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Weathering the Storm Together: How to Build Stronger Ties With Donors in Tough Economic Times  

By Derrick Feldmann

During tough economic times, organizations often take two approaches. Some hunker down and wait for the storm to pass. Others step up efforts and bring donors in.

Which will be best positioned when the economy turns? The ones that take the proactive approach. How do you do that, especially in the current economic landscape?  By following three simple strategies for donor relations:

Be Proactive. Don’t hide in hard times. Get out and meet with your donors to describe the challenges the organization faces in the current economy. During those meetings, be candid about the realities of your situation, but also describe specific strategies your organization will execute to meet the needs in the community. Be forthright and focus on tangible, specific solutions.

Before you leave meetings, let the donors know how you’ll keep them informed of progress (phone, meetings, reports, etc.). They are stakeholders to the organization; treat them that way. It’s in your best interest and theirs that they are informed. Often, you’ll find that donors will step up and support the organization during difficult times if they understand your strategy and plan.

Seek Their Counsel. You can bet this is not the first time your donors have witnessed troubling times. Use this as an opportunity to seek their counsel on how the organization will withstand a tough economy. Donors like to be on the inside and want to see organizations succeed.

Therefore, as you visit with your major donors, ask their opinions on the strategies the organization has set forth during this time. Ask about how they’ve weathered storms in their business and professional lives. Listen, take notes, and discuss the strategies with the organization’s leadership. Invite your major donors to an executive staff meeting and ask them to suggest solutions. Make it a point to return to the donors and provide feedback on how you used their advice. Always continue the conversation by setting up meetings for other opportunities in the future to discuss the strategies.

Communicate. Candid communication with donors will yield long-term success. After you have sought their counsel and described the challenges and the solutions, continue the dialogue. This is an opportunity to make donors feel as if they are working side by side with you. Schedule phone calls and visits, and send updates to donors on a regular basis.

Think about developing a special report that describes the challenges and lists the strategies. On a monthly or quarterly basis, under each strategy list the tactics and the progress made. This paper version of an organization dashboard to deal with the economy will provide your donors with an ongoing snapshot of the successes the organization has made. For donors below your major gift threshold, continue to communicate via your Web site, in newsletters and with calls.

Remember: It’s your attitude and proactive approach to economic challenges that will yield long-term success. Bring your donors in and let them help you weather the storm. Not only will you likely get some good counsel, but you might be surprised by how these simple strategies yield the gifts you seek.

Derrick Feldmann is CEO of Achieve, an Indianapolis-based consulting firm serving the needs of small to medium-sized nonprofit organizations through personal consultation and online philanthropic resources. Their white paper on fundraising in a tough economy is available on their website,

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Face-to-Face: How to Hold Focused, Successful Meetings With Donors  

“The key to donor relations today is to think of it like customer relations,” says Erika Dockery, CFRE, executive director of the World Affairs Council of Greater Cincinnati. She offers ways to help you end with results rather than loose ends.

“My view is that we need to spend more time with donors and less time with prospects—holding off on social bonding and relationship-building until we know that the person has at least some interest in offering support.”

Her approach is to be up-front and open with donors and to approach the business aspect of the meeting directly and strategically. “That does not mean making a hard sell,” Dockery explains. Rather, it is to take a reading to determine if further cultivation will bear fruit. “I want to know if the donor is willing, at some point in the future, to have a discussion about making a gift. If the answer is ‘no,’ then I’d rather know that up front, rather than find that out after six months of cultivation,” she explains.

Dockery will present a session at AFP’s International Conference on Fundraising in New Orleans titled “Bottom Line Fundraising.” The session will focus on how fundraisers can integrate traditional “sales” techniques into daily work and achieve great results—from cold calling, to personal visits with prospects, to closing more gifts in a shorter timeframe. For more details and to register for the conference (happening March 29-April 1), go to

Essential Elements of an Initial Donor Meeting

“You become friends with your best donors, but when you are starting out you need clients, not friends,” Dockery explains. For the first or second meeting, determine your goal. Is the person willing to consider a major gift in the next (insert number) of months? Are they willing to have a discussion about a future gift in a certain range? Or, at minimum, are they interested in becoming an annual donor? Of course they are not always ready for this question on the first visit—it may take until the second or third. But sometimes you will have only one meeting with a CEO or other chief officer to decide if they are a good prospect, she explains.

