The Importance of Face-to-Face Meetings with Donors

by Robert I. Evans and Avrum D. Lapin

“The basic building block of good communications is the feeling that every human being
is unique and of value.”

As we journey through 2011, we are constantly re-visiting our fundamental 11 principles of philanthropy that we set forth in January. This month, we stress the importance of personal meetings with donors, a fundraising mandate that board members as well as professional staff too often discard because “they are so busy.”

We have always believed that among the most fundamental reasons why most people do not give is because they are not asked. Take it one step further and we can also state that many potential lead and major donors may not consider that a transformative gift to your organization because they have not been cultivated well, which includes determined personal attention and meetings created by professional and volunteer leadership to build bridges of connectivity.

Another ingredient that leads us to prompt personal outreach is what you know about a person and his/her priorities will impact on their relationship with you, the non-profits they support, and other factors. Even small or mid-sized congregations don’t really know their members intimately, so our recommendation regarding the holding of outreach meetings pertains to every Jewish organization that is dependent upon charitable support and we witness this in almost every campaign that we conduct.

One of the most essential elements of any fundraising activity includes spending time with donors. One of the most impersonal/passive ways to do this is by email or form letter. Let’s not misconstrue, each of these may promote and educate the potential donor about your organization and its mission, but none of these gestures can trump a face-to-face meeting in terms of results in donor participation and relationship building.

When you engage in a face-to-face donor meeting, you are establishing the fundamental principles of relationship-building. It may seem artificial in tactic but it is very realistic in execution. As a representative of a viable organization, you are directing your intent without being too firm on initial expectations. In other words, you want to learn more about them as human beings and then gauge an interest in their inclination to support your cause without prematurely undermining the “sell” by making it all about the money. Failure to follow this blueprint would make the organization seem like they are viewing the donor narrowly and simply as a bag of money as opposed to an active and potentially significant stakeholder.

In his book Winning Gifts, Thomas Wilson suggests that in donor meetings, we should engage in “deep listening.” This would require “taking notes, nodding your head in agreement, ask clarifying, follow-up questions to gather additional information and restate to see if you heard correctly.” He also encourages the presenter to be observant as can be “clues that are important later.” By that he means that remembering details of the conversation, noticing mementos that surround the house/office and or recalling their personality style. Each will help you better prepare to build a stronger bond in future meetings or provide you with some filter discussion before diving into campaign discussions. Your initial meeting might end up to be a listening rather than a selling session. But effectively done it will pay off substantially later on.

Another importance of face-to-face meetings goes beyond the personal time invested to meet a potential donor by allowing them to match a face with your organization. You need to create a great positive first impression … like a job interview but the tables are somewhat turned and you and the organization are being evaluated. This means that you must carefully choose your attire, greet your donor with a warm smile and a firm handshake. Make sure you look them directly in the eyes and remember that as much as you want them to become a donor of significance, the entire conversation should NEVER focus on you. Each meeting should provide a brief overview of the organization and its activities and then focus on the individual’s accomplishments, goals and synergy with the values and direction of the non-profit organization.

The bottom-line is that almost any meeting can help create support for an organization in ways that a mass outreach can’t. Our society has lost the principles of human contact. We’ve become a society of minimal personalization. We no longer identify ourselves as simply friends but instead we call ourselves “Facebook Friends.” The need to meet organizational goals often begins with a warm initial discussion with donors in their homes or offices. Don’t pass up the chance of a casual conversation as the first step to an opportunity to suggest giving.

Therefore, here are five recommendations relating to face-to-face meetings:

  1. Outreach to donors to establish personal connections is a responsibility of board members as well as professional staff.
  2. Donors appreciate being contacted, even though some may profess that they want to be left alone.
  3. Once a conversation begins, allow the donor to express where your agency fits into their lives and what has motivated their support.
  4. Follow up a personal contact with a message that is either a personal, handwritten note, an email, or some other recognition that you connected one-on-one.
  5. Develop a plan for on-going follow-up once a connection has been made … don’t drop the ball!

Robert I. Evans, Managing Director, and Avrum D. Lapin, Director, are principals of The EHL Consulting Group, of suburban Philadelphia, and are frequent contributors to EHL Consulting works with dozens of nonprofits on fundraising, strategic planning, and non-profit business practices. Become a fan of The EHL Consulting Group on Facebook.