A contrary way to ask for money - Part 1
Hate fundraising? You're not alone. You know that, don't you?
You're in the majority.
A magnificent majority.
Has anyone done a survey on how many EDs and Board members can't stand fundraising? I'd guess 93%. What would you guess?
There are those rare EDs and Board members who say, and are telling the truth when they say it...
"I love asking for money. It's fun! I'm not shy about it at all."
But for most of us that's not the case. And here's what I find impressive...
So many nonprofit leaders hate asking for money, really hate it,
And yet they do ask.
It makes me sad that...
They have to do something they hate to support something they love.
I remember when my friend Kate and I started our nonprofit, I knew nothing about asking for money. So I read books, went to trainings, and studied hard. It got so I really knew my stuff. I could have taught a workshop on fundraising and made it look good.
But still, when I was face to face with a donor, the ask would stick in my throat.
I kept looking for the perfect script, the magic technique, the trickiest gimmick, anything that might help me.
The nonprofit Kate and I were running was CAP—a program teaching children how to get away from kidnappers and molesters, and what to do if they were being abused at home. We met kids who literally saved their lives because of what they learned in our program.
So our work was serious, but as many kids as we reached there were so many more who needed CAP which meant we needed more money. I kept working on my ask technique. And I kept failing.
CAP mattered to me more than anything and it was so painful not to be able to raise the kind of money I wanted to raise. Not to be a good provider.
What was it I really needed?
First, I was terrible at asking for anything. I grew up that way.
It was worse than not asking. I was bad at receiving even without asking. I made it hard for my friends to give me birthday presents. I was driven to be the one who did all the giving.
I know that I was an extreme case, but I'm bringing this up because it seems to me that an awful lot of nonprofit leaders are way better at giving than receiving. Which makes asking harder for us.
What did I need back when I had so much trouble asking? I didn't need more how-tos. I was drowning in how-tos. Instead, what I needed was a different relationship with asking...
In order to do development work, I first had to do self-development work.
Then, second, I really didn't like the standard ask I saw in lots of the fundraising books. I didn't like the pressure part of it. I didn't like the marketing feel of it. I didn't like the pushy closes or the subtext of subtle guilt-tripping.
So here I was trying to master an approach that I sincerely did not believe in. In fact, my values ran directly contrary to that kind of ask. No wonder my gears were grinding.
All of which meant that I needed a different angle on asking.
That's what this page is about.
I feel very fortunate that a friend took me to a training by Jim Camp where he was teaching a negotiated ask. It was a revelation.
It took me quite a long time to achieve any kind of mastery with his kind of asking, but remember, I was a hard case. If you like this approach, you'll probably be a lot faster at getting it than I was. Some of the EDs I've worked with have taken to it like cats to cream and they've had significant success with it.
But I want to be clear. What I'm about to show you is not for everyone. It's not for every asker, or for every donor either.
We live in a marketing culture which is driven by imperatives. "You must! You should! Buy today!" Marketers tell us what decisions to make. They don't ask us, they tell us.
Marketing-based, pressured asks are the most common kind, and they work. A tremendous amount of money is raised that way.
And the same is true of formal, scripted asks. There are lots of donors who like that kind of ask. It's predictable. It's what they're used to. And if that's what they want, why not give it to them?
But what I'm writing about here is for people who hate the standard asks...
And either grind through them and feel bad,
Or don't do them and feel bad.
I'm hoping this page is a chance for you to find...
Your own true asking voice.
And I believe we each have one. We're born askers, aren't we? Look at babies. Wow, do they ask. They get hungry and what do they do? They cry and carry on and we come running with milk. They know exactly how to get attention.
Too bad executive directors can't use that simple strategy to get money. But think how genuine a baby's ask is. How deep it goes. They ask with their whole body. There's something so beautiful about its unabashedness.
And how very satisfying it is when you get to meet the needs of that sweet little soul. You know you're really making a difference when you give a baby that bottle which in this moment they want more than anything else in the world.
Let's remember, too, that we're a social species. We live in community, most of us. Asking is a natural and essential part of living in community.
Then add in this fact...
Asking is the essence of leading.
I like Marcus Buckingham's one-sentence definition:
"Great leaders rally people to a better future."
You rally people.You don't rescue them. You don't save them.
You ask them to step up. You ask them to be part of making a difference that counts. You ask them to be powerful in that way...
You ask them.
So it matters that you find your own asking voice. Yours. Not someone else's.
And once you discover what asking can be for you when it's at its best, then you can make a real decision about how much of it you want to do. For example...
Harriet, one of my clients, was restructuring her nonprofit. Since she hated fundraising, she decided to hire a development director and do all the administrative work (which she hated only a little less than fundraising) herself.
But I'd seen her speaking to a group of VIPs and she was amazing—at ease, compelling and warm, with a lovely touch of playful thrown in.
So I challenged her: "What if you find your own asking voice first? Then, when you're at your best if you still hate fundraising, go get yourself a development director."
She grumbled and said okay in a tone of voice that told me she'd rather eat dirt. But then she did it. She did the work. She found her voice.
She went out and practiced with people who had money. And practiced some more. And one morning she called and said in a quiet, matter of fact way,
"These people like me. They respond to me. Me, too. I like me, too, when I'm like this."
The key word there is "me." She showed up. She wasn't hiding behind her asks, her ask was alive in her. She was one hundred percent Harriet. And it was the Harriet part not the fundraiser part that worked the magic.
