Who pays the tab at a meeting with a donor?

During a recent coaching call, my client asked me to walk her step-by-step through an upcoming meeting with a donor. I love doing this!

Written by
Marc Pitman
July 01, 2013
Marc Pitman loves to walk people, step by step, through meetings with donors.

During a recent coaching call, my client asked me to walk her step-by-step through an upcoming meeting with a donor. I love doing this! We established her top goal for the dinner, talked about the environment and scripted a couple of questions for her to ask as the meal progressed. We even worked on keywords she could use should an opportunity to make an ask arise.

Then she asked about what happens when the server brings the bill.

Great question!

This can be a point of amazing tension. It’s usually stressful for the donor because nonprofit people are so often ‘entitled’. They act as if they are ‘owed’ the meal.

I’m not a fan of using restaurants for donor visits. But if you do, here are some pointers in removing stress about paying the bill.

Always assume you are paying the bill

What happens when the waiter arrives with the bill?

First, as a fundraiser I always assume I’m going to pay for the meal. Always. I’m representing a nonprofit and this is just a cost of doing business.

Here is how it plays out at the table:

  1. The server comes with the bill.
  2. I’ll reach for it. Not hastily, not in a way that breaks the flow of conversation. But I’ll quietly slide it towards me.
  3. If the donor reaches for it, I’ll always look up and say, ‘Are you sure?’
  4. If they insist, I’ll let them pay.
  5. I’m not sure where I picked up the are-you-sure? step but I think it’s based in that family tradition of refusing seconds until they’re offered twice. If the donor offers to pay twice – once by moving to take the bill, twice by answering me – I’m confident in letting him, or her, pay.
  6. If there’s any hesitation, I’ll pay. I was expecting to anyway. He probably rarely gets treated to a meal so paying is sort of fun. Even when budgets are tight.

It’s OK to let donors pay

Who are we to rob donors of the joy of giving?

There are several reasons it’s good if they pay.

  1. Confirms good stewardship of their own gift
    Many donors feel that if they pay for the meal, more of their gift (or future gift) is actually ‘going to the mission’ of the nonprofit. They like to be able to help the organisation be good stewards.
  2. Another chance to say thank you
    It gives me a lot of opportunity to express gratitude. If you’ve come sincerely expecting to pay, you can honestly say, ‘Wow! Thank you so much’. But let it rest at that. Your job is to – at some point ­– ask for a much larger gift than a dinner. You can gush with gratitude then.
  3. Givers like to give
    There’s a real joy for people in being able to pay for a meal. Who are you to rob them of that joy?
  4. Increasing engagement
    Finally, if they pay the bill it is another one way for them to support my nonprofit. Nothing that will show up on tax forms or donor lists, but it can be another step in the engagement process. Another way for them to establish a close relationship.

But always arrive at the meeting expecting to pay. Here are some of nuances for you to consider:

  1. Never assume they will pay
    The worst thing you can do is to assume that since you work for a nonprofit, it’s everyone else’s job to pay for the food. That sense of entitlement stinks to high heaven and leaves a bad taste in the donor’s mouth leading them to think twice about any other invitation from your nonprofit.
  2. Avoid offering to split the tab
    Unless you’ve agreed on this before the meal, offering to split the bill can make you look like a cheapskate. And that can damage any future relationship you might have grown with the donor.
  3. Who set up the appointment?
    In general, if the other person invited you to the meal, it’s safe to think he’ll be paying. But that makes your low-key offer to pay even more powerful. Donors are used to nonprofits being ‘takers’. This shows that you represent a different type of nonprofit than they’re used to.
  4. If he asks for the bill
    If the donor asks the server for the bill, it’s a good bet that he’s going to pay. When the server brings it to him, you have a choice: you can either ask a brief, ‘are you sure?’ Or you can say, ‘Thank you very much’. You can’t really go wrong with either response; after you’ve been in enough of these situations, you should be able to sense at the moment which response is more appropriate.

​Deciding you’re paying frees you to focus on the donor

Offering to split the bill could make you look like a cheapskate.

By coming to the meeting having made the decision that you are paying for the meal, you free your mind to focus on the donor rather than on who’s going to pay. And your gratitude should he pay is genuine.

Your turn

What about you? How do you handle this situation? Tell us in the comments

About the author: Marc Pitman

Marc Pitman

Marc Pitman is the author of Ask Without Fear! (Executive Books, 2008, USA) He is also the founder of FundraisingCoach.com, a website dedicated to practical ideas for more effective fundraising.

Recent Articles

How jargon destroys non-profit fundraising and marketing

Do you use a lot of jargon in your fundraising communications? If so, it’s probably time for a rethink!

Read more

The wit and wisdom of George Smith - introduction and contents

Joe Burnett introduces a new series on SOFII featuring the wit and wisdom of legendary fundraising guru and master wordsmith, George Smith.

Read more

Giving Tuesday ideas - SOFII shares our favourites with you

In a free webinar recorded for the Chartered Institute of Fundraising (CIOF), some members of our SOFII team have shared a few of their favourite Giving Tuesday ideas from past I Wish I'd Thought of That (IWITOT) events and their own experience. 

Read more

Five insights for fundraisers from the British Red Cross Museum of Kindness

We’ve been meaning to get this gem on SOFII for a while, and we hope you love this bit of fundraising history as much as we do. In this article Mark Phillips shares what he saw on his visit to the British Red Cross Museum of Kindness and shares what fundraisers can learn from their exhibition of wonderful things. 

Read more

I just did my first round of grant assessing – here’s what I learned

After years of fundraising for small charities, Vic Hancock Fell found herself on the other side of the process – assessing grant applications. Find out what Vic learned and what changes she’ll make when she writes her next application for a trust or foundation.

Read more