I love reading spy novels and watching spy movies, but personally I’d never make it as a spy. Spies, by nature are indirect and opaque. I on the otherhand favor directness and transparency. I used to joke that still waters did not run deep with me and what you saw was what you got. So spying was out. But being open turns out to be a good trait for a fundraiser. Fundraising, I believe, depends on candidness and clarity about what your goals are and what you are hoping to accomplish.
It also depends on being interested in your donors and caring about what they care about. You can have the best elevator speech in the world, but if it doesn’t push your prospects philanthropic button, you are quickly stalled between floors.
Clients often panic about starting a fundraising conversation. They want that elevator speech and the cheat sheet that tells them all the facts and the figures. But, truthfully, those things only serve to glaze your prospects’ eyes. Start the conversation by being upfront about your purpose.
Being upfront means you must be intentional. And intentionality requires planning. While you absolutely can start a conversation with a comment like, “I’m calling/meeting with you with my fundraising hat on,” you have to know what part of the fundraising process you are in, what you want to get out of the meeting, and what you need to bring to the meeting to get the outcome desired.
Even if you’ve been fundraising for 100 years (and even if you’ve only been at this a short time, some days it feels like a 100 years!), winging it is not a wise strategy. Before every meeting you need to consider;
Who has to be at the table? And I’m talking both sides of the table here. Do you need a board member, program officer, the CEO (or if you are the CEO, a staff member) to support and/or be part of the process? Who from the prospect’s side must be there? If this is a first meeting, you might not know the answer to that. Fine. Make sure it is a question you will ask so that you will have the right people at the second meeting.
What information do I need to gather? Start with what you know and then figure out what you need to fill in. How will you find that information out? What questions must you ask? Can you do that at this meeting or will it have to be spread out over a number of meetings? You don’t want to make this an inquisition, but there are a lot of things you need to know before you can ask for a major gift. And if you are not asking for a large gift, ask yourself why you are having this meeting. This is not to suggest that only large givers deserve personal attention, just that you must know what your purpose is.
What information do I need to impart? Don’t limit this to the actual ask. The more you know about the prospect, the more you’ll understand what is of interest/concern to him or her. A client recently shared the story of a disastrous meeting she had with a major donor prospect. She was so concerned about her message, her pitch, that she didn’t consider things she had been hearing from the prospect’s peers. In the middle of her talking about the fabulous project she was hoping this prospect help to fund, said prospect said—pretty impatiently—“yes, but what about the ongoing vandalism at your site?”
What information must I bring with me? This is one, I confess, at which I often fail, miserably. I am notorious for leaving documents on my desk. On the plus side, it gives me an easy and immediate follow up step. “Hi John, attached is the information we discussed….” can help to keep a door open. However, it is best if you PLAN that, rather than default to it.
A good way to start a fundraising meeting is to restate your purpose, and then explain briefly why it matters to your organization and to you. And then turn the meeting over to your prospect. “Does this sound like something you’d be interested in learning more about?”
And here is where spies and fundraisers have commonality—we both have to be able to decode what a person really is saying.
“Sure,” with arms crossed and eyes downcast probably doesn’t mean you should launch into a pitch for a gift.
On the other hand, a “not particularly” should not be taken at face value. I always say that except for dating, no is not always no, and a lukewarm response doesn’t always indicate disinterest. Your job is ask them to clarify and to find out what it is they need in order to say yes.