A Recipe for a Perfect Fundraising Lunch

by Joan Garry

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For eight years I had a development director who was a total rock star and what I would call “best of breed.”

I use this phrase intentionally because she was a bit like a purebred racehorse. Put her in the starting block, fire the starting gun and she was off.

She loved to ask for money for her organization. In our early days of working together, I found her a bit impatient. There were times when I felt Julie might ask while the prospect was checking her coat.

So, what’s the right approach? What does a perfect donor lunch look like?


  • Do your homework.  Let’s say the prospect came via a board member (we love when that happens). Be an investigative journalist, call your board member, and get the inside scoop. Who is this person? What makes her/him tick?  What do we know about his family? Where did she go to college / grad / law school? It’s not just about charitable giving.

 A quick anecdote:  I once made an assumption that a particular prospect wasn’t as generous to progressive causes as he could be (Mistake #1:  judging). In a lunch with him, I basically told him he ‘should’ be more generous (Mistake #2: hubris). Later I found out that he gave millions to his alma mater. People give to all sorts of causes. Don’t be a jerk and assume that a wealthy progressive should give to your progressive cause. P.S. After that lunch, I received a $1,500 check and a note that put me right in my place. Lesson learned.

  • Do not assume. Unless you are clear about the reason for the lunch – that you want to meet, update her about the organization’s work and talk about how she can be more engaged – you have duped your prospect. Very bad idea. It probably took you some time to secure this lunch; double or triple that amount of time before you get in front of that prospect again. In addition, be very clear about who is attending the meeting. If it is the E.D. and the Development Director, say so. Bottom line: no surprises.
  • Strategize and rehearse. Set time for a rehearsal before the lunch. Do not do it while you are rushing to get there on time. Please, I beg you. Take the time. If two of you are attending the lunch, determine who will ask. Figure out a range of an amount. The exact amount will be determined by the asker over cappuccino.
  • Pick the right restaurant and decide what you are having ahead of time.  Shouting “WOULD YOU CONSIDER A $10,000 GIFT?” is poor form.  You need the right restaurant and a table that offers some privacy.

Here’s a little trick: I go to the restaurant website and figure out what I’m having before the lunch. I will be nervous at the lunch and may find myself indecisive. Donors invest in organizations with strong, decisive leaders. Also, the time I might spend perusing the menu is time better spent engaging with the donor.


  • The appetizer. Don’t spend too much time talking about weather or traffic or subways. Just enough because that’s what people do. Then a soupcon of discussion about the restaurant, the chef and the menu.
  • Care for anything to drink? I cannot tell you how many times I have ordered a glass of wine at a prospect lunch for one reason only – to hear these words “Oh, are you having wine? That sounds so nice. I think I’ll have one too.” I am Irish. I know that a prospect with the warm glow of wine is a better prospect than one without. (Note:  I suppose this could backfire, but it hasn’t yet for me). The other plus is that I am a motor mouth when I am nervous. Wine can slow me down.
  • The main course.  If you remember only one thing, it is this:

A prospect lunch is not a monologue about your organization. It is about building a relationship. It’s more like a date – getting to know one another and the fit. You are not “selling”. You are sharing your passion about the organization and what it does. You are attempting to ignite the prospect to share in that passion and join you in the work as a donor. 

  • Time to make the ask. The wait staff is clearing. Order coffee. If the prospect orders dessert, that’s a homerun. Even more time. While clearing, begin to make the financial case. You have asked and answered a lot of questions. In the previous hour, you have learned a lot. Now you can tailor the ask based on what you learned. Complete the financial/passion case and ask firmly and with confidence. For example: “What I have heard during lunch is that you are passionate about our cause. You asked great questions and I think we had a terrific discussion about the overarching issues ahead. We would like you to join our family of major donors. Would you consider a gift of __________?” Then shut up. And wait. It will feel interminable. Whatever the person says, the first words out of your mouths must be THANK YOU (for the commitment, for the consideration, for your candor). If the answer is “let me think about it,” ask THEM when and how you should follow up. Tell them being a pest is the worst part of fundraising. Don’t let them say “I’ll get back to you.” Let them give YOU permission to lead the follow up efforts.
  • Who takes the check? The prospect should take the check. You run a nonprofit.  But they often don’t. Let it sit just long enough to be sure that the prospect isn’t going to pick up the check. Don’t let it get awkward. Then just go ahead and pick it up. If at that point, they fight you for it, give in with gratitude.


  • Take out your iPhone and open Voice Recorder. What did you learn? Who else do they give to? What is their dog’s name? Do they have an aging parent? You need life stuff and charity stuff. You need to include the ask amount and the follow up plan. Then send that voice memo to the staff person who enters info into the donor database. Send a text to your assistant to calendar the follow up.
  • Send a real live handwritten thank you note that goes into the mail that very day. Attention to detail is one of the single most effective ways to illustrate your commitment to your donors.

Last note: if the words “Would you consider a gift of X?” come out of your mouth, regardless of the prospect’s response, it’s a good day at the office. Remember:  the victory is in the ask.


Do you know fundraisers and nonprofit development people? Send them this article — perhaps it will help.

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And, as always, thanks!

8 thoughts on “A Recipe for a Perfect Fundraising Lunch”

  1. agree with you with everything except who offers to pay first. If I invited a donor to lunch, I must be prepared to pay. I don’t choose the most expensive restaurant, I try to bring them to a community place they might not know about or a place to say thank you for supporting us with an ad joiurnal-and I tell the donor this. Usually the donor insists and I am gracious and say thanks. If it is a long time donor, every few years I insist on paying-a demonstration that they are more then a check. Donors have been routinely touched and often give a larger amount.

  2. Hey Marjorie. Sorry for my tardy response (have been on vacation !!!). I think your approach is totally valid and appears to work really well for you. And it actually makes alot of sense. I just know now that as a person who is ASKED rather than one who is ASKING that I always offer to pay. And it does not impact the amount I give. It just feels like the right thing to do – as a sign of appreciation for their work and their effort.

  3. hello Joan,
    I am just starting my nonprofit. Any recommendations you may have about getting our organization’s name out there? I have no clue how to begin the process.

  4. what a great article, you made me both comfortable and nervous at this pretend lunch as i held onto my breath at points. remember to breathe.

  5. Great articles (not just this one, but all of them). Very informative. I wish that I had been introduced to this pointers a year ago when I started this position. I will move forward with these awesome ideas immediately.

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