From day one I vividly understood that most people rank asking someone they know, face-to-face, for a nonprofit gift on par with a root canal or a colorectal exam. Even business and community leaders who are virtually fearless in everything else they face in their personal, professional, and civic lives are terrified of asking for gifts.
After leading more than 200 workshops and webinars I’ve come face-to-face with these fears, and developed pragmatic ways to overcome them. I start with the premise that most people are afraid of fundraising because they really have no grasp of the art and science involved. More than anything else, a fear of the unknown is what drives this.
But here’s the good news: Through nominal study, practice, and preparation, those who are devoted to promoting the noble missions of their nonprofits can — and do — become effective fundraisers. As with learning anything else–playing piano, computer programming, enjoying tennis–this paradigm works over and over again: (a) learn it, (b) do it, (c) do it better.
Here are 10 lessons that can empower nonprofit leaders to become successful in developing resources
- Acknowledge your fears. It’s perfectly natural to be afraid of asking for gifts. I like to start my workshops by going around the table and asking board members, staff, and volunteers to share what scares them about fundraising. It’s heartening to learn that you aren’t alone. Then we discuss how they overcame those fears.
- Understand that the solicitation is just a single moment in the fundraising continuum that culminates in gifts. So much else has to happen before the ask. That means board members and others can contribute mightily to fundraising success–without ever asking for gifts. They can play huge roles by simply breaking the ice and introducing people they know from their professional and personal networks to the missions of the nonprofit. This initiates the cultivation process, which forges a personal and emotional link between the donor prospect and the nonprofit. When the time is right for solicitation, staff or board members who are comfortable doing so can step in and make the ask.
- Board member thank yous. Another way to get reluctant board members and others to gradually dip their feet into the fundraising pond is to have them make stewardship calls thanking current donors for their gifts. There is no other agenda than expressing gratitude. In today’s world, many calls result in voicemail messages. That’s fine; calling will still make a strong donor impression. And, research indicates that these unexpected calls often result in recipients making increased gifts.
- Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. It’s insane to go into an important solicitation without preparation. This doesn’t necessarily require following a word-for-word script, but the participants should clearly understand who is going to say what, when, and most importantly, who is going to make the ask. The stark reality is that too many nonprofit leaders haven’t experienced a genuine solicitation firsthand. They might have experience with passively receiving gifts, but not intentionally asking for them.
- Be specific. You have to ask for a specific amount, purpose, and delivery date. Just asking someone to make a gift undermines the potential of the outcome. We live in a cost-oriented world, and philanthropy is no different.
- Remain silent after the ask. This is essential. The donor prospect needs and deserves time to think. Too many gifts are compromised by nervous solicitors who interpret a slow response as the donor prospect desiring to lower the gift amount.
- Learn by watching. A best practice is allowing first-time or reluctant fundraisers to accompany skilled board members and staff when making asks. This allows them to see that they really don’t need to be frightened.
- Leaders must lead by example. Nonprofit leaders soliciting gifts won’t have credibility unless they make personally significant gifts themselves. Why should someone in the community give to a cause if the leadership isn’t giving? The definition of personally significant will vary greatly between you, me, and Melinda Gates. It helps when the nonprofit is at least one of the solicitor’s top three philanthropic priorities.
- Act swiftly after solicitations, regardless of response. The first priority is expediting follow up–furnishing requested information and setting a concrete date and time to resume the conversation. Good practices include quickly sending an email summary of the discussion and next steps, and, my personal favorite, sending a handwritten note conveying gratitude for their time and interest in your nonprofit.
- Recognize that being turned down isn’t the end of the world. Too often I hear that people can’t take rejection. I boldly challenge that assumption. Hearing “no” is part of our daily lives; you can’t lead or make good things happen in any profession without taking risks and that includes experiencing rejection. Fundraisers who are turned down know they made their best effort to promote their nonprofit and are ready to move on to other donor prospects.
This list is not exhaustive. Certainly there are other techniques, methods, and exercises that can and should be embraced to bolster a nonprofit leader’s comfort, confidence, and capacity in asking for gifts. They should never forget that they possess a near superpower in their passion, conviction, and commitment that their nonprofits can improve the world and merit gifts of time, talent, and treasure.