Donor Qualification: How to Get the Meeting and Attract Future Support
What do you know about your donors and prospects? Perhaps an even better question is – what don’t you know? Nonprofit organizations need both answers to be strategic in their fundraising.
For the higher education clients with whom we work at GG+A, it helps to have a well-defined prospect pool of alumni, parents, and faculty. Yet frequently, many of our client institutions across sectors have a significant number of high potential prospects that have never been engaged. This is why donor qualification meetings are such a vital part of donor pipeline development and management.
Gift officers of all experience levels should engage in donor qualification meetings. Having a portion of prospects in qualification creates a balanced portfolio. In fact, GG+A has seen gift officer portfolios at high-performing institutions in which up to 20% of the prospects are in qualification.
Recognize that your time is as valuable as the prospective donors’ and confidently approach the conversation as an equal.
Granted, these prospective donors may not be equally likely to give in the near-term, and some may require more effort to secure a first meeting, for a variety of reasons. Still, having spent my career in various development roles, it can be incredibly rewarding – and dare I say, fun! – to identify new major or principal gift prospects through a qualification meeting. And it is even more fulfilling to work with donors through the major gift lifecycle to make a philanthropic commitment.
Here are four keys to help you secure that first meeting and make it a success.
1. Set the Right Expectations
In your initial outreach with a prospect, be candid about the purpose of the meeting. While it’s much more comfortable (and less scary) to position it as a conversation about the prospect’s experience or involvement with your institution, that is disingenuous. Although the individual may accept the meeting, he or she will not likely be prepared to discuss philanthropy.
Rather, demonstrate authenticity and transparency in your communication from the start. Be clear that you want to gauge the prospect’s interest in philanthropic support. Along these lines, frame this as a business meeting, not a friendly visit. Recognize that your time is as valuable as the prospective donors’ and confidently approach the conversation as an equal. Remember, you are engaging in a partnership to facilitate their philanthropy. So, set the tone, be clear on your purpose, and clarify the intent.
2. Use Polite Persistence
Pay close attention to any special coding on your prospect’s record in your database. This could include a tag indicating no email, no phone call, or no marketing. Otherwise, as you attempt to secure a meeting, remember to be patient in your pursuit and engage in what I call, “polite persistence.”
For instance, if you’re traveling, set the anchor meetings for your travels first. Then, as you plan qualification meetings, consider mailing a letter ahead of your email or call, letting prospects know you will be in their city on specific days and that you’re interested in meeting. Clearly set the expectations around purpose, as detailed above. Follow up about two weeks later with an email, then a call.
Be disciplined and diligent. When you say you will email or call within a certain time, be sure to follow through. Succinct messages yield the best results. Repeat this process as needed, and often you will find you’re able to secure most qualification meetings a week ahead of your travels. Occasionally, you may have some of your contacts proactively reach out to you in response to your letter, either to arrange a meeting or to decline. Don’t assume your prospects are not interested in meeting with you unless they say so directly. You never want to say “no” for the donor.
Likewise, while it may seem counterintuitive, a “no” can be incredibly valuable for you and your institution. Statistically, gift officers will experience more rejection than otherwise – so suit up in your Teflon! Understand that disqualifying a donor is just as important as qualifying them and will ensure you are spending your time wisely. Moreover, your prospective donors have jobs, families, and busy lives just as you do. You are not their top priority, so do not take it personally if they fail to respond or decline to support.
I know a gift officer who, after more than two years of consistent communication, finally secured a first meeting with a non-alumni founder and CEO of a prominent national company. His last gift to the institution had been 20 years prior.
The persistence of the gift officer intrigued him, he admitted, and led him to eventually accept the invitation. To make a long story short, that meeting led to a reopening of the relationship, and an exploration of opportunities for renewing philanthropic support.
3. Make the Most of the First Meeting
Congratulations, you secured the meeting! Now what?
Once you have decided together when and where you will meet, the work of qualifying the prospect begins (yes – even before you meet). You never know if you will have a second meeting with this individual, so come prepared and do your research.
- Read all contact reports. It’s helpful to have an idea of how many times you and your colleagues have reached out to this prospect, as well as if he or she has initiated any communication with your institution.
- Search online. Even if your organization has a prospect research department, it’s a good idea to Google your prospects to learn what other causes they support, along with any job promotions, home values, connections to foundations, or hobbies.
- Express gratitude. Analyze your prospects’ giving and look for trends in their philanthropic support. Note the consistency, and pay attention to giving tied to special events, such as reunion years. What is their lifetime giving total? How about their most recent gift? Understanding their giving is a helpful cultivation tool. Prepare a brief success story around one of the initiatives your prospects have supported through giving or volunteering. And check to determine if they have legacy or familial ties to your organization.
Finally, prepare yourself to listen. This is paramount in qualifying a prospect!
4. Ask Open-ended Questions
When meeting with prospects, arrive early and focus on asking open-ended questions. Here are few to get you started:
- Can you share with me your story/experience with this institution and the impact of that experience on your life now?
- (For alumni) How have you been engaged since graduation? Have you volunteered? Are you still in touch with friends from your time at this institution?
- What organizations/causes do you support and why? Where does this institution fall on your list of philanthropic priorities?
- Would you be open to learning more about our institution’s philanthropic priorities and how you might make an impact and become more engaged?
Most importantly, as you meet with prospects, remember there is nothing to be ashamed of in the work you do! Rather, be proud of your role as a fundraiser for your institution and recognize that your involvement behind the scenes is truly transformational.
Ashley Lomery, Vice President, has more than 25 years of expertise in major and principal gifts fundraising, annual giving, stewardship, strategic planning, fundraising coaching, and fundraising team management. For guidance on how to incorporate these ideas into your fundraising strategy, contact Ashley at email@example.com.
– Written with contributions from Shannon Singleterry, Managing Senior Director of Regional Advancement at Emory University.