A Conversation in Fundraising We Need to Have

Contact Reports - Image of files in austere black binders

We asked Jason McNeal to share the philosophy behind his unique handbook and why he feels that training on effective contact reports can be – in the long term – a game-changer for development shops.

An interview with Jason McNeal (Gonser Gerber LLP), author of  Writing Meaningful Contact Reports: A Handbook for Fundraisers.

Jason, thanks for this conversation. To get started, why do you think this handbook is especially needed?
Jason McNeal.
Image of Jason McNealEvery higher-ed institution is looking for the advancement part of the enterprise to be as effective as it can possibly be. Part of that effectiveness relies on how well we know our donors. And the mechanism for showing evidence that we know our donors well is the recording of our business with them. Contact reports do that for us. They capture the most important aspects of a donor’s contact with the institution and hopefully provide permanently records that so that the advancement shop can build a body of knowledge about that donor and their relationship to the institution.

But how effective are we, actually, at doing that?

Could you say more about that, Jason?
Jason McNeal.
Well, here we have this very important component of our work — that is key to becoming more effective in our work — and no one really talks about how to do it well. It’s just assumed that as a gift officer, you know how to write a useful contact report:

“Do you know how to write?”

“Of course I know how to write.”

“Good, so write a contact report.”

We assume that development officers understand what we mean and how to write contact reports. Yet the truth of the matter is that no one teaches how to write one that is succinct, captures the information that is truly important and does so in a way that will transfer knowledge to the next gift officer or to a donor relations officer.

To me, that’s a really important point. What we’re actually talking about is donor relations, right?
Jason McNeal.
This is absolutely connected to donor relations. The shops that raise the most money, not coincidentally have the strongest relationships with donors, families, and businesses. They have relationships that they build over time. Unfortunately, many shops have felt pressured to focus on everything that happens prior to and during the ask; once the ask is completed, the shop moves on to the next donor prospect.

The sad reality is: if you’re not cataloguing that relationship with the contact reports, and you aren’t following up with stewardship plans that are informed by those contact reports, you are missing critical opportunities to strengthen that relationship in the long term. We need that long-term giving and we need to set up the relationship in ways that will lead to increased giving in the future.

The reason why institutions don’t focus on and resource effective contact reports is closely related to the reason why they too often don’t resource stewardship: too much focus on the ask. What comes after the ask? “We don’t have time for that.”

That’s a shortsighted approach.

What do you hope most gift officers will take away from the book?
Jason McNeal.
Two things:

  1. We spend a portion of the first part of the book making the case for why contact reports really do matter and why they need to be central to the work of development, and not take a secondary, tertiary, or a “we’ll get to them when they can” role in our work. We make the case that these are integral to doing our work well and to raising more money over time.
  2. How can our team do this well? What are tools? What are templates? Most of the book is devoted to the template and to walking you through specific scenarios to ensure that you are ready to produce high-quality contact reports consistently.

I was particularly excited to see the template you included!
Jason McNeal.
It is a good, hands-on starting point. The book can help provide a framework for a training class for your gift officers.

I was with a higher-ed client recently, and we were in a prospect management meeting when the issue of contact reports came up. I listened to a number of extremely capable gift officers really struggle with what is the best kind of information to have in a contact report, and what are some guidelines we should all be using so that we are producing similar kind of report.

We don’t talk about this topic as much as we talk about cultivation and the ask, but we need to.

My hope is that this conversation will be elevated at advancement shops.

Jason, let’s say that happens. Once the conversation is on the table, what is the next step for shops?
Jason McNeal.
If you’ve had conversations about contact reports and how best to record the important elements of our key donors’ relationships with our institution, then absolutely, I think you need to provide training across your shop:

  • You should get a copy of the book for every gift officer at your shop.
  • Have conversations in a group setting where you share ideas and talk about how you’ll implement them at your shop.
  • Finally, as you’re evaluating and holding each other accountable for your work, make sure that you’re doing so based on what’s in the contact reports. Use the contact reports to drive evaluation, accountability, and improvement. That will make them integral to the culture of your work.

Thanks, Jason! We really appreciate this conversation!


“Jason’s study masterfully addresses one of the most overlooked areas of our business – the care and feeding of our institutional histories. Not only do present-day contact reports play crucial roles in the cultivation process and contribute to the life stories of our most cherished relationships, they serve as pivotal contributors in the evaluation of fundraising professionals.The handbook is a great read! Factual, anecdotal and entertaining.” – Rick Dupree, Executive Vice President for Development, Indiana University Foundation

“…This book has inspired me to re-evaluate the importance of documenting contact reports and the important role I play in enhancing the culture of philanthropy at my institution.” – J. Steven Barnes, Senior Director of Development, Vanderbilt University Medical Center

“…McNeal demonstrates that completion of contact reports does not have to be a big time-eater….Jason McNeal is putting forth a concise and precise standard for the fundraising arena; this handbook will be a solid reference manual for any fundraiser’s personal library.” – Jeff Lorber, Vice Chancellor for Advancement, University of Illinois Springfield, & Senior Vice President, University of Illinois Foundation