky footing.
Sounds dramatic, but the point stands—your conversations with major donors are extremely important.
They’re an essential part of not only fundraising but also the broader stewardship process. After all, these are relationships. They need the back-and-forth of real conversations grounded in an understanding of each other’s interests and goals. This is best accomplished in one-on-one settings.
Mastering the art of one-on-one communication with major donors will set your nonprofit apart and help you build the relationships you need to thrive. How? Let’s take a look.
1. Be prepared.
No one wants to attend an aimless or disorganized meeting. And while your one-on-ones should feel more like conversations than straightforward meetings, they still need structure in order to give the donor a positive experience.
A loose outline of talking points informed by your data and notes from past interactions will be helpful. For instance, you can reference:
- notes on recent changes in the donor’s personal life from previous conversations;
- information on the donor’s career, employer, and current events in their industry;
- data on the donor’s past donations, including dates, amounts, the frequency of gifts, and the types of gifts they prefer to give; and,
- the specific campaigns the donor supported in the past.
Thoroughly preparing also ensures you’ll be able to guide the conversation toward your organization’s goals (see Tip #3), making it a positive and valuable exchange for both parties.
2. Don’t be transactional.
Remember to anchor your interactions with relationship-building. Don’t feel that you need to jump straight into discussing your next campaign, the details of your ask, or reminders about pledges (unless you’re on the same page and the meeting was expressly set up for one of these purposes).
After all, your donor already knows that you represent your organization and mission—they won’t begrudge an ask, but the conversation should be natural and adaptive.
Perhaps you get the impression that now’s not the time for your planned solicitation. In this case, don’t push it; instead, you might say that you’d like to meet again soon to discuss your next campaign’s case for support and your ideas for how they can help, but for now, you want to focus on other topics.
A forthright but responsive approach shows respect for the donor’s time and that you value the relationship. Back up this approach with references and questions about your donor’s personal life, career, and philanthropic interests. When it is time to make an ask or discuss money, be specific about your request and fully contextualize it so that it doesn’t come across as forced.
3. Understand your goals and next ask.
Go into your donor conversations understanding your organization’s goal. Keep in mind that this could be one of several things, not just asking for a donation. You might be seeking feedback, introductions to new donors or funders, or simply to learn more about the donor and their giving motivations.
The goal of a conversation should be shaped not only by your organization’s current priorities but also by the relationship with that individual donor.
This underscores the importance of having organized stewardship strategies. When you understand your individual donor relationships and what they’re building to (for instance, an ask for your capital campaign next year), you can lay out a clear plan that naturally builds towards the goal through a number of touchpoints.
A well-planned stewardship cadence ultimately creates a better donor experience and boosts the likelihood of success later. You’ll have kept the relationship warm, learned more about the donor, introduced your campaign and its impact, and reviewed the past impact the donor has had. Then, when it’s time, you’ll be ready to lay out a specific and well-contextualized ask.
4. Highlight impact and transparency.
As mentioned above, communicating impact should be an important part of your conversations with major donors, including:
- the impact of the donor’s previous gifts;
- the potential impact of their next gift; and,
- the projected impact of your campaigns and programs.
Emphasizing impact keeps your discussions rooted in your shared purpose—your organization’s mission and constituents. It’s ultimately why donors choose to give, so lean into it.
Also, use your one-on-one conversations as opportunities to demonstrate transparency. Being upfront about the challenges your organization is facing gives credence to your asks. Major donors with whom you have long relationships should be looped into things like budget shortfalls and unexpected logistical problems with programs or campaigns.
Of course, you’ll need to speak carefully and be thoughtful about what you choose to share. But the point is that donors who have shown loyalty to your nonprofit likely want to be made aware of these kinds of challenges so that they can help if they’re able.
On a similar note, look for ways to increase transparency and involvement beyond challenges and crises. For example, invite your longtime major donors to participate in your next campaign’s feasibility study to provide feedback on your plans. This not only strengthens your campaign strategy but shows donors you value their partnership.
5. Ask questions and listen carefully.
You can’t just chat through your prepared talking points—asking questions will make it a true conversation. Listen to your donors’ answers and allow them to help guide the discussion.
This can lead to all kinds of helpful discoveries about the donor’s:
- personal life, like perhaps they just moved to a new house or welcomed their first grandchild;
- career, including promotions or layoffs;
- philanthropic interests, for example an interest in one program or aspect of your mission for personal reasons; and,
- giving motivations, such as specific interest in tax-savvy giving or estate planning.
Take another look at each of these examples and think about how learning that information could help inform your future conversations, asks, and overall stewardship approaches. For example:
- A quick look at publicly available information can help reveal the value of a new property and help shape your future solicitations.
- If a donor was laid off, that should be a big sign to pause on any immediate asks.
- A personal or familial connection to a particular part of your mission can open up new ways to deepen your connection and increase the donor’s involvement.
- If a donor is nearing retirement and updating their estate plan, it might be the perfect time to introduce planned gifts and other estate-tax-friendly gifts.
Major-donor qualification is an important part of nonprofit development, and it’s best done through consistent contact and asking questions. When you’re up to date on what’s going on in your donors’ lives, what they’re interested in supporting, and why, you can confidently create prioritized outreach lists that save your team time and give donors more tailored experiences.
6. Take notes and record them properly.
Finally, a logistical essential: Take notes during or immediately after your conversations with major donors and record them in your database.
This step is crucial for keeping your moves management, qualification, and segmentation processes as effective as they can be, benefiting your entire organization. Fresh information also allows for more successful fundraising and stewardship at the individual level, as discussed in the section above.
But even aside from the questions and topics that come up during conversations, taking care to record other, more straightforward details will be helpful. For example, knowing exactly how a donor responded to your last ask or case for support, the forms of communication they prefer, and the dates of all touchpoints your team has had with them allows you to build truly customized stewardship and solicitation plans.
If your nonprofit has struggled with its development workflows or isn’t using its tools to the greatest effect, seeking professional help can be a smart move.
An investment in consulting can quickly pay dividends as your fundraisers learn new skills, your relationships with donors grow stronger, and you secure more major gifts. In some cases, sector-specific expertise, like for healthcare organization, is the best choice to ensure you get tailored guidance for your unique fundraising needs.
Using these best practices to shape your conversations with donors will be a win-win-win. You’ll improve your donors’ experiences while raising more support to go towards your mission and constituents.
- Review your current process for recording interactions with your major donors. Identify ways to improve or enrich your data so that it’s more helpful when preparing for one-on-one meetings.
- Take a look at your current stewardship and qualification processes, too. For each qualified major donor or prospect, do you have an objective in mind for your interactions with each of them? If not, determine them and outline the rough steps and touchpoints that will get you there.