Once you have a goal for the meeting, identify three questions that you will raise in the course of the conversation. One might say, “Is it alright if I ask about your other philanthropic interests?” or ask about the range of gift they are interested in making. What you don’t want to do is “go in cold” without having particular aims in mind, Dockery says. But Dockery also emphasizes good strategy in approaching probing questions. “I am looking for a good match,” she tells donors.

Dockery leaves it open for a donor to say no at the end of the conversation. Leaving room for ‘no’ allows donors who are simply not interested to say so up front. Of course, follow-up questions should be prepared ahead of time to address a donor’s initial hesitance. Be flexible. Offer the donor a longer-term or different donation type. A clear ‘no,’ though, means you can move on to other prospects.

Next Steps: A Good Match

Dockery then tells the donor that if both of them feel there is a good match, that the last five minutes of the meeting will be spent to talk about next steps, including specific programs, funding needs and a proposed gift. She asks donors at the meeting’s start to be open and honest: “Please, if you are not interested feel free to tell me so. I want to be sure we have a good fit between you and what our organization accomplishes,” she says. The decision to give, or even to learn more, then becomes a mutual decision. The last five minutes is what Dockery advises spending the most time preparing and practicing.

She does this with current donors as well—stating up front that she has a program that may be of interest (or may not) and asks for some time to discuss the funding idea. If they are interested she spends the key “last five minutes” on the ask.

Above all, Dockery says fundraisers have to go into their meeting with the right attitude. “Don’t make assumptions or tell yourself this is going to be a tough sell,” she says. “Go in with an open mind—even if you have approached the donor before to no result. Think positive!”

Erika Dockery explores more “bottom line fundraising” techniques in her session at the AFP International Conference on Fundraising on Monday, March 30, from 2:45 to 4 p.m. To search the more than 150 sessions offered and to register for conference, go to Register by Feb. 20 and save $100 off the regular rate!

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Essential Cultivation Steps Before...and After 'The Ask'  

The process of good donor relations does not stop once a gift has been made. It is just beginning, according to veteran fundraiser Laura Fredricks JD, LLC, who explains that stewardship goes far beyond the words “thank you.”

“Particularly now I think donor relations is absolutely essential,” Fredricks explains. She views stewardship and cultivation as mirror images of one another. “Stewardship is simply cultivation that takes place after ‘the ask’,” she says. “Too many people view stewardship as recognition. It contains that element, but that is not the whole story.” She encourages fundraisers instead to view stewardship as ongoing cultivation toward deeper support of your organization.

Below, Fredricks offers eWire Skill Builder readers some advice on solid donor cultivation and stewardship. She also will present an AFP Web/Audioconference on Feb. 5 titled “Developing Major Gift Donors Who Deliver.” The presentation will contain tips and guidance on identifying major gift prospects that are the most promising and deserving of deeper cultivation. Registration for this and all other 2009 web/audio presentations is now open. Go to the AFP website ( and click on Education and Career Development.

Laura’s Helpful Hints

Cultivate individually. Everyone is a mini-campaign, so to speak. Some fundraisers grab a group of potential donors and cultivate all of them the same way. But each donor has unique interests and potential. Use keen observation during face-to-face meetings and be sure that each donor profile contains more than just numbers. One key question to answer is: Why are they interested in your organization?

Keep it fresh. Donors should hear from a variety of people. Keep it exciting and fresh with newsletters and email messages. Tell a lot of stories about your organization. Do a whole lot of listening. People connect in different ways, and they appreciate variety.

Always walk away with something new. What is your goal for your next meeting with your donor? You may aim to find a program that matches her interests. Or you may want to find out in more concrete terms a donor’s level of interest in making a gift—at what level and when. You have to keep them moving along, educated and interested.

Explain your priorities. Now more than ever donors want to know what your priorities are so that they can best meet your organization’s pressing needs. Know what those priorities are. Try this exercise: Name three things that won’t happen if you do not reach your fundraising goal. Those three things are your top priorities.

Track every conversation. So often, due to turnover of fundraisers and nonprofit staff, essential information about donors, prospects and supporters is lost because it was not diligently recorded and stored in a database. How else are you going to remember the important details about your donor, be it their love of animals or their preferred meeting times during the week? People who don’t use a database and record their progress with donors generally walk away with far less money. It’s just that simple.

