virtually asking

For as long as we can remember, meeting with donors – especially when asking for major gifts – was best done face-to-face. But just like social distancing has changed everything else (such as Congress casting votes remotely and sports events being played without fans in the stands), fundraisers are being forced to adapt and change through virtually asking. 

Here’s good news: We’re seeing plenty of positive results from the virtual discovery, cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship of gifts, including major gifts. Some of our best practices remain absolutely the same, while necessity requires others to change. Here are 12 general tips for virtually asking to help you make the most of these opportunities. 

1. Start with a strong relationship.

This isn’t a change from a traditional solicitation. A major gift ask requires cultivation to sufficiently inform, engage and inspire the donor prospect to consider making a substantial commitment. (Keep in mind, the amount of the major gift will differ from organization to organization, and even within the  same organization in the purpose of the solicitation.) 

2. Make sure the donor is comfortable with the technology being used.

We recommend a practice run focusing on informal conversation to ensure things will run smoothly. 

3. Schedule a time that works best for the donor.

This could be even more advantageous than before since the reality of quarantine is keeping people at home much more often. Be online as the host several minutes before the donor is invited. (Don’t forget to pay close attention to time zones.) 

4. Don’t overwhelm the prospect.

A good rule of thumb is that there should be no more than twice the number of solicitors than prospects. So, if you’re soliciting one prospect, be sure there is no more than two of you. A combination of one volunteer, particularly if they enjoy a relationship with the prospect, and one staff member works well. Also, try to manage the video call so the prospect is speaking to only one solicitor at a time, and there are only two primary images on the screen. It’s important to consider that generally virtual solicitations should go no longer than half to two-thirds of a face-to-face meeting. 

5. Consider this time sequence: 

  • Five minutes (maximum): Opening pleasantries. 
  • Five minutes: Presentation of the problem or challenge being addressed.
  • Five minutes: Compelling arguments on how the request responds to the problem/challenge.
  • Two minutes: Virtually asking. 
  • 15-20 minutes: Responding to questions/concerns. 
  • Five minutes: Wrap-up/next steps (especially setting a good time for a follow-up  call). 

6. Always ask for specific amount.

We live in a price tag driven world, and philanthropy is no different. Highlight the rationale on how the amount was determined. Remember, it’s far more problematic to ask for too little than too much. 

7. Be ready for questions.

Most of the time questions/concerns revolve around four primary areas: 

  • The Organization 
  • The Project 
  • The Amount 
  • The Timing 

(If we do a good job with cultivation, we seldom hear “no.” However, we might hear back, “not for that project,” “not for that amount,” and/or “not at this time.” Always seek to end the conversation on a positive note, even if it’s simply a request to meet again with a re-crafted proposal.) 

8. You may want to highlight a few strategic and compelling images during a presentation.

Keep these to an absolute minimum, and minimize use of text, numbers and facts. 

9. After the ask is made, remain absolutely silent.

Even if this seems like an eternity, resist the temptation to say anything until the prospect has responded. Too many gifts are lost or reduced by failing to adhere to this principle. This is a good reason why we have two people on the solicitation end, so that the person who makes the “ask” can comfortably remain quiet, and the other person can intercede if the pause becomes lengthy. 

10. Leave-behind material should be used exactly that way.

Never ask the prospect to  read along the proposal as you review high points since you never want to  jeopardize eyeball to eyeball contact, in person or over the computer screen. You  can send material electronically to speak for you after the meeting has been concluded. 

11. Close with authority.

If you’re fortunate enough to receive a “yes,” thank them profusely. Often, the prospect may ask for more time. If so, this is crucial: Set a specific date and time to conduct another video call and resume the conversation. Even if the prospect says “no,” thank them for their time and suggest you would like to stay in contact to keep them apprised of progress. 

12. Follow-up with both an email summary of what was discussed and next steps, and  send a handwritten thank you note.

The handwritten note is regarded as the secret sauce in the fundraising recipe. How many handwritten notes do you receive? It will make you stand out. Send a note even if you’re turned down. 

Closing thought: The late Maya Angelou said:

“People will forget what you said, people will even forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Whether in person or virtually, your job is to make your donor prospects feel like the most important people in the world to you and to give them an opportunity to do something truly special and make them feel great.

donor love and loyalty

Jim Eskin
Jim Eskin's leadership roles span more than 30 years in fundraising, public affairs and communications in the San Antonio area. He enjoys training nonprofit boards on fundraising best practices and overcoming the fear of asking for gifts. His consulting practice Eskin Fundraising Training builds on the success of his fundraising workshops and provides the training, coaching and support services that non-profits need to compete for and secure private gifts. During his career, he established records for gifts from individuals at three South Texas institutions of higher learning. He has authored more than 100 guest columns that have appeared in daily newspapers and business journals across the country, and publishes "Stratagems," a monthly e-newsletter exploring timely issues and trends in philanthropy. Sign up here for a free subscription.
Jim Eskin