So you finally scheduled a big visit with one of your most elusive donors. They own a company that is well regarded in their community. You’ve wisely arrived 10 minutes early and as you sit in the nicely furnished reception area awaiting your meeting, you nervously review your notes. Maybe you check your phone for email or the latest news story.

If that’s what you are doing, you are missing a great opportunity to set yourself up for a successful visit—and more.

Reception areas and donor offices are often treasure troves of information that can jump-start your ability to build rapport, ask high-value questions, and customize your approach according to donors’ personality profiles in ways that prospect research reports can’t.

Here are some ways to interpret environmental clues and navigate your strategy with donors.

Monitor the “Museum”

Some people use their offices/reception areas/conference rooms as museums. They may showcase earlier versions of their products, or equipment that was used many years ago in their industry. Is there a framed cover of an industry magazine touting the organization’s trailblazing accomplishments? Does the publication on the coffee table include stories or ads for the company’s products?

Taking a quick look at this can help you formulate high-value questions about the company’s origins and future, including the donor’s sources of wealth. Commenting, “I noticed that your company has some wonderful accomplishments and industry recognition. How have you accomplished so much?” can elicit important clues about how a donor views wealth, one of most important dimensions of financial capacity.

Peruse Plaques

Are there recognition plaques? Maybe you already know this donor is actively supporting a local homeless shelter, but do you know the extent of the support or what drives it? How much can you learn about this donor’s philanthropic passions? What are the donor names on the plaques? Is it a family foundation, individual(s), or the company? Is there donor recognition from your organization? How prominently is it displayed? Learning about the donor’s support of other causes adds another dimension to your understanding of financial capacity and potential opportunities to inspire greater investment in your organization.

Feel the Vibe

What is the vibe of the office? Is the receptionist busy fielding phone calls or are they engaged in other work tasks? What is their level of formality when interacting with you and other clients, or with company leadership? Is everybody Mr. This or Ms. That, or are they Joe and Sara? This tells you what tone you might expect in your conversation with the donor.

Have an Eye for Art

Does the reception area include art? Is the work original or is it prints? Building rapport with your donor by saying, “Your reception area has some very interesting art. Did you select it?” can launch a deeper discussion about whether they view art as a hobby or investment, in addition to enabling you to learn whom they rely upon to help them choose the right pieces. Is there a spouse or family member involved, or does this donor engage a professional advisor? What other professional advisors might play a major role in this donor’s philanthropic life?

Observe Interactions

As you pass through the office, does the donor introduce you to their employees? Do they include your title in the introduction? Does the donor seem proud and pleased that you are paying attention to her? Listening to and watching these interactions can help you identify their personality profile, allowing you to customize your conversation.

Pick Up on Hobbies

Do they have expensive hobbies? The golf photos taken at the Old Course at St Andrews in Scotland have a whole different meaning than the candid shots from the local country club. Are the photos of people or places? Making a comment like, “This is a beautiful photo. Where was it taken?” opens the door to many high-value questions about the donor’s passions. It can also lead to a deeper discussion about family dynamics and hobbies, both important elements of the Nine Navigation Points, a strategic toolset for building donor commitment.


Time in donor environments is precious. Leveraging every opportunity to observe and absorb information that can help advance a collaborative conversation is one of the key characteristics of highly successful development professionals.

So next time you are in a reception area or a donor’s office, look around and see how much you can learn about things such as financial capacity, family/influencer dynamics, philanthropic passions, and personality profile. These and the other Navigation Points for strategy are key to guiding donor interactions and deepening donor commitment.

Financial capacity, family/influencer dynamics, philanthropic passions, and personality profile are four of the Nine Navigation Points for strategy that can guide your donor interactions.

Contact us to learn how you can participate in an in-depth discussion about maximizing performance using the Nine Navigation Points of Professional Development