DONOR VISITS: Setting Up Those Relationship-Building Conversations

Imagine having a long list of major donors just waiting for the chance to spend a little time with you. They all want to tell you about themselves, hear about your cause, and hope to build a long-term relationship. You spend your days telling organizational stories, listening to their hopes and dreams, collecting checks, and saying thank you because, after all, that’s really all there is to fundraising.


Early in my career, I dreamed often of such a job but unfortunately would wake up and return to the reality that—

  • I was not a celebrity who people want to meet, pose with for selfies, or claim as someone they knew.
  • I was not a world-class adventurer with spine-tingling stories to tell.
  • I was not exceptionally handsome or funny.
  • There was nothing unusually interesting about me that would attract attention.

I was just a regular guy who felt great compassion for those his organization served. As excited as I was about the organization, it was very difficult to find people willing to meet with me to talk about it.

“Maybe,” I periodically said to myself, “I was not cut out for this kind of work.”

The irony is that donor relations is potentially the greatest job one could imagine, but unfortunately many are finding it to be one of the most challenging.

I was not the first fundraiser to fantasize about the perfect job situation or to wonder if he or she ought to start looking for another career. And, it’s not just new fundraisers who entertain these kinds of thoughts. The Under Developed report I wrote about two months ago in Culture of Philanthropy revealed that of the 2,700 development directors surveyed from 38% to 57% (depending on the size of the organization) said that they would be leaving the organization within two years. Forty percent affirmed the statement: “Fund development is my current field of work, but I’m not sure if I will stay in it for my entire career.” The irony is that donor relations is potentially the greatest job one could imagine, but unfortunately many are finding it to be one of the most challenging.

When I talk to our nonprofit clients about the importance of building long-lasting donor relationships, I often sense the tension that my suggestion produces. They must have had the same rude awakening and career doubts as I did. However, rarely do I hear CEOs or development directors come right out and say, “No one wants to meet with me.” That would sound too much like a negative commentary on their professional ability or personal likeability. It’s much safer to talk about outside factors—people being busy, donor fatigue, or changing trends in the philanthropic landscape. I promise you though, “No one wants to meet with me,” has gone though the mind of every fund-development professional at some point in his or her career. In the early days, I used to say it to myself a lot—so much so that it’s a wonder I stuck it out.

That being said, one of the frequent questions fundraisers ask is, “How do we get donors to meet with us in order to start those relationship-building conversations?” There are some easy answers to that question that can be very helpful in the short run. They usually fall under several types of appeals for donor visits.

1) Advice Visits—The idea is to ask donors for a meeting in order to seek their advice on new initiatives or changes to organizational programs and procedures. It’s a good approach because listening is better than talking and donors (particularly highly invested donors) have lots of ideas about what your organization should be doing.

New program initiatives are great opportunities to organize a campaign of advice-visits with donors, beginning with major donors and working your way as far down as you can. They also become equally significant missed opportunities when organizational leaders forge ahead with plans without considering the donor relations component.

There are a couple of obvious downsides of the advice-visit strategy. First of all, organizations have to continually be creating programs or making significant organizational changes to justify the strategy. Setting up a meeting with a major donor to discuss a minor procedural change would seem rather awkward to them and to you.

New program initiatives are great opportunities to organize a campaign of advice-visits with donors…

Secondly (and more importantly) is the issue of sincerity. Donors (even salt-of-the-earth, blue-collar, grandma-and-grandpa type donors) quickly become very sophisticated in their ability to read the intentions of fundraisers. It’s the donor-relations version of Spiderman’s “spider sense.” If your desire to seek their advice is just a rouse to get the appointment and you have no real interest in their advice, they’ll figure that out in short order. So, if organizational leaders are not going to actually consider donors’ advice, you need to be careful asking for it—even more careful about organizing a donor-relations campaign of advice visits.

2) Thank-You Visits— I’ve commented previously about my long-established habit of hand delivering gift-acknowledgment receipts to my key donors. “Key donors” are defined as anyone with whom I feel the need to reinforce the relationship. I would hold out the envelope but when the donor tried to take it, I wouldn’t let go. Instinctively, they would look up at me. That was my opportunity to look them straight in the eye and say, “I really want to thank you for this. It means a lot to our organization and the people we serve.” No matter how many times I’ve done that with the same donor, its impact never seems to diminish. JUMP TO: hand-delivered receipt.

“The president specifically asked me to hand deliver this and to tell you how much he appreciates it.”

It doesn’t have to be an end-of-year receipt. You can respond this way to any gift during the year. Last week I was consulting with representatives of a client organization about building donor relationships, and we began talking about this powerful way of showing appreciation. They did this with a selection of key donors, hand delivering the latest receipt and hanging on until they looked up. Then they said, “The president specifically asked me to hand deliver this and to tell you how much he appreciates it.” NOTE: Be sure the president knows what you’re saying and to whom.

The idea was working so well, they began to apply the principle to their long list of lapsed donors. They hand delivered beautiful certificates with “look-you-in-the-eye” thank-yous, acknowledging the impact of the donors’ years of support to the organization.

3) Information Visits—The Association of Fundraising Professionals’ annual report on donor retention revealed that only 23% of first time donors in 2014 gave again in 2015. And of those giving less than $100, the retention rate was only 17%. Every first-time donor represents a golden opportunity for an information visit or at least an information phone call. The calls or visits are not appeals for the next gift but simply brief conversations around questions like:

“How did you hear about us?”

“What is it about our organization or mission that inspired you to give to us?”

Every first-time donor represents a golden opportunity for an information visit or at least an information phone call. 

If the conversation is going well, you might venture in a little deeper to ask about causes and organizations they’ve most enjoyed supporting—kind of a personal history of philanthropy.

If you want to set yourself apart, an information visit is one sure way to do it. Through the years, I’ve made a lot of first-time gifts to organizations, and I’ve almost always received some kind of appeal for a second gift. However, rarely has anyone taken the time to visit or call to ask why I gave.

Every gift, every new donor, and every lapsed donor is an opportunity for a meaningful conversation. These are just three types of visit requests, and these alone can potentially fill up a fundraiser’s calendar with relationship-building conversations.

However, these opportunities merely scratch the surface of the organization’s potential. Comments on this topic touch on a much more fundamental consideration—that is, formulating a clearly defined vision of what donor relations would look like in the ideal expression of your organization. That’s next month’s topic—Beginning with the End in Mind.

Eddie Thompson, Ed.D.
Founder and CEO, Thompson & Associates
Copyright 2017, R. Edward Thompson

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3 Responses to DONOR VISITS: Setting Up Those Relationship-Building Conversations

  1. Frank says:

    Great thoughts Eddie. Thanks

  2. Tim Chaten says:

    Great advice Eddie on the different kinds of donor visits you should be making. Here’s a bit of info on the value of doing these meetings –

  3. tchaten87 says:

    Some great ideas on the types of donor meetings you should be setting up. Here’s some more info on why these meetings are so important –

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