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Making the ask — and getting it right

Making the ask — and getting it right

March 15, 2024
Karen Baldwin

My favorite fundraising mentor was Jerald Panas. He has written several easy to read and, more importantly, easy to follow books on how to be successful at fundraising. My two favorite quotes form him are, in my opinion, the foundation for truly successful fundraising: “If you don’t ask, you don’t get” and “No one ever listened themselves out of a gift.”

If you don’t ask, you don’t get

A good fundraiser sees themselves as matching the needs and desires of their organization with the passion of potential donors, rather than a staff member begging for money.  Doing so allows the fundraiser to make a meaningful ask. It is important to actually make the ask. Too many fundraisers are fearful of asking. A fundraiser cannot be effective by passing along a proposal to a potential donor. 

When I was working on my dissertation, I did a qualitative study of the top donors, $250,000 and up, at a major, flagship university in the southeast. Without exception, all the interviewees – who were not only the university’s largest donors, but many who were its top volunteers – stated they would have never made a gift to the university had someone not asked them.

No one ever listened themselves out of a gift

By the time a fundraiser is ready to make the ask for a major gift, time should have been spent getting to know the prospect and learning for what the prospect has passion. Listening, observing and probing are key skills in this relationship. If you ask questions and listen more than you talk, the prospect will share invaluable information with you that will help you in preparing to ask for the right gift at the right time. 

Practice scenario planning

Practicing making the ask helps relieve anxiety and reduces awkwardness when the time comes to actually make it. Scenario planning is especially important when you are not the only person from your organization present in the meeting when the ask is made. 

It is important that the most senior person in the organization make the ask; however, if he or she is not comfortable doing so, you need to know this ahead of time and prepare. In my experience with higher education scenario planning, I have always asked the dean or president if he/she is comfortable making the ask. More often than not, they are not. I then ask if he/she is comfortable with me doing so at the appropriate time in the meeting. Planning for this scenario makes for a smooth, comfortable meeting, and you do not have to worry about trumping your boss. 

Be prepared to be unprepared

No matter how much we listen, observe and probe, there are times when a prospect surprises us with new information in our meeting for the ask. I once went into what I thought was a well-prepared meeting to make the ask. I had met with the prospect many times, and she loved our students with whom she interacted. The university for which I worked set a priority for student scholarships. So, I prepared a well thought out proposal for a large scholarship endowment. 

At the start of the meeting with the prospect, she stated, “I’m so glad you are here to share how I may best help the institution; however, I sure hope you didn’t come to talk about scholarships. I hope you won’t think poorly of me, but I don’t like giving to people, I like giving for things.” I immediately tucked away the proposal I planned to submit and made an entirely different ask for a student activities building.

Take yes for an answer

When you make the ask, and the prospect agrees, whatever you do, close the gift! All too often, I’ve been with fundraisers who can’t take yes for an answer. Instead of closing the gift, they propose a menu of other options. Doing so totally confuses the prospect. Not only do you risk leaving that day without a gift, you also may never have the opportunity to get in front of that donor again. 

No means not right now

If you do get a “no” after making the ask, don’t get discouraged. Try to understand why. More times than not, the timing is off or the ask is for the wrong initiative. Always use a “no’ as an opportunity to learn and help better prepare you for returning for the ask at a later date. 


Karen Baldwin

Dr. Karen Meshad Baldwin has 19 years of experience in all aspects of fundraising. She was previously vice president for advancement at The University of Alabama, where she led the development division, which included major giving, planned giving, corporate and foundation giving, the annual fund, alumni relations, integrated marketing and communications and advancement services.  As a member of UA’s President’s Executive Council, Karen was a trusted advisor to senior leadership on issues with significant and far-reaching institutional implications, managed a budget of over $8 million and led a division with more than 130 employees. Prior to that, Karen served as the university’s associate vice president for advancement for four years and director of external affairs and development for the UA College of Engineering for 10 years. Before joining The University of Alabama, Karen spent 13 years with BellSouth Advertising & Publishing Corporation, where she was responsible for strategic planning, mergers and acquisitions, process innovation and marketing.  Karen has served as president of the Birmingham, Alabama, chapter of the American Marketing Association and chair of Leadership Tuscaloosa. As a Rotarian, she is a past assistant district governor, past president of the Rotary Club of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and a current member of the Rotary Club of Athens, Georgia. She is currently on the Georgia Women of Achievement Board of Trustees and officer with the University Woman’s Club. She is also involved with many other charitable organizations. During her time at BellSouth, Karen was twice selected to the President’s Club — the top 3 percent of the corporation’s 3,000 employees. Karen holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in American studies and a doctorate in higher education administration from The University of Alabama.