To register for Laura Fredricks’ Feb. 5 Web/Audioconference presentation, “Developing Major Gift Donors Who Deliver,” go to the AFP website ( and click on Education and Career Development.

Laura Fredricks JD, LLC, is a consultant and motivational speaker for business and nonprofits. She is an internationally known fundraiser, speaker and the author of Developing Major Gifts (Jones and Bartlett) and The Ask (John Wiley & Sons).

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Listen Up! Ways to Improve Your Listening and Observation Skills With Donors  

When you meet with a donor, of course you listen to them. But are you really listening? Learn some simple ways to tune in to your donors and record the telling details.

Become a Deep Listener

(This article is an excerpt from the book Winning Gifts: Make Your Donors Feel Like Winners by Thomas D. Wilson. It is available for purchase in the AFP Bookstore. To access the bookstore go to the AFP website ( and click on AFP Marketplace & Bookstore.)

What does it mean to be a good listener? We all can think back to our school days and the different ways we listened (or didn’t). Remember the droning professor who restated everything that you had already read in the textbook? In real life we know it’s critically important to listen—like the careful listening I did prior to doing 100-yard zipline, canopy tours in the jungles of Costa Rica (where if I didn’t learn how to stop myself with the leather glove they had given me I would have slammed into a tree trunk at an exciting velocity).

All of us listen every day. Hopefully we’re paying attention, but frequently we don’t have to, want to or need to. Usually we only listen to the news with half a mind, or go to meetings and daydream until something important comes up. Remember your last job interview? Every word was critical. What was the person asking? What did she really want to know? What clarifying questions could I ask to understand where this person was coming from? Now, that was deep listening.

Deep Listening

How do you show active, deep listening? You take notes, you nod your head in agreement, you ask clarifying, follow-up questions to gather additional information and you restate to see if you heard correctly.

The next time you’re in a one-on-one meeting, look to see how active your partner is in her listening skills. Does he have a notepad to write down what you are say? If not, maybe he’s not a listener. How can you tell if they heard you? A nod, a smile . . .that’s something. A restatement of what you said to see if he got it correctly is the best. Reflect on whether you felt listened to. Did you walk away feeling the other person understood what you were trying to say? Did the person perceive the emotion and energy behind your words? Was the listening empathetic? A tape machine can be accurate in recording what you say, but is it sympathetic to you? Of course not.

Can you empathize with a donor? Sure, just remember to seek the emotions and affect behind the words and facts you are hearing.  For example:  You meet with Mary, one of many mid-level donors who someday might become a major donor at your new job. During your conversation you ask how the fundraising department has done in the past year and what could be done better in the future. She comments that her gift last year was made in memory of her late husband, but her name was put in the annual report instead of his. She thought she had made her wishes clear to your predecessor and is not so much mad as disappointed. The good news is you were there to listen. You were able to find out there was a problem and note her angst. Clarify the situation by restating what you heard in terms of the facts and her advice on resolving the situation.

Take good notes so Mary knows you have listened intently. The real issue here is memorializing her husband.  You need to admit your organization blew it. Be sure to slow down and ask for some stories about her husband. How did they meet? Why was he so special? Show interest in the person at the empathetic level, where feelings are expressed. Be genuine about your interest. This is easy as many of the stories you will hear are fascinating.

Note Taking

One way to practice your listening skills is take a notepad with you wherever you go. Take as detailed notes as you can during a one-on-one meeting. It’s a fine balance to take notes but keep tightly focused on the person’s facial expressions and body language. It’s critical that before 24 hours are up, you type up your notes, adding as much detail as you can remember. Include any follow-up promises that were made by either side. In fundraising, these contact reports are vital to your success.

Why is note taking so important and why are contact reports so critical to fundraising success?  While you can listen intently in the moment, if you take no notes your surface memory will keep shifting to the next topic and forget the last one—that’s the job of surface memory. If you take some simple notes, you can jog your short-term memory later that day.

To help cement your memories of the meeting, write complete notes. Just the exercise of fleshing out your notes helps you to remember them. Turning in this complete contact report is critical to your organization as you are establishing institutional memory of the interaction. Reflecting on the meeting during the contact report writing process will put the person’s comments into perspective and add background meaning to some of her comments.

