Who pays the tab at a meeting with a donor?

Picture of someone paying a restaurant billDuring a recent coaching call, my client asked me to walk her step-by-step through an upcoming donor meeting. I love doing this! We established her top goal for the dinner, talked about the environment, and scripted a couple 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 waitress 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

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 check.
  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 himself, I’ll always look up and say, “Are you sure?”
  4. If they insist, I’ll let them pay.

    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 check; twice by answering me—I’m confident in letting him.

  5. If there’s any hesitation on their part, I’ll pay. I was expecting to anyway. They probably rarely get treated to a meal so paying is sort of fun. (Even when budgets are tight.)

It’s O.K. to let donors pay

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

  • 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 organization be good stewards.

  • 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.

  • 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? 🙂

  • Increasing engagement

    Finally, their paying the bill is yet one more way for them to support my nonprofit. Nothing that will show up on tax forms or donor lists, but it can be yet another engagement step in the process. Another way of them establishing a close relationship.

But always arrive at the meeting expecting to pay

Here are some of nuances for you to consider:

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Who set up the appointment?

    In general, if the other person invited you to the meal, it’s safe to think they’ll be paying. But that makes your low-key offer to pay even more powerful. They’re used to nonprofits being “takers.” This shows that you represent a different type of nonprofit than they’re used to.

  • If he asks for the check

    If the donor asks the server for the check, it’s a good bet that he’s going to pay. When the server brings him the check, 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 but after you’ve been in enough of these situations, you should be able to sense in the moment which response is more appropriate.

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

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 Marc A. Pitman

Marc A. Pitman is the CEO of The Concord Leadership Group, the author of Ask Without Fear! and director of The Nonprofit Academy. A coach to leaders around the world, Marc's expertise and enthusiasm engages audiences and has caught the attention of media organizations as diverse as Al Jazeera and Fox News. Marc’s experience also includes pastoring a Vineyard church, managing a gubernatorial campaign, and teaching internet marketing and fundraising at colleges and universities. He is the husband to his best friend and the father of three amazing kids. And if you drive by him on the road, he’ll be singing 80’s tunes loud enough to embarrass his family! You can connect with him on Google+, on Twitter @marcapitman, and like "Ask Without Fear!" on Facebook.
To get his free ebook on 21 ways to get board members engaged with fundraising, go to https://fundraisingcoach.com/21-ways/


  1. It's fairly the same tactic as going on a date! Be charming about it and you can't go wrong.

  2. I have just recently been on a string of restaurant visits and thought it was a LOSS if the donor paid. I assumed they thought "If I pay for the bill, I won't have to give a larger gift later"

    Your point of "Givers like to give" made more sense. These are generous people, it's in their nature to give.

  3. If the server comes with the check and you haven't already given your credit card a slight gesture puts the check in front of you, not in the middle. Having moments of doubt is not great example of capability, where else in the organization is there uncertainty. I suspect we agree that investors are interested in competence.

  4. Yes! to all of Marc's and others' comments. Here's evidence: I was interviewing a wealthy individual and donor as part of a capital campaign planning study for a client. He told me about how the client's former CEO said to him when the bill arrived and he didn't reach for the tab. "You want me to pay? You are the one with all the money." Unfortunately, that's what he remembers about the organization. Fortunately, he was willing to meet the new CEO.

  5. Richard L says:

    I have searched high and low on the internet, read government documents about what is allowed and not for expenses of a 501c3. Is a brainstorming dinner, with all members invited, allowed to be paid for by the nonprofit? If so, can you cite the public policy? Thank you.

    • Hi Richard: Why couldn't the nonprofit pay? If the nonprofit invites, it should be their bill, shouldn't it?

      • Richard L says:

        Been out of town and unable to access the net. The group I'm supposedly leading is ultra conservative with everything including finances. Our current (tax) attorney feels such a thing is an "inappropriate" use of funds. That is why I asked for a citation of why you feel this would be allowable. (it seems to me it would be since this is for a specific purpose, not entertainment, not for the aggrandizement of board members etc.) Thank you.

What would you add?