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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.

asking-far-and-wide-interview-with-fundraiser-Andy-Robinson.jpgAndy 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.

Topics: Fundraising