How do you get to Carnegie Hall (or a successful donor meeting)? Practice, Practice, Practice!

The vaudeville actor, Jack Benny, is well known for wailing away on his violin while bantering with others on stage and quipping, this famous Carnegie Hall joke.  Actually, it probably originated when a preeminent orchestra conductor, hurrying to the famed hall, was asked the innocent question by a stranger, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?”  The harried maestro’s response:  practice! 

Carnegie Hall

The quote made famous by Benny’s repartee is a great reminder of two things:  the misunderstandings that so easily occur in communication and the importance of practice to achieve expertise and success.

There are lots of implications for philanthropy from this little lesson. Let’s start with practice.  In May’s Bold Asking Blog, I wrote about the art of listening and the importance of preparing and practicing your plan in advance of donor meetings.  But, not all practice is the same!

Jack Benny on violin

Jack Benny on violin

As giving in the U.S. hit again an all time record in 2015[1], competition for funds and the attention of prospective donors is only increasing. Creating the most positive outcomes possible from each opportunity with prospective donors is all the more important.  All good development officers understand the importance of a compelling major gift strategy for each prospect.  But the rubber really hits the road when it comes time for the meeting—whether it’s a cultivation opportunity or “the ask”.  Really great development officers, or any others involved in fundraising, be it the CEO or volunteers, will be well served to develop considerable expertise in creating a productive, positive call.  Being able to read the nuances involved in a great fundraising call can hardly be left to chance. 

In his book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, the psychologist Anders Ericsson, makes some great points for developing expertise through what he calls deliberate exercise.  He points out that honing proficiency in a new skill set, no matter what the field, is the result of purposeful practice that pushes the learners outside their comfort zone, builds on mental representations best learned through scenarios and relies upon an expert teacher who can draw on accumulated knowledge and provide feedback.[2]

So, what are the implications for developing expertise in your fundraising calls?  We recommend working in teams to practice, using role-playing, before every major gift call.  

 Vision Philanthropy 
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     2015 contributions: $373.25 billion by source (in billions of dollars – all figures are rounded)    Giving by family foundations is estimated to be 47.8% of total foundation giving      SOURCE: GIVING USA FOUNDATION   |   GIVING USA 2016

2015 contributions: $373.25 billion by source (in billions of dollars – all figures are rounded)

Giving by family foundations is estimated to be 47.8% of total foundation giving


Many major gift donor meetings involve two people, maybe the CEO and the chief development officer, a Board member and a major gift officer, or a physician (or other staff) and development officer.  In order to increase the proficiency of the two partners, we suggest inviting another highly experienced development professional to sit in on the practice and provide feedback and guidance.  Even when the meeting involves only one person—the major gift officer, the CEO or a Board member—preparation, the right practice and role-playing, preferably with an experienced development colleague, is just as important.

Role-playing in a safe environment helps build confidence and comfort.  It is also a great time to develop each person’s own “signature language” and tempo for the upcoming meeting.

 Tips On Preparing For And Conducting Deliberate Practice

1.     Develop your outline for the meeting:  What’s the agenda, what do you plan to accomplish?  E.g., Is the objective a cultivation meeting, an appointment to set the stage for an upcoming solicitation (a pre-solicitation meeting) or is it time for “the ask”?

2.     Determine the best participants for the meeting:  Who are the most important and strategic participants?  E.g., Is it time to involve the President and CEO or a well-place Board member?  If so, their role and purpose must be well planned.  Who is critical to the outcome of that appointment?  Perhaps it is time to involve a beloved faculty member or physician.  These participants must have a specific purpose and their purpose should be well understood.

3.     Determine the role for each participant:  Who opens, who closes, and who is the primary person to lead the call?  Make sure that each person clearly understands and agrees to what they are to accomplish during the appointment.

4.     Script the meeting:  This is especially important for those who are less experienced.  Some participants require only highlights and bullet points of topics to be covered. Others require specific language and specific questions they should lead with. (Read more here about Active Listening). 

5.     Invite an experienced colleague or professional to participate and provide feedback to the upcoming role-playing:  Ericsson talks about the importance of expert teacher in his book.  Whether this is an experienced colleague or another professional, an expert teacher provides another objective and broader context as well as feedback.

6.     Conduct role-playing:  It is helpful to devise “if-then” scenarios that the participants can practice in advance of the meeting. Oftentimes, it is simply helpful to practice and refine the language you intend to use. For those less experienced, this opportunity becomes even more important.  First review and agree upon the meeting outline, objectives and script. Role-playing provides a safe time for participants to practice their planned script with each other, and get feedback from each other as well as from their colleague. 

7.     Have a contingency final plan:  Rare is it that a donor call goes exactly as we plan.  We may learn new information (if we’re asking good questions) that impacts the direction of the meeting.  Or, the donor may take the meeting in a direction that was not anticipated.  Listening to and reading your donor is critical.  Practicing your responses to various scenarios will help each participant prepare, build confidence and comfort in order to perform at an optimal level.

Accomplished musicians, athletes and public speakers have all created their own approach to practice that have developed their proficiency.  As Ericsson points out, even child prodigies practice deliberately.  So, here’s to happy practicing! 

[1] Giving USA 2016 Report on Giving

[2] Peak:  Secrets from the New Science of Expertise,  Anders Ericksson.