With frequent turnover of fundraising staff, the only way for an organization to truly get its money’s worth from its fundraisers is to insist on contact reports for every call. If you are a star fundraiser or you want to be, you should be having 5 to 10 face-to-face meetings a week with donors (15 is okay, too). That’s an average of thirty per month. There’s no way to remember all of those meetings and discussions if you do not write down notes.

If you build the habit of taking good notes and writing thorough interview contact reports, you will be able to scan them before the next meeting with a donor and appear to have a photographic memory. You will find that the very fact of writing them up, of reflecting on the meeting and looking for meaning, helps to burn the experience into your memory.

Beyond Listening

In addition to what you heard, what did you see? Experience? If you were in an office, were there diplomas on the wall? If so, from where? Any family pictures? Hobbies? (golf, sailing, etc.)? How big was the office? Where did you sit? At a desk? At a conference table? Next to the donor or across the table? Did the donor smile? How was her sense of humor? Were there any mementos of your organization on the desk or in the office? Mementos of other organizations? Was the donor dressed formally or informally? Was there an administrative assistant? What is the assistant’s name? Did you make a connection with the assistant?

Similar observations can be made if you are meeting in someone’s home. What type of neighborhood is it? What style of home? How new is it? How is it decorated? Is there art on the walls? Sculpture in yard? Did you meet in the living room or the kitchen? Is there a dog or cat?

Will you need all of this information later? Who knows? Being observant can provide clues that are useful later. And your notes certainly provide topics of conversation during this visit or future visits.

A caution on listening—sometimes as people tell you their stories it brings up memories from your life. This is the good news. You’re empathizing with the person you are listening to. But, as quickly as you can, store away your memories for later. Don’t share them right now. If you are not careful, it may feel like you are trying to one-up the donor’s story with your own. Keep the focus on the donor and her story and save your story for your spouse/partner or your journal. If you start trading stories to top each other then you become ships in the night talking past each other rather than really communicating.

If you have accepted the concept that your first job is not to sell, but rather to listen, you will be fine. You do not have to worry about making a pitch at your first meeting. It’s a discovery call, not a solicitation call. Yes, you should be ready to respond if the donor tells you he wants to discuss making a gift. But that is not your goal today. You want to find out about the person and his connections to your organization.

This article is an excerpt of the book Winning Gifts: Make Your Donors Feel Like Winners by Thomas D. Wilson. Copyright © 2008 by John Wiley & Sons. Reprinted with permission of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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AFP Now Accepting Proposals to Speak at 2010 Conference

AFP is now accepting proposals to speak at the International Conference on Fundraising in Baltimore on April 11-14, 2010. The online proposal form is now available in the Speaker Service Center ( The deadline to submit proposals is Friday, April 24.

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Looking for a Change? Go to Sydney for the Fundraising Institute Australia Conference

FIA's 2009 International Fundraising Conference will be held at Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre from Feb. 27 to March 2, 2009. It is the largest gathering of fundraisers in the southern hemisphere. To learn more go to the AFP website ( and click on Education and Career Development. Then click on Executive Institutes.

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Register for the 2009 Web/Audioconference Series

AFP has a tremendous new lineup of Web/Audioconference programs in 2009. Plus, we are offering a special member price of $99 per program when you order 10 or more programs at once! There are more than 20 programs offered. Don’t miss this great opportunity to hear from experts in the field. To register and view the full list of 2009 presentations go to the AFP website ( and click on Education and Career Development.

We are starting 2009 with these two great AFP Web/Audioconferences!
Jan. 27, 2009, Raising Big Money Through Golf Events in a Down Economy with Phil Immordino (Still time to register!)
Feb. 5, 2009, Developing Major Gift Donors Who Deliver presented by Laura Fredricks, JD, LLC

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Take the CFRE Review Course at Conference

Have you considered earning your Certified Fund Raising Executive credential? Sign up for the conference and get the tools you need in New Orleans at the International Conference on Fundraising. While there, you can take the CFRE Review Course to prepare you for the CFRE Exam. To register for the CFRE Review Course, go to the AFP conference website ( and click on Education. Follow the link titled CFRE Review Course.

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