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Identifying potential donors virtually

Two women talking in an office

“Identifying potential donors virtually” is reprinted from Train Your Board (and Everyone Else) to Raise Money

When it comes to fundraising, nothing beats one person talking with another … preferably in person. As a general rule, people will pledge five to ten times more during a scheduled, face-to-face conversation than they will donate by mail or contribute online.

Back in the pre-COVID era, we had these conversations in living rooms, coffee shops, and offices. Those days will return. In the meantime, you can sit together outside, go for a walk, or chat with each other on Facetime, Zoom, and all the other meeting apps.

As I wrote this summer, it’s an excellent moment to personally connect with your donors and potential donors virtually. Why? People continue to feel isolated during the pandemic, so relationship-building is paramount.

Sadly, many nonprofits have neglected personal contact with their supporters and donors virtually. Maybe they’re feeling afraid or overwhelmed. Regardless, when you reach out to people who’ve been overlooked, you give your organization a fundraising advantage.

Time to gather the team

The following exercise is adapted from Train Your Board (and Everyone Else) to Raise Money, which I co-wrote with Andrea Kihlstedt. The adaptation: you’ll be moving this in-person activity to Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or your preferred meeting platform.

A colleague calls this the “pizza and beer” exercise to highlight its informality: sitting around with colleagues, taking about people you know, estimating how much to ask for, and figuring out who will do the asking.

Given the nature of these conversations, take the confidentiality oath: everyone must swear that whatever is discussed remains confidential.

Since you’re meeting remotely, people are on their own for refreshments. Want to show your appreciation? Take orders and pay for delivery.

How to facilitate this conversation

Gift chart1. In advance, set up several pages marked with gift amounts: $500, $1,000, $2,500 etc. Scale the amounts to the size of your fundraising goal. (Here are tips to help you build a gift chart.) You can use a whiteboard, but it’s even simpler to create Word documents for each gift level and screen-share them at the appropriate time.

2. If you have any prospecting info – for example, your own list of “upgradeable” donors or published lists from peer organizations – distribute in advance. Give people time to review them. Again, stress confidentiality.

Who do we know?

3. Start with the highest gift level. For example, “Let’s begin with $25,000. You’ve read through the lists. Who might be able to give a $25,000 donation?” This involves some guesswork, but the collective wisdom of the group tends to keep things realistic. If you’ve gathered public lists from other groups—many of which are sorted by giving levels—they can provide clues about donor capacity.

4. Keep pushing participants to add more names. Once you’ve finished with one giving level, move down through the remaining levels, adding more names. You might find yourself jumping around between amounts and pages, so have them handy. Multiple computer monitors can be helpful.

Who talks to whom?

5. After recording all the names, review the lists a second time. Begin to request assignments. “Ed, you mentioned Sandy Yang. Are you willing to set up the meeting and ask for the gift? Great—who would like to help Ed with that one?” Pairing solicitors can be helpful but isn’t required.

Because this is a brainstorm – and because people are squeamish about fundraising—not all prospects will be assigned. That’s OK. The following step ensures that you’ll end the meeting with appropriate expectations.

Reality-test your goal 

6. Here’s a simple way to test your goal. Add the cash value of all assigned gift amounts—in other words, all prospects with an assigned asker. If you have 10 assigned prospects on the $1,000 page, write $10,000 at the bottom.

Repeat this on every page, then add the totals from all pages and divide by two. This is your feasible number. By dividing by two, you’re accounting for solicitors who don’t follow through, donors who choose not to meet, and those who give less than you anticipate.

By the end of the meeting, you should have a pretty good sense of whether your fundraising goal is achievable. If not, you have options: identify more prospects, identify more askers who will accept assignments, lower your goal, or simply start asking and see what happens.

Facilitator tip: Keep things moving! 

This exercise can easily degenerate into idle gossip, so keep everyone on task. One solution: set a time limit for each prospect and assign a timekeeper. “We’re going to limit ourselves to 30 seconds per name. Monique, would you be willing to keep track of time?”

Enjoy your pizza and beer, and good luck with your donor outreach!


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