Philanthropy is about more than asking for money. In fact, inviting a donor to join in the work of your organization through a contribution is only a small part of philanthropy. You may be participating in philanthropy on a daily basis without even knowing that you are. Contacting that young alum to come back and address your classes about how to conduct a successful job search—that’s philanthropy. Extending an invitation to a community member to attend an event on campus—that’s philanthropy. Penning that thank-you note to a donor for their most recent contribution to the scholarship fund—you guessed it!—that’s also philanthropy.

Viewing these actions through the lens of philanthropy provides you with a better focus on the strategy of engaging. As you prepare for a donor meeting, keep in mind the many ways that you can connect and engage with donors that will be meaningful to them. Carefully selecting stories of student and faculty successes, opportunities for involvement, and moments of impact to carry with you in your “toolkit” is an important means for engaging with donors on a personal and meaningful level.

Having that toolkit of stories is essential when I meet with donors…when their passion and motivation becomes apparent, I want to make sure that I have an opportunity that I can share with them, so we’re able to make that connection.

—Department Chair

Look for the Donor’s Connections with Your Organization

Effectively building rapport involves more than merely being aware that a potential donor is an alum. Work closely with your development colleague prior to donor meetings to get a better understanding of a donor’s background.

Once I learned of a major, I then would go and research who was on faculty around the time of their graduation. Often, donors like to ask about their former professors—‘What ever happened to Dr. So-and-So?’ It’s very important to conduct that advanced research ahead of the meeting because that will give some insight as to what I should have in my toolkit.

—Department Chair

Noting the subject matter areas within their major or the professors about which a donor may inquire can also provide clues about their philanthropic passions.

If the potential donor is not an alum, look for other ways to connect. Are they in a profession that is supported by one of your department’s majors? Have they hired graduates of your institution? Being able to say, “One of our graduates works in your division” is a powerful way to build rapport.

Fill Your Toolkit with Success Stories

Donors can be energized by stories of student achievement. As you collect those stories, be mindful of presenting them in a way that invites the potential donor to envision how they could be part of that story. Strive to present the story in such a way that donors or potential donors can picture themselves stepping into the funding gap. Could more students achieve similar success if a program were enlarged to serve more students? Or perhaps the donor sees the impact that establishing an internship program at their business could have on students’ futures. Emphasize the opportunity, rather than the need.

Faculty success stories also deserve a place in your toolkit. While stories of success in subject matter areas often get the most attention, be sure to include stories of pedagogical success as well. Either way, be sure to focus your stories on how donors can help unleash powerful new innovations—both in the subject matter area and the classroom—that will drive results.

It’s All About the Impact

The ways in which a donor’s contribution creates impact should take up a fair amount of real estate in your toolkit. If a donor has previously contributed, be sure to include stories of impact. And while a story is nice, nothing beats the real thing. Consider having a student and/or faculty member personally tell donors how their support made a difference or take them on a tour of facilities that their contribution helped build.

If a donor is at the beginning of their journey in making a contribution, sharing stories of how their funding will create an impact is an important way to gain insight into the ways they would like to be stewarded and how best to manage the their expectations. Consider demonstrating impact through various means. For example, if you are talking about a new facility, donors may be interested to hear how many students will benefit as well as how their education will be improved.

Make sure the donor sees the impact of their gift. That is key for continual giving. To me, one of the most important facets is definitely the impact of the gift.

—Department Chair

Do not hesitate to enlist the support of your development colleague when preparing for donor meetings. As the philanthropic relationship expert, they will assist you in finding and selecting the stories for your toolkit that are tailored to the donor. During meetings, listening attentively and asking questions will help you achieve the goal of better understanding the donor’s own story, motivation, and philanthropic passion. An appropriately filled toolkit arms you for success.

Philanthropy is about making connections. We want to remain connected to our alumni. We want to remain connected with our community members. We want to remain connected with the companies that employ our students. Advancement allows us to foster those types of connections.

—Department Chair


Discover the ways in which you can partner with your development colleagues to advance the work of your institution, college, department, or research area by attending a public offering of Professional Fundraising for Deans and Academic Leaders.

Professional Fundraising for Deans and Academic Leaders