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Andy Robinson

Andy Robinson is a trainer and consultant based in Vermont. Learn more at and A brand-new video series, focused on effective board training, is available at

Recent Posts by Andy Robinson:

Challenge Your Board, Raise More Money


You're probably familiar with the challenge or matching gift. A generous donor provides a gift or grant on the condition that you raise an equal amount from other sources.

These gifts often require a one-to-one match. Each donation you receive is matched dollar for dollar by the donor, though other ratios are possible.

If you listen to public radio anywhere in the United States, you've heard this appeal a thousand times. "Gerry Generous has pledged $5,000, but only if we raise an additional $5,000 in the next hour. Please give now!"

Challenge gifts are a classic fundraising tactic because they work.

Major Gifts Fundraising: The Questions I Hear Most Often

Having worked as a fundraising consultant and trainer for almost 20 years, I'm often surprised that the same questions come up again and again.

Happily, recurring questions can generate new answers: my responses keep evolving as I learn from donors, peers, clients, and from my ongoing experience soliciting gifts.

What follows is a "greatest hits" collection of questions. You'll find more extensive answers in my books How to Raise $500 to $5000 from Almost Anyone and Train Your Board (and Everyone Else) to Raise More Money.

What would you consider a "major gift?"

The concept of a "major gift" varies wildly based on the size and sophistication of organizations. For big-league universities, the major gifts category probably begins at $100,000. On the other hand, for some grassroots groups, $250 might be considered a big gift.

In the first book mentioned above, I focused on $500 to $5,000. These amounts are large enough to justify the time required to cultivate and solicit donors, yet small enough to include a wide range of prospects.

Taken in the context of a major gifts campaign, with many askers talking to multiple prospects, gifts of $500 to $5,000 can add up to a lot of money.

What's the most effective way to raise money?

Look someone in the eye and ask for it. Unfortunately, this is also the scariest way to raise money. If we're going to be successful, we have to confront our fears and doubts about money, where it comes from, who gives it, how to ask for it effectively, and so on.

If fear is the biggest barrier, how do we address it?

In a word, training. Lots of training interspersed with hands-on practice.

You might remember the first time you learned to ride a bike, which included the fear of falling and skinning your knees. A family member or friend probably coached you through it: you tried, you fell, you got up, you received more coaching, and pretty soon you were riding around the block.

Fundraising is the same. You learn, you fall a few times, you get up, you try again, and pretty soon donors are saying yes and handing you checks. For more training tools, visit

Nonprofits can spend a lot of money on trainers and consultants to engage their boards in fundraising. Does training really work?

Yes and no. While I continue to lead a lot of one-day workshops—often, with the client providing little advance prep or follow-through after the event—I'm beginning to question the model. A good trainer can move the needle, but when he or she leaves the room, everybody begins to backslide. Old habits, as they say, die hard.

On the other hand, when training is part of a long-term process of board education and engagement, rather than a one-off event, yes—training works. A lot of ongoing board education can be driven by board and staff leaders rather than relying on outside consultants.

Let's talk about donor meetings. What's the best location?

When we meet with donors, we generally have three goals:

  • Learn more about them
  • Look for ways to connect them to the work of our organization
  • Ask for their support (unless this is a get-to-know-you meeting or a personal thank-you after a recent gift)

With that in mind, you want a comfortable location that allows a certain degree of privacy and quiet. If the venue inspires the donor, even better. I would suggest the following hierarchy:

  • The donor's home. If someone invites you into his or her home for the purpose of being asked, this is a very good sign.
  • A show-and-tell opportunity: the site of your new clinic, a forest you are working to conserve, your preschool in action, and so forth. Following the site visit, make sure you have a quiet place to talk.
  • The donor's place of business.
  • Your organization's office or place of business—with the reminder that if you have good engagement opportunities, this moves up to item two on the list.
  • A restaurant or coffee shop. If this is your best option, take it—but beware of the loud diners at the next table or the waiter who delivers the check just as you are making your case. In a public location, it's impossible to control the distractions.

