Posted August 1st, 2006

Gift Planners Discuss Donor Visits

Building relationships with donors is critical to success in development efforts. What better way to establish good rapport with donors than with a face-to-face visit? To find out more about the importance of conducting effective meetings with donors, Give & Take asked a group of experienced gift planners to share their tips on the basics of calling on donors.

The panel includes: Susan Goldman, Individual Philanthropy Officer for America’s Second Harvest in Chicago; Lindsay Lapole, Territorial Planned Giving Director for The Salvation Army in Atlanta; and Dudley Marble, Major and Planned Gifts Officer for Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi.

Give & Take: When do you request an appointment with a donor?

Goldman: If I’m going to a particular city, I try to set up an appointment with a priority donor two or three weeks in advance to work around their travel schedules, etc. For others, I will set appointments maybe two or three days beforehand. This works great for me because I can tell them I just want to stop by and meet them while I am in their area. I will sometimes even wait until I am in the city to arrange a visit if I have some extra time.

Lapole: We set appointments promptly with people who have responded to some sort of promotional effort we have sent out. I try to keep our meeting to 1½ hours at the most. I find that most seniors get tired at that point. In an effort to honor them and their time, I will bring the appointment to a close with a statement such as, “We have talked about a lot of things today. I need to get back to the office and review this and see what other information I need to get for you.”

Marble: I like to set up meetings about two weeks in advance. I have found that attempting to schedule them any earlier is a waste of time. When I know I am going to be in a particular city, I request a list of alumni over age 50 who live in that city. This list will contain information about each alum, such as birthdate, hometown, graduation year, family makeup, work history, etc. I am a firm believer in doing your research before you ever get on the phone to request a meeting. Sometimes I have been able to schedule an appointment with a donor simply by mentioning their previous career or other small bit of information from their donor profile.

Give & Take: Do you set particular goals for your appointments?

Goldman: At our first meeting, I want them to get to know me and earn their trust. And I want to find out about them, what is important to them, what makes them feel like they are making a difference by supporting us. I often ask them why they are devoted to our mission and how they found out about us. This information gives me all kinds of avenues for developing a relationship.

During a second meeting, I have had time to prepare something for the donor that is geared toward their interests, based on what I learned during the first meeting. I want to connect them more closely with our organization by focusing on what their passion is, and then showing them how we are meeting the needs in that area.

Lapole: The goal of most first appointments is simply to meet the people, build trust, and to find out more information about them that will help us determine whether there is a basis for us to continue the relationship towards a gift. We do not assume there is a gift there when we meet with people for the first time.

We treat these meetings as very personal discussions. In many cases, we are talking about the most intimate details of a person’s life that they don’t talk about with anyone else. They are having to make decisions about how they are going to allocate pieces of their estate or who will be executor of their estate. These are very emotional processes, so it is important to maintain integrity, and deserve and respect their trust.

Marble: At the first meeting with a donor, I just go to get to know them. I tell them on the front end that I’m not here to ask for a gift, and that puts them more at ease. Older donors don’t like to be pushed. Then I let the donor do most of the talking. I listen closely and try to find out what they are interested in. They all have wonderful stories to tell of their days at Millsaps. When I meet with a donor a second time, usually I bring a proposal or more information about the particular type of gift they are interested in, in case it is appropriate to discuss the possibility of a gift in more detail.

Give & Take: Do you ever ask if the donor would like to include others, such as children, in the meeting?

Goldman: I leave it up to the donor whether or not to invite their children to meetings.

Lapole: We seek to identify in that first appointment who the “giving influences” in the transaction may be. That could be the donor’s children, neighbors, brother-in-law, attorney, CPA, or others. We attempt to determine the degree of influence each of these giving influences is going to have on the ultimate gift decision. It then becomes our goal to involve, in face-to-face communications, as many of those people as possible, as early in the transaction as possible.

Marble: No donor has ever requested that we include family members in our discussions but, if they did, I would include them.

Give & Take: When you meet with a donor, what do you take with you?

Goldman: I usually have one folder with an overview of our organization, and a copy of the most recent hunger study. I put a business card in the folder and I also hand them a business card.

Unless a donor gives me specific names or other particulars I may need later, I don’t write anything down in our meetings. I do my best to remember what they tell me and write it down immediately after I get out of the meeting. I try to treat these meetings like I am just having tea with a friend and chatting.

Lapole: I take a folio with some blank paper and a pen. And I get the pen out of my pocket before I sit down, so when I ask them for permission to take notes, I don’t have to waste any time fishing around for it in my pockets. I would never take a laptop computer to an appointment. I don’t want anything coming between me and the donor that is going to attract attention.

Marble: I often give the donor a hardcover coffee table book about Millsaps, as well as copies of recent Millsaps planned giving newsletters.

Give & Take: Anything special to consider about what to wear or etiquette issues when dealing with older donors?

Goldman: I think it’s important to wear conservative, moderately priced clothing—never anything outrageous or “hip.” And, I like to let the donor decide where we meet. Most donors would rather meet in their homes. For a second meeting, I offer to take them to lunch.

Lapole: We are a uniform organization, so we require that men wear shirts and ties and jackets, and women should wear modest business attire. Having said that, we also expect them to dress appropriately for the situation. For example, if I have a meeting with a farmer where I may be walking through his fields, I would not wear my shirt and tie. I would wear something that my prospect would feel comfortable with in that situation.

Marble: I always wear a coat and tie to meetings with donors. I think the age group that I am dealing with wants to see that, and they appreciate it.

Give & Take: How and when do you follow up after the meeting?

Goldman: I either send a handwritten thank you note or a thank you e-mail if the donor and I have been previously corresponding that way. These thank you’s are sent within 24 hours of our meeting. In the note, I also let them know that I will be sending more information about the programs that might be of interest to them that we discussed in our first meeting.

Lapole: I like to follow up with a donor as quickly as possible to keep the process moving. If I need to make a second appointment, I try to make that appointment while I’m at the first meeting. At the same time, we have to remember that after we meet with donors, they often have to then go through a decision-making process. While we understand the various ins and outs of these gift plans, this is oftentimes the first time they have ever heard of a charitable gift annuity, for example. They have to decide if they really want to complete the planned gift you have discussed with them. We need to keep in mind that the development process is a marathon, not a sprint.

Marble: I do most of my donor visits on the road on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. When I get back to my office on Friday, I send the donor a handwritten thank you note. If I haven’t heard back from them in about a month, I call them to see if they have thought about the proposal.

Give & Take: What advice would you have for those who may have difficulty visiting with donors?

Goldman: “No” doesn’t necessarily mean “no,” it just means “not right now.” When someone says they are busy or not available, follow up with a note that says, “It was so lovely to talk with you and I look forward to visiting with you the next time I come to town.” Continue to act as if you will get a meeting eventually. Tell them at least once or twice a year how much you look forward to meeting them in person. And always be gracious.

Lapole: Get to your appointment on time! And keep in mind you must be careful to gather all the information necessary before you create a proposal for a donor. If you make a proposal without having all the information you need up front, in my experience, you will rarely get back to make another proposal!

Marble: Just because someone does not want to meet with you, don’t get discouraged or take it personally. Now may not be a good time for them because of vacations, travel schedules, etc. Always remember that there are other friends to meet with!

The publisher of Give & Take is not engaged in rendering legal or tax advisory service. For advice and assistance in specific cases, the services of your own counsel should be obtained. Articles in Give & Take may generally be reprinted for distribution to board members and staff of nonprofit institutions and other non-donor groups. Proper credit must be given. Call for details.

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