How Do I Get My Development Officers Out of the Office to Meet with Donors?

by Deborah Kaplan Polivy, Ph.D.

This is a question that I am often asked. While everyone in the development business seems to understand that the face to face meeting is probably one of the most powerful donor cultivation tools available, so many development employees become frozen when asked to pick up the telephone to make appointments. (E-mails could also be used, but the telephone is a much more personal way to begin the process.)

These are not meetings to solicit individuals; these are visits to further relationships with donors – to get to know them better and to help the latter learn more about the respective charity. The purpose is to keep these supporters involved with and continuing to give to the not for profit organization. These get-togethers can also be used to obtain the opinions of donors about how the development office is operating whether in relation to issues such as donor relationships, recognition, thank you letters as well as the “back room”-record keeping, billing, etc.

And yet it is difficult to “push” the officer out of the door. Evans and Lapin write that such face to face meetings often feel “artificial in tactic” to the person assigned to carry them out, “but are very realistic in execution.”

Another question that Directors of Development or Chief Executive Officers often ask is “how do I get my development officers to write articles for our newsletters or other communication vehicles so that the entire burden is not on me.”

In response to the two questions – “how do I push my development officers out of the office to meet with donors” and how do I get these same people to write for newsletters and other communication vehicles, I suggest that first the supervisor must insist that a certain number of donor meetings occur every week or month and second, on a selective basis, these same appointments be used to gather information for articles.

One client asked me to prepare a questionnaire that she could then give her philanthropy officers to provide the latter with a framework for asking questions at donor meetings, whether the answers are used for an article or for guiding conversation as part of relationship building or both. Her goal was to present her employees with some direction for this effort as well as a guide that would provide some extra confidence in getting started.

I created a questionnaire that I thought might be useful to an array of organizations. The purpose of the tool is to provide philanthropy officers with model questions for engaging donors. The questions should be customized prior to any visit depending upon the respondent(s) and his/her/their giving history to the charity. While the questionnaire can initially be used to offer the professional some self-confidence in these situations, it is assumed that over time the conversations will become natural.

Once the meeting is finished, the information gleaned should be used in two ways depending upon the agreement with the donor. No matter what, it must be entered into the data base with subsequent or “next” steps identified. If an article has been decided upon, then it should be drafted, shared with a supervisor and revised based on the feedback. Any written piece should be sent to the interviewee(s) for approval prior to printing and the donor should know that this will be the process right from the initial telephone call.

As noted above, some of the questions that are included in the questionnaire relate to the interaction of the donor with the charity and its staff. The contributor must be told that this information is for the purpose of improving the service delivery of the not for profit and will not appear in the article (unless of course, the donor says wonderful things!)

Not only is the face to face meeting an important cultivation tool, but so is the follow up letter and therefore the development officer must write immediately after the session in order to thank the participant(s) for her time. This is a different note than the one that will accompany a draft of an article if there is one. In other words, in the latter case there are at least two written communications following the face to face meeting – and maybe even a telephone call to discuss a draft with the donor. These are all important interactions between the staff person and the contributor and they lead to stronger relationships. Moreover, even if an article is not written, but the donor makes some suggestions for organizational change, then the philanthropy officer must let the donor know what has happened in relation to her comments.

Choosing the Candidates

All contributors can serve as prospects for face to face meetings – the size or type of gift is not really important. (I often suggest that donors from each of the sectors of the Donor Lifecycle Map – first gift, second gift, second-year active, multiyear active, major or “stretch” giving and ultimate giving[1] be selected.) The first step is to identify people who might have an interesting story to tell about their lives and/or contribution to the charity. This kind of connection makes asking questions so much easier because there is a recognizable narrative that might need only a bit of prodding to uncover.

For example, the donor could have been a patient or client before contributing or a relative thereof. On the other hand, it would be interesting to learn why those who were never involved with a charity decided to make a gift and in the case of individuals who have given more than one contribution, the reason for that behavior is also worthy of inquiry.

If the donor has established a deferred gift, the explanation for that choice could be valuable and serve as an inspiration to others. If the donation has been realized by the organization, then children might be appropriate candidates for face to face meetings in that they might be able to explain why the parent designated the charity and could provide background information on the contributor. If there are no children, a relative or executor of the estate could serve as a respondent. In other words, in the case of a realized deferred gift, there are lots of candidates for discussions – all of whom might become further connected to the charity because of the conversation.

At the end of every face to face meeting, it is important to ask for a picture, not only if a published article will result, but also, in this age of technology, so that it can be scanned into the donor’s record. If the contributor and the respondent are not the same, the philanthropy officer should still try to obtain a picture; children have them and professional advisors can often find them.

Obtaining the Interview

If the philanthropy officer sees candidates for an interview in a social context, this is a good time to let them know that he will be calling to set up an appointment for a meeting. The officer can explain why and then make the call immediately. No noticeable time should pass between the comment and the call.

