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Are You Asking Nonprofit Donors to Pee in the Ocean to Raise its Level?

asking nonprofit donors

asking nonprofit donors

When a problem seems overwhelming, donors can’t wrap their brains around solving it. It seems too daunting. They feel their gift will be a mere drop in the bucket. It feels to the donor like a losing proposition. As a result, they do nothing.

Your task is to persuade people what you’re asking them to do will, in fact, make a demonstrable impact.

There are several ways to accomplish this:

  1. Describe a problem the donor thinks is relevant; not something they’ve little reason to be concerned about.
  2. Describe a solution that seems reasonable; not pie in the sky.
  3. Ask for a specific project; offer clarity as to how their gift will be effectively used.
  4. Ask for a specific amount; give a ballpark so they can assess whether what they can give will meet your expectations.
  5. Remind them they are not alone; other donors will also give, and the weight is not all on them.

Let’s look at these one by one, assuming you’re trying to get donors to raise the level of a body of water. It’s a bit of a silly exercise, I know, but everybody pees. So you’re not asking nonprofit donors for something they don’t have. You simply need to persuade them to part with it for the purpose you’re describing.

You’ll get the idea.

Problem is relevant and fixing it seems necessary.


Will you pee in the ocean to raise the level?

The donor thinks: “Are you kidding? Is this even a problem?”

No gift.

Solution is reasonable in scope.


Will you pee in the ocean to raise the level and counteract the effects of climate change?

The donor thinks: “I can’t possibly make an impact that would mean anything. This is a totally unrealistic ask. Nobody can solve this problem. At least not this way.”   

No gift.

Specific project.


Will you pee in this wading pool to raise the level due to our water shortage?

The donor thinks: “This might help, but… how many times would I have to pee to fill the pool? I don’t drink a lot of liquids. By the time I’m ready to pee again, the first pee may have evaporated. This might be too much of an ask for me to take on. I need to think about it.”  

No gift.

Specific amount and project. 


Will you pee in this wading pool to raise the level due to our water shortage? Other donors in your neighborhood are each peeing one time.

The donor thinks: “I can manage this specific amount of pee, and it seems like all the neighbors are coming together to achieve this goal, so it will benefit the whole neighborhood.”


Other donors will also give.


Will you pee in this wading pool one time, to raise the level? We’ve asked 200 other neighbors to join you.

The donor thinks: “I can manage this specific amount of pee, but it sounds like my contribution isn’t really needed since probably a lot of other folks will say yes. So my gift will just be superfluous and won’t really matter.”

No gift.


Will you pee in this wading pool one time, to raise the level? We’ve asked 20 other neighbors to join you.

The donor thinks: “I can manage this, it sounds like my contribution is essential to making this work, and it sounds like a reasonable solution.”


Bottom Line:

Don’t write an annual fundraising appeal without first making yourself a little outline or checklist. Ensure it includes these five things:

1. Relevant problem. Think from the donor’s perspective, not yours. Why might the person you’re writing to think this is important? Note: If you think this through, you may find you’ll want to segment your appeal based on what you know about your donor’s interests. Some prefer cat vs. dog appeals. Some prefer helping kids vs. seniors. Some prefer scholarships vs. teacher salaries. And so forth.

2. Reasonable solution. Connect the dots so your donor can visualize how what you’re asking them to do will make a difference. Beware of scope insensitivity; the larger the problem, the less relatable it is. 

“I don’t connect with appeals that ask me to “fix poverty” in my community. But if I were asked to provide interim housing for 10 women and their families so that they could leave abusive situations, I could get my head around that and I would feel my giving had more of an impact.”

— Donor response to 2018 Burk Donor Survey

3. Describe a specific project. Make sure you describe the project clearly, in as black and white terms as you can muster. You want the donor to clearly see what will happen if they give/don’t give. Emotion and urgency spur action. A general appeal to “Give to our annual campaign” won’t accomplish this.

4. Asks for a specific amount. Too often appeals don’t make an ask at all! If you think all you have to do is describe a problem and folks will jump to open their wallets, think again. The number one reason people fail to give is they’re not asked. The number one reason they give less than you need is they’re not asked for a specific amount. Don’t make people guess at what you expect. No one wants to feel you’ll think they’re stingy because they give too little. Nor does anyone want to feel like a chump because they gave more than the average bear. Give folks an ask amount or ask string, or an idea of what other people like them are giving.

5. Creates a sense of community and shared values. People are looking for meaning when they give. Humans are tribal. We want to join with like-minded folks with whom we can identify. Thank would-be donors for being part of your family. Remind them others are giving too. Offer opportunities for them to get more engaged should they so choose.

If you want to delve deeper into research on this topic, you can do so here and here (warning: this is dense material, but you may enjoy it; otherwise, just know the advice above is based on research).

Don’t ask donors to pee in the ocean to raise its level.

Cover your bases, and make sure your request seems relevant, specific, urgent, reasonable, and clear. If your prospect can visualize success, and see how they can be a part of it, they’ll me more likely to say yes.

annual fundraising appeal

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  • Dennis Fischman

    Love this analogy, Claire! Were you at the beach with a toddler when you thought of it?
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