How about materials? What do you need to bring?

It really depends on the ask. Is this annual fundraising, a special project, or a capital campaign? As a general rule, keep it simple. We tend to overload donors with too much stuff. With that in mind, here's the basic list:

  • Pledge form (name, contact info, terms of payment, recognition information, etc.)
  • Case materials: a brochure, fact sheet, or newsletter
  • Something visual: a map or graph, photos, a site plan—specific to your mission and funding request
  • Gift chart showing the range of gifts needed to reach your goal, and progress toward that goal

Remember, materials don't make the ask, YOU make the ask. Even the strongest materials aren't as effective as a thoughtful face-to-face request, spoken from the heart.

What's your single best advice for those who want to learn face-to-face fundraising, but don't know where to begin?

If you're a novice, embrace that. Use it to your advantage. Pick three people you know well enough to call on the phone and have the following conversation:

"Sally, I'm on the board of [your organization]. We're learning how to meet with donors and ask for their support. To be honest, I'm a little intimidated but I really need to learn how to do this. May I come and practice on you?

"Just so we're clear, it's a real ask—I hope you will give. But more than the money, what I really need is feedback, and I think you would make a great practice partner. Can we practice this together? I would so appreciate your help."

The advantages of this approach: it's authentic, it's honest, and it shows a lot of humility. Most donors find that appealing.

As the famous fundraising saying states, "If you want advice, ask for money. If you want money, ask for advice."

Andy Robinson
© 2014, Emerson & Church, Publishers

Andy Robinson is a trainer, consultant, and the author of six books, including Great Boards for Small Groups, Train Your Board (and Everyone) Else to Raise Money, and How to Raise $500 to $5000 from Almost Anyone. Learn more about Robinson at and

Asking Far and Wide: Interview with Fundraiser Andy Robinson

Andy Robinson, author of How to Raise $500 to $5000 From Almost Anyone, recently spoke with his publisher about major gifts fundraising. GuideStar has published an excerpt from the book, and we're pleased to be able to share Mr. Robinson's additional thoughts with you.

You started in fundraising as a door-to-door canvasser. In what ways did that serve you later?

Canvassing is fundraising boot camp—most people don't last more than a day or two. Because we were expected to recruit about one donor for every eight doors we knocked on, the first lesson was to not internalize rejection. Indeed, I was often grateful for the person who said no quickly and clearly—because that moved me to the next door and the next prospect. To quote my friend and colleague Kim Klein, "Fundraising is a volume business." There's no better proof than canvassing.

The one quality a fundraiser needs the most is ...?

Bravery—though it would be hard to argue with persistence. If you don't ask, you don't receive.

Faith-based organizations attract more money than any groups. What can schools, museums, and civic organizations learn from them?

First, don't make assumptions about who has money and who doesn't—ask everyone, ask often. Second, engage your constituents as deeply and as regularly as you can. I often ask my secular clients, "Do you know your people as well as a church knows theirs?" The answer is usually no.

Tell us the top two or three motivators for why people give.

They were asked. They were asked by somebody they know. It's a way to participate—to belong—without investing time, which is even harder to get than money. Having said that, I'd be careful about generalizing. As a colleague likes to say, "If you know one donor, you know one donor."

In your book, you cite a woman who enrolled in your workshop because she was "Trying to get over myself." Tell us what she meant.

As solicitors, how we feel is secondary. The more important question is, "How does the donor feel?" People generally feel good about giving. So to paraphrase, the woman at the workshop was saying, "I want my ego out of the way so I can be of service to my organization." For a fundraiser, that's the sweet spot.

Friendship and fundraising: is that a volatile mix?

Of course—but so is friendship and a dozen other things, including politics, social class, sports teams, religion, whether your friends approve of your spouse, and so on. None of these things prevents us from making or keeping friends.

In my experience, solicitors tend to fall into two camps: people who prefer to ask people they know, and those who prefer to ask strangers. The first group tends to have greater success.

