Over the years numerous people have asked me about soliciting gifts over a meal. 3,000+ meetings into my career – almost half of which involved food – for me it’s an unqualified YES!
The big concern I’ve heard is that a meal seems too festive or casual for a “business meeting,” but I’ve always thought that was short-sighted. First off, a solicitation meeting is no more a business meeting than fundraising is “sales.” Fundraising is about relationships, and even a solicitation meeting is much more about developing the relationship than it is about closing the gift. And don’t so many of our relationships blossom around food?
Why Food – The Two Top Reasons
Top of the list: people tend to feel good when they eat. Experts say eating causes “ingestion analgesia,” which literally translates to “pain relief from eating!” Our brains reward us for eating by releasing pleasure chemicals, much as drugs and alcohol do. As the food begins to fill our stomachs (but before we feel stuffed!) we feel fulfilled and happy. We get relaxed and comfortable as the food replaces any hunger pangs we might have had.
We want our donors to feel good, right? Certainly we want them as happy as can be when we ask them to make a gift. That contentment will lead them to respond more favorably to any stimulus around them – in this case our prompting of a gift. Conversely, can you imagine trying to get a donor to feel good about making a gift when he or she is hungry – not having had their own basic needs met? Note to self – perhaps we shouldn’t be meeting with donors just before a meal!
The second big motivator is the likelihood of getting a good block of time, often 90 minutes or more. That means more time to learn about the donor and the donor’s interests, and build the relationship. Office meetings can be very brief – often 30-45 minutes. Meetings at home are usually longer but how long do you feel comfortable sitting in someone’s home? Certainly at an hour you’re thinking it’s time to wrap things up and move on. But over a meal – especially a meal in a restaurant, at a club, or at your program (more on that in a minute) – time is generally more fluid. And the pace of serving dictates the length of the meeting as much as you do.
Why Food – More Reasons
In addition to creating a good mood and ensuring more time, here are a few more reasons:
Picking Up the Check
Our great hope is a donor will say “let me get that – I don’t want the charity to pay for it” or something like this. Donors who pick up the check tend to be more seasoned in philanthropy, which is a good sign. Additionally, picking up the check makes them feel good – they’ve done a good deed – and counts as another gift the donor’s made. The more gifts a donor makes the closer the donor will feel to your organization.
Though offices and homes can be quiet, in fact donors are often distracted by calls, their computer screens, family member comings and goings, doorbells, pets, and so much more. In a restaurant, chances are it’s just you and the donor fully engaged. One of you might run into someone you know, but that can have its benefits as well – an opportunity for the donor to introduce you to someone new or for the donor to feel good that an acquaintance has seen them doing something charitable.
The Guard is Down
Donors often come to solicitation meetings with their guard up. They know they’re going to be asked for something – possibly something “big” – and they’re possibly feeling anxious. They may be wishing you could just get to the point quickly and ask for the gift. Over a meal – and related to the happy feeling above – the meeting feels less intense. A casual start with social conversation feels natural and can put both you and your donor at ease.
A Learning Opportunity
Sharing a meal is a chance to learn so many things:
What do they like to eat?
Do they like to cook? What do they cook?
Do they enjoy eating out? Where do they eat out?
Are they picky about food?
Do they eat with gusto?
Where To Eat?
Since the ideal location for any meeting – cultivation or solicitation – is at the program itself, the ideal meal is there as well. I love nothing more than being able to show someone around a program and then sit down to eat. Years ago I led a dance company, and as often as possible we would have a donor come watch a rehearsal or dance class and then retreat to my office to share a simple meal (salads or sandwiches). The discussion itself is then generally shorter, but seeing the program first is so moving it more than makes up for the shorter time we have together.
Having said that, getting a donor to the program can be challenging for a number of reasons, most often time and convenience. You also might have client privacy issues.
Assuming you’re not meeting on-site, restaurants, offices, and clubs have benefits and drawbacks. The one place I do avoid for a meal is someone’s home as it can actually be too friendly and casual. It also puts you in a tough spot as you’ve got to eat what’s been made! I was once left choosing between two frozen dinners my host was willing to microwave – seriously!
I like restaurants because they’re neutral ground and we both get to choose what we want. And it’s easy to find one convenient for the donor. The downside here is restaurants can be crowded and noisy. Neither is conducive for important, private conversation, though if the restaurant is crowded the noise can create some privacy. I try to pick the restaurant, and regardless I get there early to stake it out and try to get a quiet, secluded table.
Donors’ private clubs are great. They’re usually quiet and tables are placed far apart. There’s never an issue of who’s paying as the donor has to put it on his or her tab. And it’s a great opportunity to meet the donor’s friends and business associates. Last, people enjoy entertaining at their clubs and are proud to introduce others to them.
Offices are also acceptable and are very convenient for businesspeople. I prefer to meet in an employee dining room or cafeteria as having lunch in someone’s office creates the opportunity for interruption and distraction. The challenge with cafeterias is the meal tends to be short – you get your food immediately so you lose the 20 minutes or more spent settling in, looking at the menu and ordering, waiting for the food, and then ordering and having coffee afterward. And, of course, the donor is very likely to run into fellow employees, which can be distracting.
Go Forth and Eat!
Bottom line, there’s no reason a meeting over a meal can’t be just as productive – if not more so – than any other solicitation meeting. So if your donor suggests it, or your gut tells you it could be a good experience, go for it. Just be prepared to do some good reconnaissance in advance…and be flexible enough to punt if you end up in a less than ideal situation. Oh – and don’t forget a toothpick and a well-timed trip to the restroom to check your teeth!
Brian Saber is President of Asking Matters, a web-based company that trains people how to ask for money and motivates them to do it! From his early days as a student leader and telethon caller (!) to his six years in charge of major and principal gifts throughout the Midwest for Brandeis University, to his two stints as an executive director, every position involved significant face-to-face solicitation. Brian harnessed all that frontline experience to become a sought-after trainer, coach, and consultant around the country and abroad.