When Asking for a Gift, Listen to the Donor and Never Lose Faith!

On a beautiful Montreal spring day, I was accompanying my Campaign Chair on a call to an individual whom I knew, through research, was a generous man. He had supported our organization but was never asked for a substantial amount. That day had come. We had just embarked on a Major Campaign and he had all the right attributes to become a major donor. We were going to ask him for $25,000 CAN.

All the right steps had been followed; we had a good idea about his giving potential (in Canada, it is much harder to evaluate an individual prospect than a corporation or private foundation for lack of ‘public’ information), he was a regular donor to our annual appeals, my Campaign Chair knew him quite well (they were golf buddies), and we had a strong case. And, our prospect had agreed to a face-to-face meeting at his own home. The stars were aligned!

He welcomed us into his living room and we started discussing our campaign. And then came the unexpected. Our prospect started telling us about his company’s important and recent financial problems – a fact that we did not know about. It was too late to review our ask and I could not kick my Campaign Chair under the table…. So, when it came time to talk about an amount, my Campaign Chair stuck to the script and asked for $25,000. I was mortified. And so was our prospect. He coughed and cleared his throat…and told us it would be impossible for him to contribute at this time.   All of a sudden, everyone seemed to become extremely uncomfortable. And we promptly left, empty-handed.

I felt terrible. I felt I had literally ‘ruined’ a good prospect. But I was mostly worried about my Campaign Chair’s state of mind. A bad meeting like this one can discourage any well-intentioned volunteer. My next step was to try and limit the damages. I e-mailed the prospect right away to thank him for our meeting (and subtly apologize for our lack of understanding) and we kept him regularly informed of our campaign’s progress over the years. (Two years after this incident, and to our great surprise, we received a pledge form for $25,000 from that prospect. Never underestimate the power of donor relations!)

We all learn from our mistakes. This is a lesson I will always remember: I should have told my volunteer to ‘listen to the gift’ instead of being preoccupied with the ask, and adjust his approach accordingly. A good canvasser is one that carefully listens to the donor’s needs and expectations. Needless to say that I have become a better trainer and listener!