Cold calling major donors to arrange appointments doesn’t work – but this method does

No one likes getting cold calls and you probably don’t like making them.
That’s why, these days, you need to insert a crucial step in between your marketing/communications and your outreach calls if you want to set-up more appointments with highly qualified major and legacy donors or prospects.

Introducing the Engagement Call!

Engagement calling for fundraising

Instead of just pounding out cold calls, I recommend you insert an engagement call into your process because it helps fundraisers:

  • Ensure that donors will engage on the telephone for much more than just 30 seconds or so;
  • Build rapport and trust quickly;
  • Advance the relationship so the donor becomes exponentially more willing to accept your next call at another time;
  • Use the law of reciprocity to increase the chances that the supporter will reciprocate later by giving.

I devised the engagement call as a result of our own ineffectual experience with outbound telemarketing here at MarketSmart. At the time, we were interrupting fundraisers like you (not donors) via telephone as we attempted to set appointments so we could demonstrate our products and services.

In other words, we were cold-calling to set demos. Yuck! Our efforts were usually met with resistance and even hang-ups.

Looking back now, that made a lot of sense because our cold callers were led astray (by me):

  • They embraced a ‘taking’ mentality, instead one focused on giving. Everyone knows you need to give to get. But for some strange reason, when beginning almost any marketing initiative, it’s easy to fly off the tracks and become self-centered. I wanted appointments set and that resulted in a ‘taking’ mentality. Clearly I lost sight of what fundraisers wanted and the fundraisers let us know how foolish I was. Yes! Even the CEO of MarketSmart makes stupid mistakes.  🙂
  • They were pushed to reach a quantitative goal. “Set two appointments per day!” That was the goal I set for them. So they’d dial all day long hoping to get an unwitting target on the line. Then they’d try to commandeer their time. For those of you on the receiving end of those calls, I sincerely apologize for interrupting and annoying you.

We failed. Then, we pivoted.
I guess hindsight is 20/20 but I feel like we (especially me) should have recognized that you simply can’t build a relationship without trust and value. Trust is the cornerstone in the foundation of any relationship. And, an exchange of money only happens when a proper exchange of value exists.

Then it hit me like a bag of rocks. People kept asking us to remove them from our list. Others quietly unsubscribed from my blog. The negatives were outweighing the positives and they were piling up fast. Our cold-calling wasn’t working! The interruptive, ‘us against you’ nature of our outreach was actually ruining our opportunities, not enhancing them.

So we pivoted. And now, thankfully, we no longer take that approach. Instead, we employ engagement fundraising principles to ensure that our marketing outreach is fair. In other words, we practice what we preach. We employ engagement calling! Better late than never, right?

Now we’re setting up more appointments with fundraisers than ever. They trust us more and they are much more qualified to buy. If you’ll learn from our mistakes, you’ll arrange many more meetings too but, of course, with major and legacy gift prospects who trust you and are ready to talk.

Here’s how it works.
We turned things around by developing an outreach methodology that involves trust building and value establishment. This will work for you too but you have to recognize that engagement calling involves a mandatory two-step process involving the following components:


  • Build rapport and trust quickly by offering and/or providing value immediately in the first 5 – 20 seconds of the initial call. This builds a bridge over the valley of distrust (I’ll explain more about this later)
  • Immediately after that, make sure to project a spirit of service and partnership. Operate like a facilitator and problem solver as you ask poignant questions about each prospect’s needs. Use these questions to probe gently and uncover problems, interests, passions and desires (reasons why they care). This is essentially the discovery stage
  • Then make it all about them. Deliver value. Seek to provide deeper engagement opportunities, information and involvement offers for them (give, don’t take)
  • Next, ask for permission to follow-up (and prescribe when). NOTE: YOU MAY NOT ASK FOR AN APPOINTMENT OR A DONATION DURING THIS CALL (unless the donor begs to give or meet)!


