Asking for Money – Five Top Tips!

Seeking funding for our mission is sometimes the hardest things we have to do; whether we are in a church, not for profit organisation, or community building grass-roots group.  This article I have written will be published in the March 2107 issue of Fundraising New Zealand.  It is applicable right across the voluntary and community sector and much of what I mention can be applied in a church or para-church setting too.



This could be about asking for anything –volunteers, skills, time, goods and services … but it’s about the one that makes people squirm the most – asking for money.  And that’s a sign of how important we have let money become in our society.  Messages are everywhere in our consumerist society … “we deserve it” … “success is the person with the most toys”, I’m sure you know the underlying narrative.  But have you ever asked a multi-millionaire what is the most important thing to them?  I have.  It’s not money.  It’s not even really what money can buy. It’s relationship.  If we are “cultivating” prospects just to get them to make a gift, then we are missing what philanthropy is all about.  When we ask for money we are doing more than selling a product, we are asking a prospective donor to be part of something significant, something that they care about, something greater than themselves.  Asking is a privilege and as such the act of asking should be treated with due respect.  Donors who discover the joy of giving will have an impact on the world that is far greater than the donation they make to your organisation.  So, you play the long game and develop generosity by building connection and interest in your cause, listening to the prospective donor and understanding what motivates them to give.  And you do all of this before you ask for money.

In this article, I am focussing on asking at the higher end of the scale.  Major gifts or Capital Campaigns all require face-to-face asking and are often regarded as extreme fundraising – where the stakes are high and the risk of rejection is high.  But this need not be so.

  1.  Remember the “Five Rights” of fundraising?

This is what should guide each step of your preparation and the asking process.  Lining up “the right person asking the right donor for the right amount for the right project at the right time” is crucial to success.  If you’ve done all of that then it would be unusual for the answer to be a “no”.  This is an area in which good enough is not good enough.  It must be right.  Each time you satisfice you diminish the chances of getting the donation you need.

Let me give you an example of “right person”.  I had completed a Feasibility Study for a major redevelopment programme for a high school.  The Study made clear who was the leader of choice for the Appeal.  The Board Chair had the task of asking that person to lead the programme.  He came back to me smiling later in that afternoon.  “I asked (the preferred leader) but he was too busy, so I talked to some others and asked (a local business leader who had attended the school) and he said yes!”

I wasn’t smiling.  This person had not been interviewed, had not been part of the early process of education about the Appeal and was interested only in so far as it assisted his chances in the local body elections.  But you can’t un-ask a leader and the Appeal proceeded.  Instead of a top gift of $100,000, the leader put in $35,000 and sure enough the Appeal failed to achieve target.  In fact, the prediction that Appeals seldom achieve more than ten times the top gift came true and we got stuck at $350,000.  Only with a lot of hard work and support of trusts, rather than alumni, did we get near the target.  As I look back on this, maybe neither the asker nor the donor were the “right” people on this occasion.  I learnt the hard way to make sure that the “Five Rights” weren’t compromised ever again on Appeals I directed.

2.  Preparation and knowing your donor.

When you first identify a prospective donor, or they identify themselves by making the first move, you need to start finding out more about them. If we say fundraising’s all about building relationships, then this stage is like the courtship.  You can do all the public domain research you like, but you will never really know the donor until you are talking face to face.  If you believe the donor has the ability and interest to potentially make a large gift to your cause then you will find multiple ways to invite their involvement, educate them about the needs you address, meet key leaders, ask their advice and more before you ask for a large gift.  You can’t hurry this stage or be artificial or manipulative about it, or their interest will move onto something else.  Take every opportunity to talk to them – in person, on the phone and in written form.  In doing so you will find out what they are passionate about, what they care about, what motivates them to give and what doesn’t, what other charities or causes they support … you will have access to information that helps you deal with four of the “rights” I mentioned previously – who would they most likely say “yes” to, for what project, for which amount and in what time-frame.  And that’s what your donor profile should record – only what is pertinent to the ask.  Any more and it starts looking like stalking!

Once you get a sense of the answers to those questions you can start planning to ask the donor.  While many people focus on the analytical left brain questions, it is often the right brain emotion that triggers the gift.  You will need to prepare for a balance of the two types of questions for each solicitation.



ANALYTICAL (left brain) EMOTIVE (right brain)
How will my money be used (specifically)? What are our stories?  How compelling are they?
How do you quantify the long-term impact of what you do?  Does it work? How do they illustrate what we do and show success?
What’s the ROI?  Are you a viable organisation? What sets you apart from your competitors?
Does the organisation have the capacity to do what it says it will do? Who do I know on the Board or management team?  Do I trust them?

