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Fundraising's Four Magic Questions: Answer These and the Gift Is Yours

If I must say so myself, I thought I'd made quite a good presentation. Perhaps short of dazzling—but not bad at all.

I had listened carefully, probed when necessary, searched for areas of interest, and maintained intent eye contact. We had come to that charged moment—frightening and awesome, when the air crackles with hope and expectation. The time had come ... I was about to ask Dick for his gift.

I had rehearsed well. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, and put his admonition into fundraising terms: There is nothing as effective and successful as a very well rehearsed, carefully scripted, spontaneous ask!

The visit had gone mostly as planned. But no matter how often you've asked for a gift, thoughts race through your mind before you speak those magic words: Did I probe enough? Do I really know Dick's primary interest? Did I talk enough about the benefits and how his gift would change lives? Am I asking for the right amount? Wait ... perhaps I should plan for another visit. Is the time precisely right? I could come back another time.

But then I follow my own preaching. I decide to ask. Even if all factors don't fit my perfect blueprint, it's better to ask than not to ask at all. Better ready, fire, aim ... than ready, aim, aim, aim.

Using the words I find most comfortable, I present the opportunity.

Dick ... I would like you to consider a gift of $100,000 that will save lives for a generation to come and transform this into one of the great cardiac centers of the country. The words, "I would like you to consider," are the ones I find most appropriate.

Ah, I've asked for the gift. That wasn't so difficult after all.


I follow the example I teach others. Make the ask, and for a precise amount. Don't fill in the silence. No matter how long it may seem, wait. Follow the dictum: The first one who speaks is dead! And so I pause ... for what seems eternity. Dick finally responds.

No, I don't think so, he says. I don't think I can give that much, not at this time.

Perhaps you're thinking it's time you gather your things, thank Dick for the visit, leave the proposal behind, and ask that he consider it.


You've only come to the beginning of your ask. There's still important work and delving to be done. It's time to seek, search, and study. Incidentally, what I'm about to tell you really happened. Dick is alive and a wonderfully generous person.

Given Dick's response, there are four riddles I have to find the answers to. I put these in the form of questions. If I don't ask these four questions, I'll leave and never know where we stand in the mind of the donor. And if I return for a subsequent visit, I still won't have the information I need to move forward with a successful ask.

I must find out whether Dick responded the way he did because:

  1. There's no great feeling or involvement with the institution.
  2. There is a lack of interest in the specific project.
  3. I asked for too much.
  4. The timing is a factor.
I must know the answer to these immutable questions: Is it the organization, the project, the amount, or the timing? And I mustn't leave until I do.

I march on.

Dick, I said, thanks for responding so clearly to my request. And I did hear what you said. I don't mean to press you on the matter ... but I feel I must ask you a question. Do bear with me. Is there something that bothers you about the hospital (Is it the institution)? You've been a supporter for so long and have done so much, I was certain you felt positive about our work and our vision. Do you still feel that same friendship and support?

Oh, yes, Dick said. Now, probably more than ever. I think they're doing a great job. (I'm past the first hurdle.)

I continued.

I was pretty sure you felt that way. I also sensed this was the kind of project that would really interest you, that the new Cardiac Center had real meaning for you—because of your own situation and your family's. Is there something about the project that makes you hesitate?

Oh, no. Certainly not, Dick says. On the contrary, the Center is something I feel is very important, something we should have at the hospital.

(Great! We can now cross out the question, Is it the project? And now to the really tough question. If I get by this one, we have the gift.)

Well, then tell me, Dick, did I ask for too much? I need to know. I honestly felt that based on your identification with the hospital and your past support, $100,000 was just about the amount you'd want to give to a program this important. Am I correct? That's about the amount you would want to give, isn't it?

(For the past dozen years or so, Dick has been making an annual gift of between $5,000 and $10,000. There were a couple of years he missed, but other than that he's been consistent. The $100,000 request is certainly reasonable, following my rule that the request for a major capital venture can be somewhere between 10 and 25 times the regular annual giving.)

Dick responds: No, you were correct, that's just about the amount I'd like to give to a project like this. (Yea! This was working out better than I could have hoped. In my mind, I'm doing a high five.)

And now, my final question.

Is it the timing, Dick? Is the timing off? You've indicated your enthusiasm and excitement for the Cardiac Center, and said the amount was what you'd want to give. Is the timing a problem?

That's it exactly, said Dick. And then he went on to explain how it would be impossible to make a gift, even a small one, at this time. He was so heavily committed to a few other projects that there simply weren't funds available.

I responded as you would expect.

But that's the easiest part of all, I said. Don't worry about the timing. We can easily work that out. The important thing is that you're included in this program and able to do what you hoped. Let's extend the timing. Could you make your first payment in a year or so, or do you need more time than that? This new Cardiac Center has to have your involvement. It will be easy to work out the timing.

From that point, it was great fun. Dick felt he could make a small payment a year from now, and then make equal payments for the next three years and fulfill his commitment. He was absolutely delighted. And everyone won. Dick was able to do what he really wanted to do, I was in a position to help make it happen, and the hospital is one step closer toward its new Cardiac Center.

This particular visit followed the script, but it's not always as easy as this real example. Regardless, my four probing inquiries will get you through all situations, and they must be used if you're to be successful.

Jerold Panas
© 2003, Jerold Panas. Reprinted with permission of Emerson & Church, Publishers.

Jerold Panas is executive partner of one of America's leading fundraising firms and author of several books, including Asking: A 59-Minute Guide to Everything Board Members, Volunteers, and Staff Must Know to Secure the Gift; The Fundraising Habits of Supremely Successful Boards: A 59-Minute Guide to Assuring Your Organization's Future; and Making the Case: The No-Nonsense Guide to Writing the Perfect Case Statement.
Topics: Fundraising