  • On the agreed upon date, call again and begin asking more questions to determine whether or not we provided value and if our products and services might be a good fit. DO NOT ASK IF THEY GOT THE INFORMATION. Never! That’s question will do nothing for you. Instead, ask about them more. If you do, they’ll talk about their favorite subject… them! And that’s what you want because it’s all about them.
  • If there’s potential for a win-win partnership, offer the next step— a call/meeting with you to discuss how they can realize the best version of themselves by giving. Let them know you will not be asking them for money; you’ll only talk more about them and how you can help them achieve their philanthropic goals.

It’s that simple.

Employ the engagement call to:

  • Get over the chasm (valley of distrust)
  • Provide service and value
  • Offer solutions that match needs

Getting over the valley of distrust in the first 5 – 20 seconds.

You don’t want to get hung-up on, right? Then it’s important to recognize that the only way to avoid a instant negative outcome is to first find a way to get over the valley of distrust.

Your donors really have no reason to trust you. They’ve been interrupted by fundraisers before and found little to no value in most of those calls. So your predecessors and others in the sector have screwed things up for you pretty badly. In order to remedy the damage they did and cross the chasm (the valley of distrust), you must provide value immediately, in the first 5 – 20 seconds of the first call. Here’s how:

  • Project confidence and enthusiasm. Attitude is 80% of the battle. People can sense it even on the telephone.
  • Speak clearly and succinctly. Many of your supporters might be older and hard of hearing. Plus, you only have 5 to 20 seconds!
  • Introduce yourself and instantly set them at ease by saying, “Hi Mrs. Williams. This is _________ calling from __________ charity. I’m not calling to ask for a donation.”
  • Then, without delay, go right into the purpose of your call (to add value) by saying, “I’m calling from the donor appreciation team. My job is to reach out to special supporters like you to say ‘thank you’ and to find out how we can give you what you need to make sure you feel good about your investment in our charity.” How about that? You’re calling to give to her and make her feel good— not ask for a donation! That will put her at ease.
  • Next, without pausing or taking a breath of air, start asking questions by saying, “But first, I was wondering what inspired your gift of $_______ on _________, 20xx? ” or “Why do you care about our mission?”

In most cases, you will cross the chasm and your donor will answer your question(s). She’ll tell you about her connection to your cause. Whew! You did it! You set her at ease! You provided value! Engaged with a donor at last!!

Less is more.

Provide value. Build trust. Be patient. Then you’ll set more meetings and they’ll be more trusting, more receptive (and more pre-qualified). Jerk the line too fast and you’ll lose trust and the prospect altogether.

Try engagement calling instead of cold-calling. Then let me know how it works! Others in the private sector have been taking note. You can read more about that here.

Related Posts:

>> 5 reasons fundraisers won’t call their hot leads
>> What is 3-to-1 Major Gift Fundraising?

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Laura Roberts
6 years ago

Calling a donor who has already given is not a cold call. How do you establish trust in that first 5-10 seconds when they don’t know You? That, in my no d, is cold calling. Thanks.

Michael Rosen
6 years ago

Engagement Calling works for two reasons. First, it’s truly donor centered and delivers value to the donor. Second, almost no fundraising professionals are doing this. So, those making Engagement Calls will very much stand-out in a positive way. Over the years, I’ve donated to various charities and various levels. While I’ve received calls for different reasons, I’ve NEVER received an Engagement Call. Sigh.
Gregory Warner, thank you for sharing a powerful tactic (and state-of-mind).

Kathryn Benjamin
4 years ago

Thank you for this idea! I truly believe in establishing a relationship by providing value to our alumnae before asking for a donation.

In the second call, though, you say “Let them know you will not be asking them for money; ” — but I will be. Even if I couch it in the terms of, as you say, “you’ll only talk more about them and how you can help them achieve their philanthropic goals.” — ultimately a donation will be solicited. At what point do you speak plainly about money?


[…] A blog post about engagement calling […]

1 year ago

Couldn’t have asked for anything better today….
Extremely useful to understand and apply for better results…ever so grateful for the effort thats gone into creating this blog / article.

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