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How to Prime Your Donors for the Ask with the Jedi Mind Trick

Let me be honest. Its no secret—asking for a major gift is ... scary. It’s one of the biggest challenges fundraisers face.

It’s a personal question which enters what is considered a taboo area of conversation—someone else’s money. Even after years of experience, every donor conversation is personal and therefore different. There’s always the unknown. (Continued below video)

That’s scary.

Recently, I attended a seminar with Nick Fellers of For Impact, and during the session he talked about getting donors to ask you, “How can I help?” It was a great reminder of many of the best practices for raising major gifts.

Four Words: How Can I Help?

Instead of asking for money outright, steer your conversation with donors so they inevitably ask you ...

How can I help?”

This may seem like a Jedi Mind Trick, but imagine the possibilities if you pull it off.

Fundraising wouldn’t be scary if you didn’t have to ask ... if the donor simply offered to help, right?

Don’t get me wrong ... by using the phrase Jedi Mind Trick, I certainly don’t mean to imply you trick your donors in any way. It’s about being so inspiring they can’t resist. However, no real trickery is involved.

The trick is actually on you. You will need to use your Jedi-like skills to steer the conversation in the direction of learning how your donor or supporter would feel most inspired ... so they can’t resist asking, How can I help?

Asking becomes much easier.

Yes, after they ask “How can I help?” you still need make the ask. It’s technically not a question, but an answer.

So the real question is how can you prompt your donors to utter those four precious words?

Tell a Specific, Compelling Story

You can guide your donors to ask how they can help when you tell them a compelling story. Talk about the specific needs of your nonprofit and your vision. Show how the future will be different for one individual in your story.

1. Tell a story

Come up with a way your donor, as just one person, can make a genuine difference. Explain how your donor could feed one person, or vaccinate one child, or provide education or art. The more specific, the better.

People want to feel inspired. Although you can ask for unrestricted operating money, it’s not inspiring. On the other hand, saving someone’s life is very inspiring.

Would you rather give to lightbulbs or to save a life? Well, so would your donor.

Talk about the need. You can begin by asking a question ...

Did you know that 18% of the adults in our community are functionally illiterate?”

You may need to define what functionally illiterate means. That means they can’t read or write well enough to complete a job application, read a medication label, or a note from their child’s teacher.

Ask some questions, like:

Can you imagine how it would feel not to be able to read your child a bedtime story?

Did you know there were functionally illiterate people all around us ... parents at your child’s school?

And it impacts all of us, because those parents can’t get a job and support their child, or help with homework. The ripple effect impacts all of us.

The good news is we at the literacy center see a different future for these adults, their families, and our community. But we do need help from people like you.”

Pause. Wait for it ... wait for it ...

You’re waiting for them to say something like: How can I help? or, What do you need?

We’ll get to that in just a second, but for those of you who are thinking, “My nonprofit doesn’t help kids or puppies, so I don’t have any tearful stories ...”

Well, a friend recently took a job as the head of an auto safety nonprofit. Not exactly the sexiest cause in the world. What they do is mostly legislative and, honestly, pretty dry. However, he can tell stories of times before seatbelts, cars without airbags, and faulty brakes, and tell stories of a single accident which could have been prevented, saving someone’s life.

So no matter what your cause, your job is to tell a story so compelling that the person sitting across from you gets chills.

Tell the story of ONE individual your organization is helping. Give that person a name and a family. Fill in the details and bring the story to life in your donor’s mind.

2. Know the answer in advance

Now, they’ve just asked, HOW CAN I HELP?

If you’ve gone this far with the Jedi Mind Trick and you’ve gotten them to utter those wonderful words, you must be prepared with an answer.

Start with something like:

I’m glad you asked. We’re looking for people just like you to make a real difference.

We have 130 people on our waiting list, waiting for a tutor and reading materials. To help one person for six months, it costs $1,800.

Or to provide group classes for 10 people, it costs $12,000.

Is that something you would consider?”

Then, wait.

The most important part of this Jedi Mind Trick is when you do get the person to ask how can I help, you have several answers in mind. Start with your top ask. If that’s not what they had in mind, suggest something else—we’re looking for tutors or reading partners, or book donations.

If they don’t respond positively, ask them how they might like to help.

Becoming a Jedi Master

Remember, you still need to ask, but it will be in the form of an answer, which makes the ask so much easier.

I truly believe every great fundraiser, and especially the ones who raise major gifts, are simply matchmakers between people who want to help and important causes. People want to help and you’re simply providing them an opportunity.

If your donor goes away feeling like you twisted their arm or talked them into doing something they didn’t want to do, something went terribly wrong. They should feel great about helping someone learn to read.

Whenever asking for a major gift, keep in mind the 3rd, 4th, and even the 10th gift. You don’t want this one to be the last, so the goal is to inspire your donor, not twist their arm. When a Jedi Mind Trick is done well, the person doesn’t feel tricked at all.

How to Prime Your Donors for the Ask with the Jedi Mind TrickThe preceding is a cross-post by author, speaker, and trainer Amy Eisenstein. Amy’s published books include Major Gift Fundraising for Small Shops, Raising More with Less, and 50 A$ks in 50 Weeks. She became an AFP certified Master Trainer in 2009. Amy recently completed her service as the president of the board of the Association of Fundraising Professionals—New Jersey Chapter. She became a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE) in 2004 and received her advanced certification, ACFRE, in 2013. Check out her blog and video posts at for free fundraising tips and best practices.

Topics: Major Gifts Funding asks