For the last three years, I’ve devoted virtually every day to the challenge of training professionals and especially volunteer fundraisers to overcome the fear of asking for gifts for their favorite nonprofits. There are a variety of ways to raise private money including grant writing, special events, telethons, posting on social media, and others. My specialty is addressing the solicitation of major gifts, particularly from individuals. By every measure, an in-person ask provides the most bang for the buck.
The training has taken several forms including writing a book and over 50 guest columns, publishing a monthly newsletter, and leading more than 100 workshops, webinars, or board training sessions. My focus has been on teaching principles, strategies, and best practices on what to do. The other day I woke up and decided to address the training challenge from the other side of the coin: Highlight specifically what professional and especially volunteer fundraisers should avoid doing. I like presenting my point of view through lists of 10 elements. So, here’s my list of 10 no-no’s when soliciting gifts from individuals with an in-person ask — or virtually.
Blunder No. 1: Not asking through a personal meeting.
Over the past year we’ve learned that a personal meeting can also be achieved screen-to-screen. The common denominator is an eyeball-to-eyeball connection — there is no substitute for it. This allows passion to come through. The passion of the solicitation reinforced by diligent preparation in aligning the request with the prospect’s values, interests, and priorities will influence the outcome more than anything else. Confidence will be directly related to passion and preparation. Don’t overlook the so-called little things. I always wore favorite suits, shirts, and ties for the big solicitations.
Blunder No. 2: Not asking for a specific amount.
We live in a price tag-oriented world. Whether it’s purchasing toilet paper or a Maserati, we expect to know the price. Philanthropy is no different. Donors deserve and actually appreciate being given a gift amount to consider. Maybe their gift won’t be at that level, but it gives them a starting point and shows that the nonprofit has given serious consideration to the core issues related to the solicitation. The specific amount should be carefully based on the donor’s history and affinity for the cause, financial capacity, philanthropic nature, and relationship to the solicitor(s).
Blunder No. 3: Not asking early in the meeting.
Most donors are busy people and every minute is precious. When a nonprofit solicits a gift, its leaders can and should be excited, proud, and eager to do so. Pleasantries and small talk should be kept to a minimum. I recommend getting to the solicitation roughly during the first 10 minutes of the meeting. This guarantees that there will be sufficient time to respond to questions and concerns that are likely to come up. If there is time left, focus on the small talk at the close of the meeting.
Blunder No. 4: Not remaining absolutely silent after the in-person ask.
This is a common mistake. After your in-person ask for a specific amount and purpose, remain absolutely silent. Give the donor the courtesy they deserve of thinking it over and sharing their response. I am fully aware that this might feel like an eternal period of silence — even if just 10 seconds — but keep your lips zipped! The rule of thumb is: He or she who speaks first, loses.
Blunder No. 5: Focusing on the proposal or other collateral material during the ask.
You might have a fantastic proposal that presents your case for support in beautifully selected words and images. But the time to present it is at the conclusion of the meeting. Its real purpose is to speak for your cause when you’re no longer there. During the solicitation, maintain non-stop eye contact with the donor and let your words and passion come through.
Blunder No. 6: Overlooking that gifts from individuals make up 70% of American philanthropy.
Don’t get me wrong, I love gifts and grants from foundations and corporations. But consistently for the last six decades, gifts from individuals have comprised 70% or more of total giving. Plus, individuals tend to reach decisions sooner than foundations or corporations.
Blunder No. 7: Involving a board member or volunteer who hasn’t made a personally significant gift themselves.
They just won’t have credibility in being part of the solicitation. Keep in mind that “personally significant” means very different things to different people. But nonprofit leaders making the solicitation must stretch their own giving to the cause.
Blunder No. 8: Not closing the meeting by recapping decisions and next steps.
No matter how the donor responds, you need to make sure that everyone is on the same page and there is absolute clarity. This also provides a natural ending to the meeting.
Blunder No. 9: If the donor asks for more time, not setting a specific date for getting back together.
Most of the time, especially for major gifts, you don’t hear a “yes” right out of the gate. The donor might very well need to discuss the request with family members, financial advisors, or others. If you can’t set a precise time to get back together, at least agree on a precise time when you will be back in touch to set the date of the next meeting.
Blunder No. 10: Not following up on the meeting ASAP with both an email summary and handwritten thank you note.
This vividly reminds the donor of how excited your nonprofit is to obtain their support. It also reinforces the verbal summary provided at the end of the meeting and leaves no question as to expectations and next steps.
We all make mistakes every day. It’s part of being human. The cost of making mistakes won’t hurt us personally as much as those served by the nonprofit through its noble mission that touches, improves, and saves more lives. The good news is that we all can learn from our mistakes. I hope this list helps you as you move forward in your solicitations!