One thing we often do is to give too much information.  Even a donor who is asking for more data wants something more.  You must listen between the words to find this out. Plying them with more data is counter-productive.  Some research even suggests that many donors base their giving on how they will feel after making the gift.

We can spend too long in this stage and start procrastinating.  Hank Rosso always did remind us that in the ask “all the principles of Fund Raising must come to a critical focus sharpened by the reality of the case, not dulled by the corrosive forces of procrastination”.

Practice asking.  Write a script even if you don’t need one.  Just kidding, you do need to put it all down on paper and read it out to yourself to make sure you’re not preparing to talk all the time or sound weird!

3.  Be specific.

What project or aspect of the case will you ask the prospective donor to support?  If you don’t know before the visit then it’s too soon to ask.  Even if you have framed this in your mind and presentation, you need to spend time listening during the visit to make sure the project is one that resonates with them.

How much will you ask for?  You know your campaign goals, the donor doesn’t (yet).  Where do they fit on the gift chart?  You did prepare a gift chart didn’t you?  They are one of the most under-rated and compelling tools we have as fundraisers!  Where does this donor sit in relationship to other donors who are being asked to give to this project?  Asking the donor to consider a gift at a particular level on the gift chart is non-confrontational and shows what they are being asked to do in context with what others are being asked to do.  The donor will say very quickly if what you are suggesting is a bit high, or may even suggest they could be on a higher giving step.

4.  The conversation of an ask.

That’s really all it is.  A conversation between two people with a common interest and a common desire to achieve something.  There’s a structure that works and it looks like this:

  • Preliminaries
  • Opening / introduction
  • Presentation
  • Negotiation
  • Closing

Phone to ask for an appointment to discuss the project with the donor, but do not start to ask on the phone.  Make your own gift to the project, because you can’t ask if you’re not a giver (at a level which is significant to your own personal circumstances).  If you are a staff member it might be a volunteer donor you are coaching to do this ask.  The asker will always be the one the donor is most likely to say “yes” to.  For the rest of this article I will assume you are the “right person” and the asker.

Take with you any information or prompts you feel you need, but remember that this is more for your reassurance than a crucial part of the donor’s decision-making.  Arrive on time and “push yourself to one side and let your cause walk in the door!” as they say.  It’s not about you.  It’s about the donor experiencing the joy of giving.

The preliminaries shouldn’t take long, you are building rapport with someone you already know.  Be friendly, not gossipy, and practice your listening skills early in the visit.  Now it’s time to create a bridge.  Plan what that bridge might be.  One example might be: “Judy, you’ve been supporting our organisation for a long time now and you’ll know ….. (your case) … so I’ve come here today to ask for your help …”  In this example, you are acknowledging the relationship and your intention to ask for something.  It would be good to prepare more than one sentence you can use as a transition, or bridge, when you are practicing your script so you can move to it in the most natural way possible.

Present the needs and the ability of the project you have in mind to address these needs.  The broad vision leads and the more specific mission follows.  Listen to the donor’s thoughts and opinions, understand her objections, give her space to ask questions.  If you don’t know an answer, then say so and undertake to find out.  Stop if it’s getting boring or you are doing all the talking!  When the donor has all the information they need, ask them for the gift using my favourite word “consider”.  “Would you consider making a gift of $x (or in this $ range) to this Appeal / for this project?”  And the next bit is very important.  Don’t say anything until the donor answers the question.  Be comfortable with silence.  If you speak first you will undermine the entire ask.  Fundraisers I know who have broken the silence have told me that the time seemed to go on endlessly so, in their own nervousness, they started to discount the ask.  Phrases like “Oh I know it’s a lot of money”, and “we’re grateful for anything you can do” are not respectful to the donor, who has a lot of conversations going on in her head at that time, and they are not respectful of the process.  Wait.

If the answer is “yes”, you can talk about how the gift would be made – one-off, in instalments, or at a particular time (e.g. when investments fall due).  The donor may need time to talk to a financial advisor about that.  This is the negotiation stage.

If the answer is “no”, you need to clarify whether it is a “not yet” or a final decision.  Whatever the conclusion, say thank you for their time and consideration of your request.  Follow up immediately you leave the meeting with the paperwork and a written acknowledgement of their commitment.  If you are getting more information, do so promptly and then visit again to conclude the conversation.

5.  Finally, a word of emphasis about strategic silence.

It is a compelling part of the solicitation because it lets the case stand.  The donor’s attention is then directed to the case for funding support.  If it is robust, it stands scrutiny. If it is weak, those weaknesses will be revealed. Our case is the organisation’s story and we are inviting the donor to be part of the story too.

That’s it.  Five things I have learnt in the last thirty years asking people for money, asking them to be part of a vision, a movement or a tangible asset.

(c) Lisa Wells, BA, CFRE, FFINZ




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