Five Common Mistakes When Meeting with a Prospective Donor

By Robert H. Isaacs

We all seek the “perfect meeting” when we meet with a prospective donor. While it may not be possible to reach “perfection,” knowing how to avoid potholes on the road to a successful meeting can help lead you to your desired destination. While we cannot control, or sometimes even predict, the prospect’s behavior during the course of the discussion, we do have control over ourselves and how we present to the donor. Here are five of the most common mistakes made in these meetings and recommendations to consider:

1. Lack of Preparation – The meeting with a prospect starts long before the greeting at the door. Preparation is an essential part of a successful meeting. First and foremost know what you are raising money for, why it is important, and be able to express the case for giving to your prospective donors.

Once you are familiar with the case, accumulate all the possible information about your prospects: family information, employment, relationship to the organization, past giving, involvement in other community organizations, etc. If possible, use a wealth screening service like Wealth Engine or DonorSearch to understand your prospect’s giving capacity, interests, and giving history to other organizations. When you have all of your information, use it to plan your “pitch.” How will you approach this prospective donor? What is the appropriate ask amount? Will donor recognition be important? Answering these questions, among many others, beforehand, is crucial to walking into a meeting fully prepared.

2. “Sure, Ill meet you at Starbucks.”  Often, with the best of intentions, prospects will suggest public places to meet, such as a Starbucks or a restaurant. These are the worst places to meet for what should be a private, serious conversation. There is no control over the environment, who might come and interrupt your discussion, and/or who might be listening. You want your prospect to feel as comfortable as possible as you discuss their participation in your campaign and you should always aim to have the meeting in the place they feel most comfortable, probably their home.

3. Not Paying Attention – You have to LISTEN to your prospect(s) and take your cues from the stories they tell and their reactions to what you are saying. Careful listening will allow you to change your approach on the fly. You may hear something from this prospect that tells you with 100% certainty that the number you went into the meeting with is too low or too high. It’s not enough to only listen to the words the prospect is using but you must also do your best to interpret the true meaning behind them. Listen carefully to their stories to help drive the conversation to a place that allows you to leave satisfied with the gift and the donor to feel that their gift is truly going to make a difference and be appreciated.

4. Me! Me! Me! – One of the hardest potholes to avoid, even for experienced fundraisers, is the tendency to share information about yourself. Don’t do it. The donor is not interested (at this time) in your family situation or your shared or similar experiences. These meetings are all about your prospects and their experiences. Listen and use that information to refine your pitch. It is natural to want to share your stories to help make a connection, however, in this case, the focus needs to remain on the prospect and the prospect’s experiences.

5. The Incomplete Ask – The surest way to ruin a successful prospect meeting is not to ask for a specific gift. Have a specific amount in mind before the meeting begins and, unless you learn something during your conversation that would raise or lower the amount, ask for it. Also, don’t be afraid to be aspirational in your ask; if you are meeting with a donor who gives an annual gift of $5,000, don’t be afraid to ask for $10,000. The only way that donors move out of their comfort zones is if you make the case and make the request.

Seeking participation in your organization’s fundraising campaign is hard work but the effort can be incredibly satisfying. As we have learned from our clients, each organization and campaign is unique, as are their goals and potential donors. However, there are some common areas where interaction with a prospective donor can go off the tracks. Do your best to avoid the five I outlined above and your chances of success will increase dramatically.

Robert Isaacs is Chief Executive Officer of the Evans Consulting Group, a firm now in its 26th year, that helps nonprofits meet and exceed their strategic and fundraising goals. Evans Consulting advises nonprofits, manages fundraising campaigns, facilitates strategic planning processes, evaluates nonprofit business practices, engages in donor research and cultivation, coaches nonprofit leaders, and performs a wide variety of development-related services. He spent more than 20 years in executive roles at two large synagogues and a major JCC and is passionate about sharing what he’s learned. He has been a frequent and sought-after presenter at national conventions, focusing especially on contemporary approaches impacting on and relating to fundraising, budget management, working with outside contractors, building staff teams, and ethics in the workplace. He can be reached at