If you're uncomfortable asking your friends, try this: "Our organization is doing great work, which is why I support it. Giving a gift is one way you can participate. If you choose not to give—for any reason—that's OK. You and I will remain friends regardless. But I hope you can help."

You say that fundraising boils down to two jobs—the asker who asks for the gift, and the decider who says, "Yes, I'll give," or "No, I'll pass." You stress how it's important not to confuse these two jobs. Clarify that if you will.

We make assumptions about the people around us: "She can't contribute, she's broke. He won't donate, he has other priorities." Consequently, we don't ask a lot of people. We take a decision that should be theirs—to give or not to give—and make it for them, based on these assumptions. Remember, the number one reason that people give is because someone asked. By NOT asking them, we disempower them.

One of fundraising's conventional beliefs is that economic peers have to be involved in the solicitation. You disagree, don't you?

The peer-to-peer concept shouldn't be based on wealth, but rather how strongly you both support the mission. As an asker, you can talk about your own gift in this way: "Our organization is among the top three I support each year. I hope you'll consider making it one of your top three." Using this model, it's less about the money and more about the level of commitment.

Toward the end of your book you say this: "Ask for the gift and wait with your mouth shut. If you take nothing else from this book, please remember to ask and then be quiet." Elaborate a bit.

When you ask and be quiet—"We were hoping you would consider a gift of $10,000. That would be so significant for us"—you have all the power you'll have in that conversation. As soon as you start apologizing and backpedaling—"I know this is a bad time, any amount would be great, we're so sorry to impose on you"—you end up in a submissive position. Effective solicitors are proud of their organizations and feel honored to be asking for support. When you ask and wait—in silence—you reinforce that message.

You hear a lot these days about retaining donors and how it's much more cost-effective to nurture a long-standing relationship than continually uncover new donors. Give us your best advice for building donor loyalty.

There's a famous fundraising saying: "If you want advice, ask for money. If you want money, ask for advice." Engage your donors, as appropriate, in giving you feedback on both your programs and how well you treat your supporters.

It seems more and more organizations are turning to staff to solicit gifts rather than volunteers. What are your feelings about this?

Mixed. Recently, I've been leading a workshop called "Give Up on Your Board," which emphasizes using all staff to help with fundraising. You can adjust employees' job descriptions, supervise them, mandate appropriate training, and even reward them for successful fundraising campaigns with all-staff bonuses, professional development funds, and paid days off.

On the other hand, board and volunteer fundraising training continues to be the largest component of my practice. The demand is endless. Because I have experienced boards and other volunteers who embrace fundraising and do it well, I haven't totally given up. At least not yet.

© 2013, Emerson & Church Publishers.

Andy Robinson, also the author of Great Boards for Small Groups and The Board Member's Easier Than You Think Guide to Nonprofit Finances (with Nancy Wasserman), has been raising money for social change since 1980. As a trainer and consultant, he has assisted nonprofits in 40 states and Canada, leading workshops on fundraising, grantseeking, board development, strategic planning, marketing, leadership development, and earned income strategies.

It's Not Your Money: How Your Board Can Resolve Financial Conflicts of Interest

Excerpted from The Board Member's Easier Than You Think Guide to Nonprofit Finances

Can We Meet? How to Respond When Donors Resist Meeting with You

Excerpted from How to Raise $500 to $5000 From Almost Anyone

Peer to Peer Fundraising: It's Not What You Think

Excerpted from How to Raise $500 to $5,000 from Almost Anyone, revised and expanded edition

My friend Susan was the chief fundraiser for a nonprofit in a rural part of the country. In the course of her work, she interacted with a number of major donors.

Before launching a recent fundraising campaign, she sat down with her spouse and said, "I'm preparing to ask a lot of people for a lot of money. If I'm going to have any credibility during these conversations, we need to donate as much as we possibly can." They discussed it and committed $2,500—a significant gift given their economic situation.

