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How To Ace Your First Meeting With a Potential Donor

Resource Center - Foundation

by Jennifer McCrea and Jeffrey C. Walker

There’s an old adage that circulates widely in fundraising circles which says “It’s harder to get the first meeting than the first gift.”  Actually, we’ve never found this to be true! Even people who are very busy (and successful people are almost all very busy) are generally willing to share twenty or thirty minutes of their time with a visitor who comes with a referral from a respected source.

The real challenge is getting a second meeting—converting the initial face-to-face into the start of a real relationship with potential for growth, discovery and mutual benefit.  That’s why handling the first meeting correctly is tremendously important.

The first meeting must be much more than just a nice exchange of ideas and stories.  We have all had such meetings over lunch or a cup of coffee, and they can be very enjoyable. But unless we agree to take our connection to the next level through a shared commitment to do so, the encounter does not lead to a true relationship. The second encounter must encourage a process of learning together about new ways to use our resources, and even to discover new resources we never knew we had.

There’s risk in that kind of commitment—and uncertainty.  So a potential partner’s decision to spend time with you beyond a first meeting must have at least a promise of something deep and meaningful.  There must be intentionality put into learning something real about each other, beyond bios—something rich enough that we not only want but need to know more. 

If you want to initiate that kind of relationship, you need to create the circumstances of openness, transparency, and sharing that will make such commitment both possible and attractive.  You can help make this happen by playing close attention to certain important details when planning the first meeting.

Five Steps to The Perfect First Date

Step One: Don’t meet in the office.  The office is the most commonly-proposed place for a conversation between fundraiser and potential donor—yet in many ways it is the least appropriate setting.  The distractions (telephone, email, co-workers) are simply too numerous and too persistent.  What’s more, the office is a place where egos do battle—where power plays, turf battles, and jockeying for prestige are the daily fare.  It’s a place where we generally wear masks—and often armor. 

This is precisely the kind of mindset you’re hoping to break down and replace with an attitude of self-reflection, sharing, transparency, exploration and growth.  So avoid the office.  A visit to the potential partner’s home is much better.  As an alternative, invite him to a nearby restaurant for breakfast or a snack.

Step Two: Stick to a one-on-one meeting. Avoid the temptation to bring along one, two or more colleagues for support.  It’s harder to authentically connect with someone in a group of three (or more). The smaller the group, the greater the likelihood that the conversation will be informal, relaxed, spontaneous and open—with the possibility of real human connection as the result.

Step Three: Use “Why” questions to cut through the noise of competing interests and create the possibility of open dialog.   Whatever you may know about your new acquaintance, your goal should be to get past the mere data points on a resume or fact sheet, and transform those facts into springboards for exploring the inner human reality behind the facts. “Why” questions are crucial to understanding the nature of your new acquaintance’s personal philanthropic journey: 

  • “Why did you decide to get involved in supporting arts education programs?”
  • “Why did you have such a strong passion for children’s rights?”
  • “Why did you choose cancer research as the focus of most of your giving?”

The more you know about the “why” behind a person’s life choices, the easier it will be for you to really understand what shapes their thinking and behavior—and the closer the connection you may be able to forge between him, yourself and a worthy cause that’s appropriate for you both.

Step Four: Describe your cause in positive terms.  Many people explain their personal passions in “against” terms: “I work on the environment because I’m against the degradation of the planet,” or “I’m against unaccountable corporations,” or “I’m against oil dependence.”  When we set up our conversation in terms of separate, opposing forces, we’re tapping fear as our chief motivating factor.  We stimulate anxiety that the “wrong side” will be victorious and the “right side” will lose.  

This can be intensely motivating—for a while.  But over time, humans tend to weary of endless struggle.  So when you meet with a potential donor for the first time, don’t lead with a case for support that shows why your idea is better than someone else’s or why the world will fall apart if your organization doesn’t receive a donation today.  Your goal should be to stir something inside them that is for something.  

Step Five: Don’t rely on props.  When we’re nervous about a conversation, it’s easy to use documents, slide shows, videos and other presentation tools as crutches.  Avoid this tendency.  Sending a video link, PowerPoint deck or report as a follow-up to your conversation can be effective.  But sitting across a computer screen kills the flow of the conversation and stifles your attempt to create a real human connection.  Instead, rely on your most powerful and effective presentation tool—your physical, mental and emotional presence. 

It’s hard to over-stress the importance of setting a positive tone for your first meeting.  Point the relationship in the right direction by following the suggestions we’ve offered, and you’ll be amazed at how far you can travel together.


Jennifer McCrea is a senior research fellow at the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organization at Harvard University, where she designs and leads the course in Exponential Fundraising, and is a member of many nonprofit boards.  Jeffrey C. Walker, former managing partner of JPMorgan Partners, has been an executive in residence at Harvard Business School and taught a seminar at the Harvard Kennedy School on applying private skills to the nonprofit world. McCrea and Walker are co-authors, with business writer Karl Weber, of The Generosity Network: New Transformational Tools for Successful Fund-Raising (New York: Deepak Chopra Books/Crown, 2013), on which this article is partially based.

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