When asking for a gift, what counts most, aside from preparation, are three variables: your attitude, your ability to close the sale, and a realistic notion of the next step. In my book, Fundraising Realities Every Board Member Must Face, I address the whole gamut of soliciting major gifts, but here I’ll focus on these three elements.
1. Approach your prospect unapologetically
“Asking means never having to say you’re sorry.” Okay, that’s not exactly what Ali MacGraw said to Ryan O’Neal in Love Story (for those who missed this ’70s classic, it was “Love means never having to say you’re sorry”). But the sentiment is the same.
You’re a solicitor, not a supplicant. As fundraising counselor Kay Sprinkel Grace makes clear: “It’s not begging when a donor’s gift provides housing for the homeless, food for the hungry, scholarships for deserving students, or medical help for those suffering from chronic conditions. It’s not begging when the organization, on whose behalf you are asking, is stable, accountable, and successful in its work. By no means is it begging; it is an investment you seek.”
You have every reason to feel extremely proud. Not only does it take courage to do what you’re doing, but asking on behalf of your cause is a selfless act.
In 2007, as New York construction worker Wes Autrey and his two young daughters waited for their train, a 19-year-old film student went into convulsions, stumbled from the platform, and, in the worst possible luck, landed astride the rails. With the train literally yards away, Autrey leapt from the platform and took the only option he saw: He flung himself on top of the student, pinning him down, as the train thundered above their heads. Literally two inches spared their lives.
Mind you, your actions aren’t harrowing like the “Subway Samaritan’s,” but there is a selfless quality to what you do as well. Whether you’re raising money for a hospital or school or museum or rec center, in effect you’re enriching—if not actually helping to heal or save—the lives of others, most of whom you don’t know, and will never know. There’s no need to apologize for that.
2. Keep your eye on the prize
Much of life seems to happen in stages—curiously enough, four stages. In Buddhism, there are the four stages of enlightenment. Biology students will recall the four stages of mitosis. Apparently, there are even four stages of burnout.
It turns out that effective solicitations also involve four stages:
- The introduction, including a bit of small talk.
- Followed by a discussion that encourages your prospect to express her views of your organization.
- Then your explanation of the need and the benefits that will accrue.
- And finally the closing, when you ask for a gift.
Sailing through the first three stages is easy—the winds are favorable. But then you feel the dinghy lunge as the time to ask presents itself.
“On the timeline of fundraising, it’s the smallest step,” says one noted consultant. “But on the register of importance, all the other steps can be meaningless without it.”
It’ll never be easy. I didn’t learn to swim until my 40s and still recall the day when my instructor motioned me to the deep end and said “Jump.” That’s the angst you’ll feel.
Certainly don’t worry about any magic wording. Say what feels comfortable for you. I myself like to phrase the request this way:
- Would you join with me in making a gift of ...?
- Would you become a part of this effort by making a gift of ...?
- We hope you will consider a gift of ...?
That way it’s clear I’m hoping for support, not demanding it.
The trouble is it might take your prospect a half-minute to respond. She’s thinking: “Can I afford this? Is this organization that important to me? Will they use my money wisely? Do I need to speak to my attorney first?”
Sit tight and let your prospect sort through her real feelings. If you’re going to advance this solicitation, those issues and concerns are exactly what you need to hear now.
3. Expect a return visit
As you wait in the checkout line for the customer ahead of you to unearth those pennies in his pocket, you notice the candy bars, gum, miniature cookbooks, pen flashlights, even fingernail clippers all vying for your attention. Retailers know that impulse buys are good for business.
Some fundraising works that way, as when cashiers ask if you’ll contribute a dollar to their cause of the month, or when Girl Scouts, stationed at the exits, make thick pleas for their Thin Mints.
But you’re seeking thoughtful gifts, so the words you’ll frequently hear after asking for $5,000 or $50,000 are ... “I need to think about it.”
Big gifts require a period of gestation. There’s often a need to consult spouses, attorneys, and brokers.
“I understand you need time to think it over,” you reply.
But don’t take your leave yet. In a conversational way, you need to probe for answers to three questions:
- Does the prospect feel your cause is worthy?
- Does she feel you asked for an appropriate amount?
- Is the timing somewhat problematic?
How your prospect responds will usually reveal the reason for her hesitation. Perhaps she doubts the value of your cause, or feels you’re asking for too much, or has tuition bills due in August, making the timing problematic.
If you’re fortunate, you’ll be able to resolve the matter then and there: “Would it help to postpone your gift until October?” But even when you can’t fashion a quick solution—say, a spouse who needs to be consulted is away on business—the clues you pick up from asking these questions will be invaluable to your next visit when happily you do secure the gift.David Lansdowne is author of Fundraising Realities Every Board Member Must Face, from which this post is adapted.