Issue #6: Aimless Asking

Author: Derric Bakker, MBA

Too many nonprofit leaders tell us they can’t move forward because their fundraising is stuck in neutral. They know there’s a better way. Our team has identified ten of the most common issues that hold organizations back from achieving their full potential in fundraising. Over the course of this series of articles, we review each in turn. 

One of the main reasons many nonprofits struggle to raise more money is because they aren’t asking for it effectively. In the immortal words of the late Millard Fuller, founder of Habitat for Humanity: “I have tried raising money by asking for it, and by not asking for it. I always raised more by asking for it.”

We have seen many organizations jumpstart their fundraising performance by applying three simple rules: ask more effectively, ask more often, and ask for bigger gifts. What does it mean to ask more effectively? Here are three practical tips:

AIM before you ask.

How thoroughly do you plan your asks? In my experience, few fundraisers plan their asks well. When teaching on the topic of asking, I often utilize the acronym AIM as a framework to help people think through a solicitation plan. 

Approach. Before making an ask, it is important to plan your approach. This involves thinking through these three questions: Who? When? Where? Who should attend? Should you include the donor’s spouse or other family members? Can someone join you on the ask? Oftentimes bringing a colleague (e.g., CEO or program manager) or a peer (e.g., a Board member or volunteer) will add weight to your ask. When is the right time to make the ask? Where will you make the ask? At your location? Or at the donor’s home or office? When possible, I recommend you avoid places like restaurants and coffee shops since they tend to be noisy and distracting. These days, it’s not uncommon for fundraisers to make asks via Zoom. That’s perfectly fine for ‘routine’ asks, particularly if you already have a strong relational footing with the donor. But for more strategic asks, face-to-face is always better.

Interview. In the words of the late, great fundraising master, Jerry Panas: “The true art of asking lies in listening.” Never underestimate the extraordinary power of an incisive, thought-provoking question. Too many fundraisers seem to think that the way to win gifts is by being quick on their feet and saying just the right thing at just the right time. That’s just not how it works. Donors aren’t easily wowed, and certainly not by a fundraiser’s brilliance. Asking good questions can be far more effective than having a ready answer. Asking good questions turns the focus away from you, shows that you care about the donor, and helps you understand what will motivate them to give. 

Motivate. Here is a simple but profound truth about fundraising: the easiest and best asks you’ll ever make are for gifts the donor already wants to give. Last year after Hurricane Ian devastated the state of Florida my wife and I discussed making a gift to help the people who were impacted. Coincidentally, minutes later she received a solicitation email from World Vision asking for that very thing. Obviously, your timing will not always be that serendipitous. Even so, many donors are already inclined to support your cause. In that case, the two most important questions you need to answer are: 1) Why you? and 2) Why now?  What makes your organization unique? How is your solution to the problem different from others? Ultimately how will you help the donor make a real impact on issues the donor cares most about? And finally, why is it important for the donor to give now? 

Make your asks more compelling. 

An effective ask should always include these three elements: Problem. Solution. Invitation. Many nonprofits just want to focus on the solution, which most often is their services. However, if you don’t present a problem to a donor, then there is really nothing for them to solve with their philanthropy.  Without a problem, you are asking your donor to support your organization, not inviting them to make the world better. Before making an ask, take a moment to write down some talking points that summarize the problem clearly. Collect a story or two that you can share to help show how the problem is real. Don’t dwell on the problem, however. Focus more time on sharing your solution and inviting the donor to be part of it. Be sure to draw a direct line between the donor’s gift and how their partnership will have an impact on people’s lives. 

Ask specifically and directly.

Imagine for a moment that someone you know personally asks you for a loan. Two questions would immediately come to mind: How much do you need? Why do you need it? If they couldn’t provide a satisfactory answer to these two simple questions, it’s unlikely most people would be inclined to say yes. The same basic principle applies in fundraising. Yet far too many solicitations fail to answer these two simple questions. A colleague of mine who works primarily with faith-based ministries refers to this tendency as “heavenly hinting”. Most donors won’t be offended by a direct ask. In fact, multiple studies show that they prefer it. Don’t be afraid to ask a donor for a specific amount, or – at the very least – a range (just don’t make your range too broad). And, when asking for a contribution, be as specific as possible in explaining how you will apply the funds you are asking them to give –framed in such a way that the donor can easily see how their investment is going to change people’s lives for the better. And finally, before going back to the donor with a subsequent ask, be sure you report back to show them how their prior gift made a difference, before asking them for another, potentially larger gift.

Are your asks falling short? There’s a better way. Why not contact us today to start a conversation about how we can help jumpstart your fundraising performance by improving the effectiveness of your asks?