I still remember that icky feeling I’d get after an awkward conversation with a donor. Phone calls in particular can feel weird for a number of reasons: your donor’s personality, your own comfort on the phone, or how trusting the donor is in talking to a fundraiser. But the kind of “ick” I’m talking about was because I had not spent the time to prepare and make it a meaningful conversation.

I’ve been on calls in the past where I could feel the donor’s confusion about the purpose of the call as I’m stumbling around, talking too much while trying to think of something valuable to say or ask. Why was I floundering? Because I had not set a clear purpose for the conversation!

So today, I want to give you some questions and topics to explore with your donor, as well as some draft language you’re welcome to use. Take the questions, make them your own, and practice them out loud to see if they sound like you. Then, have a number of questions ready for when the donor picks up the phone. You want to ask a question, listen actively to what your donor is saying, and let that guide you toward what else you might ask. The series of questions below may or may not apply, depending on the direction your donor conversation goes.

You should also take some moments before you set up a call with a donor to get clear on the purpose of the call. And whether you set it up via email or if you are cold calling, be sure to clarify the purpose up front and ask if your donor is okay with that.

I also recommend checking in with yourself about what you do know in some of these areas. As part of your preparation, you should ask yourself what you know about the donor’s preferences or passions. Where do you have gaps? Or do you need to revisit those to make sure you’re still aligned with the donor?

To prepare for your call, here are some notes to review, as well as language that you can use in a donor conversation. These are designed with phone calls in mind, but they could also work in-person or on a Zoom call:

1. Small talk and personal check-in. This is an opportunity to get everyone present and to check in on the purpose of the meeting and the time the donor has available.

○  Some fun check-in questions that help you learn more about your donor:

•  ”Mary, what are you finding the most meaningful about being a grandmother these days?”

•  “What is something that’s bringing you joy lately?”


“What remains the most challenging piece for you in dealing with COVID?”

○  Here is some language around checking in on the meeting purpose and available time:

•  “Mary, thanks so much for meeting with me. I just want to check in that you are still okay to meet for 30 minutes? Also, I shared with you that I wanted to learn more about your heart and motivations to give to our mission. Does that still work for you?”

2. Confirm your donor’s communication preferences. Even if you have talked to them for years via phone and mailed updates, when is the last time you asked them about their preferences? The pandemic is changing how people communicate.

○  “Devon, we have been chatting by phone and I’ve sent you updates about the work you support via mail for years. I’m just wondering if you’d ever want to maybe do that differently, or mix it up? I can send updates via email or text, or take you on a live video tour. Maybe we jump on a zoom call with the program director we have talked about. I wanted to make sure I didn’t make any assumptions and check in – what might interest or work better for you?”

3. Understand your donor’s passions and interests. This should be a central focus for you. And even if you have discussed the donor’s passions and interests previously, it never hurts to check in and dig deeper.

○  If you don’t know the donor’s interests yet, here are some questions you can ask:

•  “Cho, I would love to learn more about what motivated you started giving to our organization.”

•  “I hear that you just love our mission and trust us with this important work, and that is an honor that we have earned your trust. I’m curious, we do work in research, advocacy, and education around our mission – which of those interests you to learn more about?”

•  “What particularly draws you to the advocacy work? Would you be open to sharing more about your interest in that area? What change are you hoping to see as a result of this work?”

○  If you do know their area of interest, what do you know about the motivation for their interest?

•  “Camila, we have talked about your love for our children’s after school program. I’m curious to learn more about your interest in this work. What about it draws you? What difference do you hope to make in the world with your support of this program? Tell me more.”

•  “Camila, I’ve been sending you information on our children’s program over the years. What has stood out to you? In relation to this program, what has concerned you, or what have you wondered about through the years? What is missing that you want to learn more about?”

4 Review the donor’s record for recent changes in giving, etc.

○  If the donor gave a much more significant gift than their normal giving, here’s something you can ask:

•  “Hasan, I want to thank you again for the very significant gift you gave a few months ago. I have been sending you some updates on the incredible impact you have been making. What has stood out to you in that feedback? What else are you wondering about that I have not shared with you so far? Would you be open to sharing what motivated this significant gift? I don’t want to make any assumptions – are you hoping to continue supporting this program at this level in the future?

○  If the donor gave a much smaller gift than in the past, you can ask some questions to learn more, but make sure you are asking permission throughout and approaching this conversation with kindness. You do not want to be focused on the money.

•  “Susan, I want to thank you for your support year over year. Do you know that you have actually given $6,000 over the past five years? That has made such an impact and we thank you so much for your loyal support. I also know that many of our donors have had huge challenges with COVID. How has it most impacted you?”.

Imagine leaving a conversation where you had a meaningful exchange that helped you learn how to better serve your donor. By communicating the purpose of the meeting to your donor, you’re able to have a conversation where they share more about their deep care and heart for your mission, as well as express any concerns or ask any questions. And you can make them feel appreciated and special by asking great open-ended questions, really listening to how their passions speak to who they are, and sharing the impact of their giving. Now that is a conversation worth having!