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[ASK AN EXPERT] What’s Better: Asking For Too Little Or Too Much?

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Our Ask An Expert series features real questions answered by Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE, our very own Fundraising Coach, also known as Charity Clairity.

Today’s question comes from a major gift fundraiser who wants advice on whether it’s better to ask for too little or too much. 

Dear Charity Clairity,

I’m new to major gift fundraising, and struggle with how much to ask for. Is it better to err on the side of asking for too little or too much? 

— In the dark

Dear In the dark,

As a general guideline, bigger is better. Especially when your goal is a major gift, and you’re approaching a current donor.

And this isn’t just a gut feeling or guess.

I love to use principles of psychology, neuroscience and behavioral economics to shortcut donor decision-making, and one of my favorite resources is Dr. Daniel Kahneman, behavioral economist and author of the bestseller Thinking, Fast and Slow. He suggests a number of heuristic decision-making principles that apply directly to fundraising strategy.

For going big, a useful Kahneman principle is called “anchoring.” Essentially, it says the human brain compares subsequent options with one that came first and uses this as a means to make judgements. So, if people are willing to make a gift, and you ask for a larger gift initially, you’re more likely to ultimately secure an actual gift at a higher level than were you to begin low. The larger initial number ‘anchors’ the larger result.

Anchoring works best when people lack solid evidence or knowledge about what is the appropriate or expected amount. When you give donors a clue as to what’s needed, using an anchor, this works wonders.

EXAMPLE: I’m told the storied philanthropist and fundraiser, John D. Rockefeller, used to say to donors: “The goal for this project is $1 million [anchor]. I don’t know if that’s something you could consider but, if so, we’d be extremely appreciative. And, if you were thinking of something less, we’d be appreciative of that as well.”

Sometimes the better bet is to begin low, and this is bolstered by a technique called “foot in the door.”  It’s often used by sales people, and is especially useful if your prospect is new and this may be their first gift to you. In this case, you low-ball the ask now (i.e., ask for a smaller gift first to get them invested); then continue to cultivate to ask for the really major gift they’re capable of at a later point in time.

This technique can be flipped for current donors by using something called “door in the face.” You begin with something completely out of the ballpark, and then refine it downward when the donor reacts as if the amount you’ve named is crazy. It’s akin to what a vendor at a flea market might do when they tell you a cheap clock is priced at $500, when it’s really worth $50. As the potential buyer walks away, the vendor shouts “But I’ll give to you today for $100.” This, of course, is very similar to the anchoring technique. And, personally, I prefer the Rockefeller approach as it feels more authentic and respectful.


You may not know your donor well enough to know if they’d prefer to be a leader or a follower. Some donors love to lead, so letting them know what you consider to be a leadership gift, and how many of those you need, can be motivating.

Other donors don’t want to be perceived as chumps. They don’t want to give more than everyone else, and would rather be among a group of similar donors. Tell them what other donors like them are giving.

Other donors worry you’ll perceive them as cheapskates. They really want to know what you expect of them, so they’ll feel rewarded afterwards. They don’t want to make the lead gift, but they don’t want you to treat them, or think of them, as chopped liver afterwards.

In my experience, few donors are upset if you ask for a significant gift, as long as you’re not wildly out of the ballpark. Remember, major donor fundraising is all about asking for the right gift, from the right person, at the right time.

Hope this shines some light on your conundrum,

— Charity Clairity

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