6 Questions Deans Need to Ask when Calling on Prospects

Why Donors Give - Image of a Growing Plant

The following article is based on “The Appointment with a Prospect or Donor: DOs and DON’Ts,” the second chapter in Jim Langley’s book Fundraising for Deans.

A dean’s role in fundraising is to cultivate the relationships that are critical to sustained fundraising success. That kind of relationship begins when two parties make a “connection” based on a shared purpose or shared values.

In making their first calls on prospects, deans will not make the best possible connection if they see the call merely as an opportunity to tout their school or college.  Such an approach presumes that prospects are not aware of their institution’s strengths, and signals that they are there to ask for more without having expressed appreciation for what has already been done.

Deans will create a far more positive impression if they begin by conveying their interest, appreciation and respect for prospects. That can be achieved by asking the right questions.


According to a national survey of higher education alumni conducted by the Collaborative Innovation Network for Engagement and Giving and presented to the Annual Giving Directors Consortium (April 2010), only 52 percent of alumni at those institutions with the highest alumni participation rates believe their alma mater keeps them closely connected and values its alumni relationships. Most believe that their alma mater is primarily interested in their money—not in them.

The Right Questions to Ask Current Donors

1. You’ve made a significant investment in our school/college; have we lived up to your expectations? If so, what has been the most rewarding aspect? If not, where did we falter? How can we correct the course?

Why this is the right question:
You can’t talk about the future if you haven’t first resolved the issues of the past.

2. Has the school/college made good use of your experience, expertise or talent? If so, what has been most satisfying? If not, where do you see an opportunity to make a difference?

Why this is the right question:
Studies reveal that volunteers give ten times the amount that non-volunteer donors do. If you’re not making good use of your donors’ talents, you’re not going to get more of their time or secure more of their treasure.

3. From your perspective, what are the most important issues of the day? What do you see as the school’s/college’s obligations in addressing them?

Why this is the right question:
This question will allow you to orient your school/college’s competencies to issues that prospects care most deeply about.

4. In general, what do you see as your life’s work? What do you see as the most important things yet to be accomplished?

Why this is the right question:
When we tap into a donor’s aspirations, we increase the probability of securing higher levels of support.

5. Would you recommend the school/college to members of your families or those of close friends? If so, what selling points would you focus on? If not, why not?

Why this is the right question:
If the answer is no, you have little chance of securing his/her support. If the answer is yes, this is an opportunity to get the donor to lay their own groundwork for the case for support.

6. How can I or the school/college be helpful to you?

Why this is the right question:
Enduring relationships are respectful and reciprocal.


Is this article proving helpful? If so, please consider sharing it with other deans at your institution.

The Right Questions to Ask New Prospects

When reaching out to new prospects—those with no previous history of giving to the school/college—the questions are the same, but with several key differences.

Here is how you might modify several questions on the list I gave above:

1. As a new dean, I would like to learn from your experience with other organizations. Could you share with me some of your most positive civic and philanthropic engagements and tell me what made them so?  Similarly, can you share with me some bad experiences, perhaps where an organization made a poor impression or lost your support?

2. Which institutions or organizations have made the greatest impact on you and why? Where have your investments of time, talent, and treasure yielded the most satisfying results?

You might also modify the fifth question:

5. Which schools/colleges do you recommend to family members or those of close friends? What are their major selling points? What could our school/college do to gain more of your regard or trust?

Remember that first impressions are powerful.  We don’t make the most positive ones by trying to impress people with how good we are but by how important their goodness is to us.