Fast forward a few weeks: there she is, sitting with a couple in their living room, discussing the fundraising campaign. When it comes time to ask, she says, "My spouse and I are giving $2,500 to the organization this year. This is a big commitment for us. I don't know what a comparable gift would be for you, but that's what I'm hoping for."

After a moment of silence, one of the donors turns to her and says, "Well, if $2,500 is a stretch for you, then we're in for $100,000."

My friend broke into tears—just so we're clear, these were tears of joy—and her donors were kind enough to offer her a box of Kleenex and a comforting hand.

One of the persistent myths about fundraising is that economic peers have to be involved in the meeting. This notion is built on the persistent fantasy that, to be successful, you need a board of wealthy people who will ask their wealthy friends for money. As this story shows, the peer-to-peer concept isn't based on wealth or the size of the respective gifts; rather, it's based on the fact that both asker and donor are deeply committed to the mission of the organization, and both make gifts that are significant to them.

Maybe you're not comfortable revealing the amount you give. I respect that—but you still need to find ways to inspire and challenge the donor. Here are a few other options that might work:

"As a board member, this organization is one of my top three charitable commitments. I hope you'll consider making it one of your top three."

"For this capital campaign, our family gave the biggest contribution we've ever given—and it felt good. What amount would feel good to you?"

"I thought about how much I would feel comfortable giving, and then I decided to stretch myself a little. We're hoping for a 'stretch gift' from you."

In other words, you're only asking the donor to do something you've already done yourself. This gives you credibility and authority, which makes your request sound reasonable.

The story about my friend the fundraiser has an even happier ending. She stayed in touch with her donors throughout the year, building and strengthening the relationship. When it was time for the next campaign, she called to ask for an appointment.

"Are we going to make you cry again this year?" the donor asked, laughing.

Without missing a beat, she said, "I sure hope so."

Andy Robinson
© 2011, Emerson & Church, Publishers. Excerpted from How to Raise $500 to $5,000 from Almost Anyone, revised and expanded edition; excerpted with permission.

Andy Robinson provides training and consulting for nonprofits in fundraising, grantseeking, board development, marketing, earned income, planning, leadership development, and facilitation. Over the past 16 years, Andy has worked with organizations in 47 U.S. states and Canada. He specializes in the needs of groups working for human rights, social justice, environmental conservation, arts, and community development. Andy is the author of several books, including How to Raise $500 to $5,000 from Almost Anyone and Great Boards for Small Groups.

Going for Consensus, Not Robert's Rules

Excerpt from Great Boards for Small Groups: A 1-Hour Guide to Governing a Growing Nonprofit

In my work with nonprofits, I'm always mystified by the pervasive use and abuse of parliamentary procedure, also known as Robert's Rules of Order.

Many, many board members believe that their discussions and decisions are somehow more valid when they make motions, second those motions, call the question, and hold formal votes that are recorded in the minutes.

Furthermore, people who know the rules—or think they know the rules—often use their alleged know-how as a way to exercise power within the group. "That's out of order," bellows the board bully. "You need to raise a point of order if you're going to reopen discussion on that motion, and you can't do that because we've already accepted an amendment to the original motion."

In response, everyone else feels sheepish, looks confused, and refuses to speak. All sorts of petty arguments arise from the ignorance or abuse of parliamentary procedure.

There is no law mandating that nonprofits must make decisions using Robert's Rules. After all, you're not a parliament. You're an animal shelter, or a sports league, or a theater, or an advocacy organization.

By way of comparison, imagine you're sitting around with a group of friends, trying to decide on a place for dinner. You discuss the options; people advocate for one restaurant or another. Perhaps you reach a tentative decision. At that point, someone opts out, saying, "I had Thai for lunch, but if that's what everybody wants, please go and enjoy yourselves." Maybe the rest of you decide to go, but more likely you return to the list to try to identify another option that will work for everyone.

The decision-making model you're using is called  consensus, and it works something like this: