Major donors make a major impact on your nonprofit, but it can be a bit scary to ask major donors for a donation.
If you’re new to major donor work, you know what I mean.
You’re probably asking for an amount that’s a stretch for you and it’s going to bring up all kinds of personal issues for you, especially if you have a negative mindset around money or wealthy people.
But you know what makes it easier? Understanding them.
And the best way to get to know your major donors is to ask good questions that spark conversation.
The more they tell you about what matters to them, the better job you can do of customizing an Ask for them that is an exact fit between your funding needs and their philanthropic desires.
But how do you get to know someone when all you know is that they gave your organization a bigger-than-average donation in the last year?
Start With Gratitude
As with any new relationship, start with a small step.
Contact them and thank them again for their donation. Then ask if they would have time to talk more with you so you can get to know them. You can say something like this:
“Thank you again for your generous gift to XYZ organization! We are honored that you trusted us with such a significant gift. I would love to learn how you became interested in XYZ cause. Would you be available this week or next for a phone call? Or, even better, would you like to meet for coffee?”
An in-person meeting will be more productive in terms of building a relationship. But it may seem too forward for a donor you don’t know at all or the donor may not want to meet in person for health reasons. I like to suggest both a phone call and a coffee date, and see which one the donor feels more comfortable with.
If I have met the donor before, I will start with a request for a coffee meet-up in their neighborhood or near their workplace. A quick search on Yelp can reveal the most popular spot close to them.
Some donors are very open to getting to know the organization they just donated to. Others don’t want to talk about their decision. They just want to write the check and be done. In such a case, note on their donor record that they prefer privacy, so they won’t get another request to share about their decision to give.
Once you make an appointment, it’s time to prepare and you definitely want to be ready! Don’t try to wing a visit with a major donor. Be clear about your goal for the meeting, whether that’s to learn the top 3 charities they support or what they think about your new program or something else. The point is to know WHY you’re meeting and what you want to walk away with. Otherwise, it’s just a fun meeting. There’s nothing wrong with fun, but you need to be strategic in your work.
After you decide on your goal, think about the specific questions you want to ask. Having 5-10 good questions in mind can help you make sure you get the answers you’re looking for from the meeting. For a phone call, you can literally have these in writing in front of you.
Here are a few points to consider as you prepare for your visit:
If the donor agrees to a call, block off an hour on your calendar. The call probably won’t go that long, but you don’t want to feel rushed. For an in-person meeting, allow 90-120 minutes so you don’t have to cut a valuable conversation short.
Check the donor’s Facebook and LinkedIn profiles then Google them to see what you can learn about them. Many major donors do not have high-profile online identities. Some are Internet ghosts. But… you might find something interesting if you do a little research.
When the conversation begins, follow the donor’s lead. If they seem animated and happy to talk, ask more questions. If their answers are brief and they seem disengaged, thank them for their time and let them go.
Avoid fawning over the donor. It isn’t necessary, and that would make you both uncomfortable. Remember that they’re a person, just like you. They just happen to have more disposable income than you. Stay focused on the task at hand – thank them for agreeing to speak with you, then dive in.
Let the conversation flow naturally. Many donors are happy to talk at length about their reasons for supporting their favorite causes and organizations. As is the case for donors of all amounts, giving makes them happy. Who doesn’t like to talk about the things that light us up?
Resist the urge to talk too much, especially about yourself, but also about the organization. It’s easy to gobble up all the time allotted for the conversation just talking about the organization’s latest programs and outcomes. Remember, the point here is to learn more about your donor and you can’t do that if you’re doing all the talking!
Try to make the conversation a conversation, not an interview. Be personable and authentic and genuinely interested in them as a person.
Work from a list of prepared questions, but be prepared to go off-script if the donor goes in a different direction.
Think about questions you can ask that will help you understand the donor’s motivations, so you can provide the best donor experience for them. Use open-ended questions that will give your donor the opportunity to expand on their responses.
Speaking of questions, here are some of our favorites for getting to know a major donor.
10 Questions You Can Ask Major Donors
1. “What are some of your hobbies and interests?” Or “What do you do for fun?”
This is a great question to find out some of your donor’s interests. People love to talk about the things they are passionate about. And, who knows, you might find common ground. Or get ideas for spot-on gifts you can give them later.
Maybe they are an avid knitter, just like you. Maybe they play tennis, just like you. Even if you don’t have anything in common, you can start to understand who your donor is by hearing about the ways they spend their free time.
2. “What are you most proud of in your life?”
This is another great question that invites the donor to share about something wonderful they’ve achieved in their life. Many will say their children are their proudest accomplishment. Others will say their career, community work, or their relationships with family and friends.
Some may have an offbeat response, such as a sweater they knitted or a houseboat they built using YouTube videos. You truly don’t know until you ask and the answer will give you insight into what makes the donor tick.
3. “How did you become so generous?” Or “Where did you learn to give?”
This should not be your very first question, because it could come across as insincere ego-stroking. But it is an important question to ask once you have broken the ice.
People give for different reasons, and if your donor is willing to share a little about their background and how they became a generous person, you can better understand what they want to get out of their giving experience. They may tell you it’s family tradition or religious tradition. Or they may have an answer that gives you deep insight into their heart.
4. “When you choose a nonprofit organization to support, what’s important to you?”