If there is no such social interaction, the staff person must pick up the telephone and tell the potential interviewee(s) that he would like to come and meet with her in order to 1) learn her reasons for supporting the organization; 2) get to know her better; 3) maybe write an article on how and why she gives to the charity and 4) discuss her personal experience with the organization so that the information can be used to improve the quality of donor services. The philanthropy officer must promise to take no more than one hour of the contributor’s time and do so and a mutually convenient time and place for the appointment must be determined. The best location is the donor’s home; pictures and other paraphernalia in the house often provide opportunities for conversation. The donor also must be alerted to the fact that if an article results from the meeting, she will have the opportunity to see the finished piece before it is printed.

Taking Notes

Taking notes on a portable device or paper is a personal choice of the philanthropy officer. Technology often serves as a diversion for all of the participants and setting up the machinery can sometimes be unsettling. There is always a temptation to look at e-mails, see who is calling, or to concentrate on the technology over the speaker. Sometimes the mechanics get in the way – a microphone doesn’t work; a battery runs out; there is no nearby electrical outlet, etc. The entire focus must be on the interviewee(s) and what he or she is saying, and especially to interesting comments, good quotes and items that might be pursued further. In other words, the methodology for taking notes that works best to meet these goals must be carefully considered.

Model Questions

These questions must be personalized for each respondent. The staff person must do his homework and obtain information about the donor prior to any meeting in order to avoid some preventable error.[2] And while these questions may seem elementary and/or pro forma, for many philanthropy officers they can serve as a confidence builder and thereby ease reluctance to set up face to face meetings.

  1. Why did you make your first gift to the (name of charity)? (If this is the first gift, the wording would be changed to why did you make this gift?) Do you expect to make others? If so, why; if not, why not? (If the response is the latter, obtain the reason and move on. Don’t try to refute it but if more information is necessary to clarify a situation, then offer to obtain it – and do so.)
  2. For those for whom this is not the first gift, why have you continued to support the (charity)?
  3. For those for whom this is not the first gift, do you expect to continue to contribute? If so, why; if not, why not? If the response is the latter, refer back to the instructions under question #1.)
  4. In order to help us improve the way in which we address our donors, please tell me about the quality of service you received from our development staff. (Let them know that this is not for an article, if one is to be written, but for the purpose of enhancing the donor experience.) Were you happy with it? How do you think we could improve our interactions with donors?
  5. The (name of charity) recognized your gift by (hanging a plaque, listing in an annual report or on the web, etc.) Do you think this was appropriate? Could we be doing something else or better?
  6. Returning to your contribution(s), why did you choose the form of the gift that you made? (From research you know that this was a deferred gift, a pledge over time, a onetime gift, a capital campaign gift, an annual gift or a combination.) If there are more than 5 gifts, ask about the first and then the most recent ones. If 5 or less, ask about each one. The answers might provide some interesting information such as someone who was involved invited the donor to an event; they appreciated service from a staff member; they or a family member received treatment from the charity; they wanted to make a large or “stretch” gift but needed to pay it over time; they were a good age to establish a Charitable Gift Annuity, etc.)
  7. For someone who is involved either on a committee, board or task force, why did you agree to serve on the (name of the group)?
  8. If someone is a member of a committee, board or task force, has your service been worthwhile in your opinion? If so, why? If not, why not? If the latter, what recommendations do you have to improve such an experience?
  9. Tell me more about yourself. Explore whether the person has family in the area, anyone who has received treatment from the not for profit, is a widower or widow, retired, unemployed, etc.
  10. Based on what the person says, ask the question, have you ever thought of establishing a memorial or honorary endowment fund bearing a person’s name, e.g. deceased husband, child, parent, etc.?
  11. Is there something I should have asked you but didn’t or something you would like to add?

In terms of the keeping the donor involved, the philanthropy officer who conducts this meeting must continue to stay in touch with the contributor or “cultivate” him or her using an array of tools. For example, based on the knowledge which is obtained, the officer might write personal notes, invite the donor to special events, make telephone calls and schedule regular get togethers whether they are just for the sake of keeping in touch or for a specific solicitation. The face to face meeting is the first step in getting the development officer not only out of the door, but into ongoing contact with or cultivation of the individual.

[1] See Polivy, “Donor Cultivation and the donor Lifecycle Map: A New Framework for Fundraising,” Wiley, 2014.
[2] While the circumstance was somewhat different, I remember not doing my homework in one particular case. I was called to meet a major philanthropist who was considering making a gift to our Jewish endowment foundation. He asked why he should contribute. I told him that by strengthening the Jewish community, we could help to prevent intermarriage. I had no idea that he was intermarried and he never said anything at that meeting! I hadn’t done my homework and I was duly embarrassed when I later learned about him. Of course, it was too late. (Yes, we did obtain the gift in spite of my gaffe.)

Deborah Kaplan Polivy, Ph.D., is an independent fundraising consultant. Her new book, “Donor Cultivation and the Donor Lifecycle Map: A New Framework for Fundraising,” was recently published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Her website is