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Downes Murray International News

A major donor tells you how to ask

One of the things this major donor was adamant about was that “non-profits need to know their stuff”. I looked at her a bit confusedly, and I asked her to tell me more about this. She then went on to tell me several stories of sitting with executive directors and major gift officers who, when asked more probing questions, were caught not really understanding the complexity of the project they were pitching. 

She said, “Jeff, if I’m the smartest or most curious person in the room, I’m probably not going to invest in that non-profit. I want these major gift officers to know what they are talking about.”

I said, “Okay, tell me then what would be the perfect meeting with a CEO of a non-profit or a major gift officer.” What she went on to say is what I want every major gift professional to take to heart. I’m going to paraphrase and put her answers into bullet points so it’s easy for you to understand. I don’t often have opportunities like this; I have to tell you, it was fascinating. Essentially she said this:

1. Relationship“I have to know the people that are asking me for money. If I don’t know you, if you haven’t tried to get to know who I am, I will not meet with you to talk about giving. Sometimes it can take years before I agree to sit down with someone; sometimes it could be weeks. It depends on how comfortable I feel.”

2. Meeting space“I typically like to meet either in my home, if I really know the person, or at her organisation’s office. I want to see where the non-profit staff work and how they do their mission. I tell them no when they suggest a restaurant for lunch or dinner.”

3. Project or programme to be funded – “If I don’t have a passion for the project or programme they are asking me to invest in, I will not give. I have given a gift if I like the person, but nothing more than $5 000.  If someone is bringing me a project for which they want a very large gift (in the five or six figures), they better know what I’m passionate about. I want them to do their homework. Don’t come to me without doing your homework.”

4. The ask“If the organisation (CEO or major gift officer) has done their job right, then I will have a good idea of what I’m going to be asked for in our meeting. They should be talking to me and showing me the project well in advance. But what I like to do at the meeting is ask as many questions as I can to see if they are really passionate about what they want me to give to. If I sense that they are not as passionate as I am, I back away. However, if I see they have done their homework, and they tell me how my gift will change lives and how it will help the organisation into the future, I’m going to want to give to that project. I want to know the facts. I want to see a budget, but I also want to hear stories. I love a good story. Many times I never get to hear a good story, and it turns me off.”

5. Thanking“I want to be thanked, but not too much. Send me a handwritten note. One of the best thank-yous I’ve ever received was from children at an inner-city school I gave to. They sent me a package of over 200 thank you cards, all written by the children. It was precious. I still have them in my house. And, of course, I want to know how they used that money. I make sure that if I don’t hear from them in six months, I call and ask to get a report.”

Clearly this donor is very experienced and has very strong opinions on how she likes to be asked for a gift. I think it would be wise for you to consider these words as you plan your next solicitation and how your donors want to be treated. For me, the key point is that donors want to know you as much as they expect you to know them. That was a big takeaway for me as I spoke with her – and I hope this is something that will help you with your donors.

With  acknowledgement to Richard Perry and Jeff Schreifels. Visit

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