Engage: Your Philanthropy Resource

A meeting with a potential donor can be compared to a finely choreographed dance. Just like that dance, in order to be successful, to flow smoothly, and to avoid the proverbial fight over who is leading, partners need to walk through their steps and practice prior to the performance.

Discovery Meeting Process

Unlike a dance where one partner leads all the time, in a donor meeting, you and your development partner will take turns leading based on your area of expertise. As the subject matter expert, you will take the lead in discussing how, when, and on what the funds will be used and how the project or program matches the overall vision of the college. Your development colleague will lead the discussion about any technical aspects of contributions including the amount, time frame, and gift type. Together, you will set goals for the outcome of the meeting. If you are unable to achieve your primary goal, it’s beneficial to have secondary goals in place as your backup plan.

Who’s Your Potential Donor?

Both you and your development partner will work together in identifying potential donors with whom you can meet. Sometimes, based on your exciting work that you have shared with them, your colleagues in development will have identified someone. Other times, because you are publicly sharing your compelling work, you may meet someone who is interested in supporting your work. People who have benefitted from your work or teaching—such as former students or business owners—may also be interested in contributing.

“I found a potential donor at the farmer’s market. I do hands-on science activities there to keep the kids occupied while their parents shop. A vendor approached me to find out more about what I was doing. She wants to donate. She’s retiring from farming soon and would love to help continue my science programs. I think if you are serious about raising funds, then you’re going to have to bring it every chance you get. You’re going to have to be ready—at the most random times—to talk to people…my role is helping to brainstorm [a list of] people that have been positively impacted by something I’ve done. I give those names to [my development colleague] and he runs with it.”

–Dr. Katrina Lisse, Director, Science Education Center, Professor of Chemistry


“Our academic partner actually had the first relationship with the potential donors…but the academic partner didn’t feel comfortable bringing that partnership to a giving partnership…that’s where I stepped in. We were able to—together with the potential donor—sit down at a table together and really unfold the vision….”

–Development Professional

Choreographing Your Steps

1. Build Strategic Rapport

Meeting with Donors: All the Right Steps

As the relationship expert, your colleague will steer building rapport—unless you have an established relationship with the potential donor. In either case, working together to plan a few strategic, high-value questions during this part of the meeting will be key. More than just “get to know you” conversation, these open-ended questions that begin with how, why, or what are designed to learn about and engage more deeply with the potential donor.

2. Share

This phase of the meeting is your chance to shine as the subject matter expert by sharing your compelling Opportunity Story [link to previous installment]. More than just a funding priority, your Opportunity Story should spark donor interest and ignite their passion. What’s the best way to prepare? Practice with your development colleague.

“I definitely brainstorm with [my development partner] to prepare for meetings with potential donors. We practice. If he understands it from a non-scientist perspective and he senses the passion I’m trying to bring, then I know we’re good. He’ll tell me, ‘Don’t get too technical.’”

–Dr. Katrina Lisse, Director, Science Education Center, Professor of Chemistry

3. Discover

Once you’ve shared a compelling Opportunity Story with the potential donor, you and your development partner will share this step in helping to discover the individual’s interests or passions that align with your initiative. In some cases, it might be appropriate for you to simply ask, “As you think about what I just shared, what in your experience makes it meaningful to you?” In other cases, it might be more appropriate for your development colleague to lead on this step. The key is deciding who will lead this part of the conversation beforehand and having your actions mapped out.

“Donors don’t give to advancement; they give to their academic partners. Donors give to what they are passionate about, and they’re passionate about what’s happening at the university. The academic partner is the key to making that happen.”

–Vice President of Advancement

4. Explore potential next steps

After hearing your Opportunity Story, the potential donor may be ready to contribute—or they may be intrigued but desire more information. Based on the response of the individual, you and your development colleague should be ready with options. Perhaps you have several levels of giving outlined that can be explored further. Or you may want to share opportunities to learn more—by touring your lab, meeting students, or sitting in on one of your lectures. Occasionally, you might discover that the potential donor’s philanthropic passions lie elsewhere. That’s OK, too—you’ve planted a seed. The potential donor may wish to engage at a later date, or they may know someone who would be interested.

5. Agree on action

Whether you or your development partner takes the lead in the final step of a donor meeting depends on both the agreed-upon action—especially if it requires subject matter information—and your level of comfort. If the action is a financial contribution, and you are hesitant to make “the ask,” your development colleague will have your back. Additionally, they will take the lead in ensuring any of the potential donor’s requests are met.

“One thing I hear a lot from our academic partners is, ‘I don’t want to ask for money.’ I always try to make sure that they understand that’s not necessarily their role in this partnership—unless they’re comfortable with it. Their role is to tell their story. Our role is to be well-prepared, to give the academic partner all the information they need to be successful to facilitate that relationship and ultimately bring it to fruition.”

–Development Professional

Author Gerald Jonas wrote, “The one unbreakable rule of dancing is that the partners must move interdependently, as a unit.” Time spent on choreography and rehearsal with your development colleague will set you both up for success in donor meetings.