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The Art of the Discovery Call

Resource Center - Foundation

(March 1, 2011) It is the most dreaded function for many development officers--picking up the phone and striking up conversation with someone they've never met. Here are some tips for breaking the ice.

In an interview this week with Eli Jordfald, CFRE, who is presenting a session at the AFP International Conference on Fundraising in Chicago later this month, she explains that a discovery call is not about setting up an appointment for an in-person meeting. Rather, the purpose is to see if that appointment would be beneficial in the first place.

"The purpose of a discovery call is to determine whether an appointment or visit is warranted," Jordfald explains. "Because the next step--the in-person meeting--can be very time consuming."

For many fundraisers, this can take a lot of the pressure off of the discovery call. You don't need to push for a next step, you simply need to gauge their interest.

Ask, Don't Tell

In your call, ask questions that will get the person talking about your organization. If you work for a hospital, ask the person "What was your experience as a patient?" You'll be surprised how open they can be, and how much you can learn about their interest in giving back, Jordfald says.

"This call should not be a monologue about the virtues of your organization, this is a listening call," she says. "Find out why people believe in the cause--or do they believe in the cause at all. If the person expresses interest, offer them ways to get engaged and learn more, perhaps by taking a tour of your facility or meeting a member of the organization's program staff."

Or, if the person is not receptive to the call, then adjust your response accordingly. It is important to listen for information, but it is also important to listen for cues of interest or reluctance. If you decide that the person is not a potential major gift candidate, ask for a gift (if appropriate) and offer to send regular updates, such as your organization's newsletter. Remember, capacity alone does not make someone a candidate for a major gift.

Sounding like you are reading a script and monopolizing the conversation are two clear pitfalls of discovery calls, Jordfald explains.

Be Straightforward

In addition, if the caller is on the development staff, they should be clear about that by stating their job title, Jordfald says. It's only fair to the person receiving the call, and it avoids the appearance that the fundraiser is somehow concealing their role.

"Be upfront about your role in development," she says. "We should not make excuses for the fact that it is our job to raise funds. People appreciate knowing this from the beginning of the call."

In the end, your goal is to get the person talking. One idea is to simply ask, "How do you see your involvement with our organization?" Maybe the person wants to volunteer, maybe they want to donate a small amount now and learn more, or perhaps the person wants no further involvement. As they say, you never know until you ask.

Be forthright, have a conversation, and listen. This will save you time and money, and you'll raise more in the end.

Eli Jordfald, CFRE, is senior major gifts director at UNC Chapel Hill School of Medicine in Chapel Hill, N.C. She will present a session at the AFP International Conference on Fundraising titled "Mastering the Art of Discovery Calls." In her session she will present sample scripts and real examples, as well as an effective way to structure discovery calls to prospective major gift donors. 

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