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The One Action Needed to be a Successful Fundraiser

Wrought-iron fixture with a sign stating ASK hanging from itMarkita Andrews was thirteen when she was interviewed on NBC morning television. At the time, she was the all-time champion seller of Girl Scout cookies—eleven thousand boxes in a year. 

Let me paraphrase what she said about her success. 

“Markita,” Bryant Gumbel asks, “how did you sell all those Girl Scout cookies?” 

“Well, she says, “you can’t just stand around. There comes a time when you have to stop chatting, when you’ve got to look them in the eye and ask them to buy your cookies.” 

There it is. A just turned teen reveals the abiding secret to fundraising. Asking for the order is but one of the many behaviors of successful fundraisers that I explore in my book, The Fundraiser’s Measuring Stick. Certainly it ranks at or near the top. 

Walter Lippman was one of America’s most notable writers, reporters, and commentators of the 20th century. His biographer, Ronald Steel, once asked Lippman why he gave all of his papers and memorability to Yale. He was, after, a graduate of Harvard and a member of the Harvard Board of Overseers. 

According to Steel, Harvard assumed it would get Lippman’s papers. But it never formally approached him. Never asked. 

The moral of the story? Yale did ask and got the papers. It even got his beloved baseball hat! 

Often, organizations don’t lack a culture of philanthropy. They lack a culture of asking. 

In study after study, many I’ve conducted myself, when people are asked why they haven’t given to an organization, the response voiced most often is that they weren’t asked. 

I called on Frank for a major university. Through our research we discovered his net worth was north of $100 million. But he had never given a dime to his alma mater. My first question when I’m sitting in his office is, “How did you happen to go to the university?” It turns out he grew up on a farm. No money at all. 

“But I’ll tell you how lucky I was,” he says. “I got a full scholarship for four years including room and board.” 

(This is going quite well so far!) 

“How was the experience?” I ask. 

“It was the greatest thing in my life,” gushes Frank. “It turned me inside out,” he adds. “Look at where I am today. I owe it to the university. And the added bonus—I met my wife there.” 

(Things could not be going any better. I’m doing mental high-fives.) 

We continue talking about how much the university means to him. He mentions a favorite faculty member, a retired professor with whom he still corresponds. 

We spend more than an hour chatting about his family, his interests, the local organizations he’s involved with. I learn he’s a venture capitalist. It’s not a world I’m very familiar with, so I probe. 

“How many deals do you do in a typical year?” I ask. Frank tells me usually about five. 

I lean forward and ask in a quiet way, “How much do you usually make on a deal?” (Yes, I did really ask the question.) Frank tells me it’s usually about $5 million. 

“For all the university means to you—your wife and family, your success, everything you are—would you give one of these deals to the university?” I inquire. 

Mine isn’t even a proper ask. Nervously I wait. And wait. “Yes, Jerry, I’ll do that,” Frank says with notable joy. 

Later when I ask why he’s never given to the university, here’s what he says: “You know, it’s interesting,” he says. “But no one has ever asked me.” 

Always keep Markita, Lippman, and Frank in mind. You’ll be hurt more by those who would have said yes but weren’t asked, than by those who for whatever reason told you no. 

Jerold PanasThe late Jerold Panas was author of The Fundraiser’s Measuring Stick, from which this article is adapted. His other books include Asking, The Fundraising Habits of Supremely Successful Boards, Making a Case Your Donors Will Love, and Born to Raise.

Topics: Fundraising Fundraising Strategy Asking