Interacting with Donors 101: a look back on my first year in nonprofit development

Friday, November 25, 2016 2:53 PM | Anonymous

If you had asked me three years ago if I thought I would be in my current position at Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts, I would have neverbelieved you. With a background/degree in music and marketing, by the time I graduated from college I had a general interest in performance, education, and arts administration -- which eventually drew me to Wolf Trap and its unique and Velleman_w._John_and_Cate.jpginclusive mission. After completing a marketing internship here and working in our education department for nearly two years, I decided it was time to continue onward professionally. I first became interested in development because I enjoy relationship building, which is ultimately what the field is all about. Luckily for me, an opportunity opened up in our small (but mighty!) planned giving team, and I was very fortunate to be selected. Even though I did not know much about development -- or planned giving when I started, I am confident that I have brought a unique perspective to the position. In my short time in the position, I have learned a lot about what it takes to be an effective development professional. Here are 5 big takeaways I have learned on the job from my first six months of interacting with donors:

1) Do. Your. Research. If you are hoping to talk with a specific donor/prospect, make sure you learn as many details -- both large and small -- about them beforehand. This will help you to tailor your conversation with the donor and strategize before the meeting. Check your donor database for notes and ask your colleagues for help. Stay organized -- this can go a long way in creating a lasting relationship!

2) Donors are people, too! Don’t be scared of them. If you are talking with a donor or prospect, then they are likely already invested in your organization to some capacity. They want you to succeed just as much as you want yourself to succeed -- be confident in how you present yourself.

3) Have a stock list of questions. If you have a difficult time starting engaging conversations with donors, ask them questions. Some of my colleagues use the F.O.R.D. method (family, occupation, recreation, dreams) to turn small talk in to a larger conversation. People love to talk about themselves, and you already have something in common: your organization! Ask them about their recent experiences with your organization to get started. This can also steer the conversation towards their philanthropic interests and help you better understand their support of and interest in your organization.

4) Every interaction, no matter how big or small, makes a difference. For example, on the night of a busy event, you may speak with several dozen guests. You may not remember every donor/prospect you talk to (pro tip: jot down some notes on your phone after a conversation when you have a few minutes of down time!), but each donor/prospect you talk to will remember you. Make sure to put your best foot forward during these interactions, because in that moment you are the foremost ambassador for yourself AND for your organization.

5) If an interaction doesn’t go well, it isn’t the end of the world. Instead of beating yourself up, go back and analyze your e-mail thread or write down conversation notes. What went well? What didn’t go well? How can you learn from this interaction and move forward? Share your thoughts with your colleagues so that your entire team can better plan future interactions with this donor/prospect.

Reflecting back on my first six months, these are lessons that I know that I can now apply in the future to almost any field that involves working with external contacts -- but for now, I am happily learning tons and growing professionally in this challenging role. Do you have other tips for interacting with donors? Join Briana and Messay for November's First Friday Lunch to discuss!


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Emerging Arts Leaders DC (EALDC) is a part of the national Emerging Leaders Network, developed by Americans for the Arts, and is fiscally sponsored by Fractured Atlas.
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