I am one of those people who would do just about anything to avoid having to participate in fundraising activities such as selling raffle tickets, magazine subscriptions, boxes of cookies, tickets to an event and so on. You get the idea.
When my daughters were in elementary school I chaired the PTA, which made for some awkward moments when they didn’t meet their individual and classroom fundraising goals.
As a development professional, I have often wondered where the fear of fundraising comes from. Try as I might, I just can’t bring myself to ask someone to buy an $8 ticket for a plate of spaghetti.
On the other hand, I find it one of life’s great privileges to give prospective major donors the opportunity to take part in something greater than themselves. More than once I have seen the joy and sense of accomplishment on a donor’s face when they make a life-changing gift to an organization they care about.
As a development professional, I frequently hear from board members, staff and volunteers that “I just hate to ask for money” or “I am not good at asking for money.” Over the years, I have probed for answers as to why so many people hate to ask others for money. When you know the mission is important and you are in the right position to ask, what is it that holds you back?
Early on, I examined my own feelings about asking for money for causes I care about. I realized that fear is the likeliest culprit. A mentor early in my career advised me to think in terms of how I feel when someone asks me for a contribution. Does it make me angry? Does it diminish me in any way? Of course not! Truth be told, I am generally honored to be asked to consider an investment in a cause I care about from someone with whom I have a good relationship.
So, let’s examine some of the myths around asking prospective donors for major gifts.
Myth 1: There is only one right way to ask for money – and I don’t know what it is.
Fundraising is both art and science and, like learning to drive a car, it takes time and practice. The science of fundraising can be learned, just like learning how to turn on a car ignition, put the car in gear and depress the accelerator. For a novice driver, there will probably be plenty of stops and starts until they can smoothly operate the vehicle. The same is true of the art of fundraising. It takes practice to find your personal comfort zone when making the ask. Mario Andretti didn’t win 109 car races by a lack of practice. He won because he kept practicing and kept racing.
Myth 2: The donor may be offended by the suggested range of the gift.
You have done your prospect research, a donor cultivation process has taken place and it’s time to sit down face-to-face with your prospective donor. But you are paralyzed with fear about the suggested gift range. Several years ago, I called on a wealthy donor to solicit support for a college capital campaign. In my enthusiasm, I increased the ask amount by 25%. To my surprise, I got a lot of laughter followed by, “You think I can afford that?” I replied, “You’ve been an enormous friend to this community in so many ways, and your reputation for leadership in business and philanthropy led me to ask you for a sacrificial gift for a cause I know you care deeply about.” I was honest and direct. I didn’t come away with the gift that I asked for, but I did come away with a significant gift and a relationship that has stood the test of time.
Myth 3: Rich, influential people are different – and I am not one of them.
Calling on someone of great wealth and influence can be intimidating, even for the most seasoned board member or development professional. It is generally the best practice to take someone along who has given at a similar level and has a relationship with the prospective donor. However, that may not always be possible, and there will be a time that you must be the one making the ask. My experience has been that very wealthy people are not so different from the rest of us. They are often easier to talk to, in fact, because they have more money to invest in causes they care about and they frequently have a deep sense of commitment to their community. Very wealthy donors are often willing to invest more than just money in their causes. You may benefit greatly when a wealthy donor is willing to invest their time, connections and business advice as well as their money to you and your organization.
Myth 4: If they say no, I’ll never get another chance to ask them for money.
Sometimes, despite our best efforts, research and cultivation, a donor says no. The number one reason that happens is that they haven’t been properly cultivated. Examine your efforts leading up to your meeting with the donor to ensure that they understand the need and/or project and have indicated support for your organization. When you hear “no,” all is not lost. Gently probe for where the no is coming from. Send the donor a handwritten note of thanks and ask for their advice and counsel. Continue the cultivation process and ask for another meeting when you sense that the donor is ready to take the next step.
Getting past your fear of asking people for money will lead to great things. So, go out there and be bold!
Karen has more than 20 years of experience as a results-driven fundraising and nonprofit professional, serving as CEO of several South Georgia nonprofits where she built strong relationships across Georgia and under the gold dome in Atlanta. She served for ten years as director of development at Darton State College, where she managed the Darton Foundation and led its first-ever capital campaign.