Meeting a sceptical donor?

How Stephanie turned around this difficult meeting with a wealthy lawyer

It had not been a promising start…Not only did the potential donor arrive late, his manner was now distinctly brusque:

‘I’m going to be honest, there doesn’t appear to be a clear strategy…over the last few months I’ve visited several universities with my daughter who’s doing her A-levels, and I was struck that the ones we visited all had clear, key selling points that made them stand out…and from where I sit, your university to lacks that strategic focus…’

Four months after attending one of my major gift fundraising master-classes, Stephanie got in touch to tell me all about her recent meeting with a busy lawyer.

The background was that a few years ago this donor had made a gift of £7,000 to the university’s medical school, but it was now more than 18 months since he had made a donation or taken any interest in the university.

And yet, in spite of the difficult start, Stephanie told me that within 45 minutes he had gone on to enthusiastically make a new donation! Not only that, but the new gift was larger than anything he had given before – it was worth £12,000.

Stephanie was delighted with the way she had been able to help this meeting to work out so well for both parties. I’m always curious to understand what it is that makes the difference in important fundraising situations; Stephanie felt that plenty of the things she has been practicing since the course have helped her fundraising, but in this blog I will share just three of the techniques she felt were particularly helpful in this meeting:

Handle objections by aligning with the donor. When handling an objection or difficult question, the most common reaction, is to try to respond to the issue head-on with the most robust argument you can muster. Surely the rightness of my argument will help them see the light. The problem with this is that no one wants to be made to feel

When faced with objections, you don’t necessarily have to agree with what they are saying – it can be important that you don’t – but the most successful negotiators take great care to feel respect for the donor’s point of view, or at least why they might feel that way.

Stephanie listened carefully to the donor’s point, was keen to find out more about why he felt that way, and acknowledged where he was coming from. As a result, she found that as he felt heard, his tone clearly softened. And as the discussion continued, he seemed happy for the conversation to move on. And from that place, he could potentially find virtue in things other than ‘strategic focus’.

Be genuinely curious and open. Be willing to let go of any pre-conceived notions of what the donor will be interested in. Stephanie said she had never met this donor before, and earlier in her career she would have found it hard to let go of the assumptions she made from this reading his giving history – that he was motivated to give to the medical school. And so she would probably have gone into the meeting, primarily focused on ‘selling’ a gift to the medical school.

A crucial concept we explore on these courses and in my book, The Fundraiser Who Wanted More is that of seeking first to ‘understand and appreciate their world’. So Stephanie found a way to help the conversation to open up much more broadly than the medical school and the university. And the more he talked about his home and professional life, she discovered other things that he and his wife cared about.

In particular, she discovered that through his wife’s recent volunteering in secondary schools, the couple had become interested in issues to do with improving opportunities for people to train and learn beyond school. Thanks to this discussion, by the end of the meeting, she said it had felt entirely appropriate to explore the idea of a gift towards the university’s Widening Participation programme, and the donor had been delighted to say YES to this gift.

Take advantage of the wisdom of Professor Cuddy. Confidence comes partly from knowing what sorts of things to say and in what order (they can be learned!) but crucially, it also comes from your physiology, that is, what you do with your body. The inspiring TED talk by Professor Amy Cuddy demonstrates that holding certain body postures for as little as two minutes, increases the confidence-boosting hormones that course through your body by at least 20%. They also reduce the stress-related hormones by at least 24%.

That is why, while the donor was running late, Stephanie did not wait sitting down. Instead she made her physiology bigger, standing up straight ‘to look out of the window’. This altering of her body-chemistry increased the chances that she would think positive thoughts rather than nervous ones as the wait grew longer.

And it meant that minutes into the meeting, faced with a brusque style and difficult objections, she would feel the poise to align, rather than react to the objection.  and it also helped her to pause and be genuinely present and curious, which helped the donor want to talk more broadly about his life.   In so doing, she did not need to ‘pep talk’ her way to confidence just before the meeting. It happened as a simple physiological inevitability. If his sounds far-fetched, I urge you to watch Prof Cuddy’s TED talk.


There are a few places left for the Corporate Partnerships Mastery Programme and Major Gifts Mastery Programme. We have run 9 of these programmes before, and every single one has SOLD OUT, so if you’re interested, find out more today.