This will tell you a lot about your donor and what they prioritize when writing large checks. Some donors are drawn to just one cause area, such as homelessness or food insecurity. But most donors are drawn to several cause areas, so they may donate to a homeless shelter, a chess program for middle school students, a dog rescue, and an organization that supports women with breast cancer.
Many donors also give simply when asked by friends and family members, without considering the cause area, just to be supportive. Some donors look for super-small, grassroots organizations, because they want their money to go directly to people in need. Others prefer large organizations with brand recognition, such as Boys & Girls Clubs.
5. “How have you been asked for money in the past? How was that experience?”
This is a question to ask major donors after you have gotten past the introductory questions. If they share, you’ll learn a lot about what they like and don’t like when being asked for money. They may tell you a story about a Development Director who was super nervous or a friend who asked for a big gift on the golf course. Be ready to listen to what they say and what they don’t say – all of it will help you craft your next Ask for this donor!
6. “What’s your process in making a giving decision?”
Some donors are impulsive when giving, but when it comes to a large donation, it’s usually a ‘stop-and-think’ situation. Frankly, if you ask and get an immediate “yes” you didn’t ask for enough!
When you ask about their decision-making process, you’ll find out what factors they take into consideration, who else they involve or seek advice from, and how much time they like to take in thinking it over. You might find out they want to see financials if you ask for a large donation. Or that they only give to certain kinds of campaigns.
Or you may find out that they love your cause and they don’t really care how you use the money! (This recently happened to one of my clients – they were trying to decide which project to ask the donor to fund and the donor said “Here’s $15,000 – use it wherever you need it most.” Awesome, right?)
When you understand the donor’s process for making a decision, you can ask early enough so you aren’t rushing them to make a decision. And you might suggest a meeting that involves those who need to weigh in on the request, which could save some time later or at least save your donor from having to reiterate your request to their family or advisors.
7. “What inspired you to give your first donation to our nonprofit?”
This is a great question to ask major donors because it gives your donor the opportunity to tell you a story. It is often easier for people to communicate their feelings and opinions by telling a story than trying to explain everything, which can feel too abstract and hard to put into words. Often when a person struggles to put something into words, it means the issue is very important to them and they want to articulate it in an accurate way.
What you might learn from the answer to this question is that the donor was a volunteer before they first gave (which is actually pretty common). Or you might learn which program, project, or appeal first sparked their heart. Or you might find out it was one of your volunteers or Board members who brought this donor to the family.
8. “What do you believe would make the biggest impact on those we serve?”
Donors like these types of questions, because you are asking them for their insight. This makes them feel relevant, like they have wisdom worth sharing.
Ask this question if you feel like your donor doesn’t like the more personal questions. This is a safe question, and it can tell you a lot about how the donor perceives the work your organization does and the root problems in your cause area. It can also tip you off to their expertise. Some donors know a lot more about the cause area than organizations realize. Plus, most people love to be asked for their opinion and are happy to give it!
9. “Are there others in your circle we can connect with who might want to join us in this work?” Or “Who else should we be talking to?”
This is a central question we all know to ask major donors. They probably have friends who are similar to them in their interests and values and might also make good donors. If it’s your donor who asks their friends to join them in supporting your cause, chances are really good that they’ll say “yes.”
So, once you ask for their referrals to other donor prospects, ask them if they’d be willing to open the door for you or help make the Ask. It’s another way for them to get involved and make your campaign a success.
10. “What are we not asking you for that we should be asking for?”
This sounds like a trick question, but it speaks to the likelihood that we as fundraisers tend to focus too much on the money and forget to notice other ways the donor might help. Maybe the donor is waiting to be asked for a donation from their company and it hasn’t occurred to you to do so. Maybe they’re waiting on you to ask them to join your Board (tread carefully with that one!) or to join your fundraising team.
Asking this question can pay off big, especially toward the end of the conversation. It’s actually a good last question and usually surprises a donor because they aren’t expecting it.
That’s a lot of questions! But not all. Most professional fundraisers who work with major donors have dozens of questions in their repertoire that they can use as needed. If it helps, start your own list of questions on a piece of paper and add to it as you learn new ones.
After you meet the donor, make notes about the questions you asked and what they said. There should a good place for notes in your donor management software.
Phone or In Person?
It’s easy to see why we recommend face-to-face meetings over coffee or lunch whenever possible.
Not only can you ask questions, but you can read body language which is very hard on the phone. You can do it to some extent over Zoom, but there are subtle clues you’ll miss with a virtual meeting.
If you start with a phone call and feel like the donor is enjoying the conversation, ask if they’d like to get together in person sometime, and see how the donor reacts.
If the donor is more reserved on the phone, just thank them for their time and candor, and follow up with a thank-you email but without a request for another conversation.
Plan to follow up with the donor when you have some great outcomes to share. After all, cultivating major donors is not a once-and-done activity – there’s a journey for you to take your donors on!
The Bottom Line
Building a relationship with a major donor can be intimidating. You may wonder why the donor would want to take your call, much less meet you for coffee. But donors are people, and people like to talk about causes that matter to them.
So many times, we avoid the questions we want to ask major donors, because we are afraid they will react negatively. I guess that can happen, but most will be happy you called and expressed interest in the person behind the checkbook.
By making an effort to get to know your major donors, you will get more repeat gifts, more referrals to other prospective donors, and valuable insight into the mindset of the major donor. Sure, some donors will ignore your request for a meeting, but don’t get discouraged. Focus on the donors who are open to building a relationship.
After all, they want the exact same thing you do: to change lives! Because, that’s what it’s all about.