So she told me, "No way am I hiring a development director. I'm going to get an assistant to do the administrative work. I'm keeping this asking stuff for myself. I'm good at it. And I'm going to get even better."
Now that's a happy ending.
But I also made that same deal with Elisabeth who did the work, found her voice, tested it out, and came back and told me...
"I still hate fundraising. I don't want to do it. But now I know that about myself and I know why and I know I'm not just being reactive, so now I can get rid of all the shoulds I've been carrying.
"Here's my new plan. I'm going to hire a development director, and I'm going to tell my Board we have to fill our current Board vacancies with people who like asking, whatever it takes to find them."
And that's a happy ending, too.
At this point in my life I know a lot about fundraising. I'm not the best asker in the world, but I'm light-years ahead of where I used to be. And still, fundraising is not my favorite thing to do. I'm glad I know how to do it and can do it whenever I choose to. But still it's not my first choice when I'm looking for fun.
And that's not the point of this page—for you to fall in love with fundraising. You might. But if you don't, so what? What matters is that if you need to do it, you can do it with minimum pain and maximum pleasure.
That's the spirit in which I offer what follows. If you hate asking, see if what's here might work for you. And if it doesn't, let it go.
I'm an enthusiastic, unapologetic fan of what I call the Advocacy Ask. But it doesn't matter what I think about it. It only matters what you think about it.
Now, three quick points and then we'll dive in.
1. The Advocacy Ask
I use a bunch of additional names for it: the negotiated ask, the relational ask, or the no-pressure ask. You get to put your own name to it.
But the name I like best is "the advocacy ask," because...
You're advocating for yourself—You get to be true to your core values. You get to ask from the place that's deepest in your heart.
You're advocating for your donor—You're on his side. You want him to make the best decision for himself. You want him to be true to what's in his heart. You don't ever want to finesse him. You don't want him to give sacrificially.
You're advocating for the relationship—When you're done asking you want the relationship between the two of you to be stronger than before, not soured or broken. Sometimes people get the money but lose the relationship. And is that worth it?
2. The Prospect
I sometimes use the word "prospect" as shorthand for a possible or prospective donor. I've heard many marketers and salespeople use that term in a cold and mercenary way.
But for me, it has a feeling of warmth and anticipation, the sense that here's someone who might become very important to me and my organization.
That's the relational way to use the word.
3. The Challenge
Advocacy asking is much more challenging than following a scripted ask or using pressure or twisting arms.
But I think that's a good thing. I think the pressured ask diminishes us. And for people who are up to big things, the pressured ask is too small. It cramps their style.
The advocacy ask can sometimes take your breath way. It's serious relationship work. Not relationship platitudes, but real relationship work. Which mean's it's gutsy.
Which is what makes it a match for social change leaders. After all, the work we do—changing how power works—is gutsy.
When I first started asking for money, here's what I was thinking, though I never put words to it:
I have to get money from you.
Children's lives were at stake, so it made sense that I would feel a lot of pressure.
But there was more to it:
I have to get money from you, so I have to make you give.
I took the pressure I was feeling and put it on my prospect, too. I was starting from a negative assumption:
I believe you don't really want to give...
If I'm going to get money out of you, I'm going to have to pressure you or push you or manipulate you or trick you or finesse you.
You're certainly not going to give just because you want to.
You can see how this perspective would put distance between me and the person I was asking instead of bringing us closer together.
What if I said this to you:
Hi, I'm from CAP. Our programs save kids' lives. If you don't give, kids will die. So how about it?
Hi, I'm from CAP. Our programs save kids' lives. Really good people give to CAP. How about you?
Now I always had a lot more suave than to make such a bald pitch. These are both caricatures of pitches. But I remember doing asks with this kind of pressure as the subtext.
It was like putting the ask between two slices of guilt, making an unhappy sandwich:
if you give, you're good, if you don't, you're bad
if I get, I'm good, if I don't, I'm bad
And do you know the hammer method? You present reason after reason after reason. And if you see a look of doubt in your prospect's eyes, you hit them with more reasons until you've hammered them into submission and they yell uncle by writing you a check.
For a nonprofit that's dedicated to bringing more compassion into the world, this is a sad way to raise money.
Here's what I call "The Next Week Test." Today you ask Jill for money and she says yes. Next week you're at an event and see her across the room. Does she turn her back? Does she talk to everyone else but you?
Or does she come over, give you a hug, and say, "I really enjoyed talking with you about your work. I'm so glad to be part of it now. Thank you!"
Ask or demand?
If you don't have the genuine freedom to say no to a request, it's a demand.
If I try to take away your right to say no, if I do everything I can to make it impossible for you to say no, then I'm trying to force you to give me money.
Sometimes the demand is implied by a single word of judgment or a phrase. I was reading a book last week that advocated against pressure in an ask, but then the sample ask went like this: "Please take a moment to decide if you'd like to make this excellent investment in the future."
The asker has just taken a position. And if we said no to an excellent investment, what would that make us? Dummies? Worse? People who don't care about the future?
Once I understood that the pressure ask was a demand, I had to stop.
I don't want to demand money from anyone I know and care about. I don't even want to demand it from people I don't know.
Why do so many people think of asking for money as "a necessary evil"? Maybe because there's something about the way we're doing it that does in fact feel fundamentally wrong.
And pressure asking doesn't always even work that well, like when you get a bail-out check. This means your prospect gives you a small check to make you go away. And for your part, you're glad to bail out, too. You take a $25 check from someone who could give you $100 or even $1,000 because you just want the ask to be over.
How do we get caught up in demand asking? There are lots of reasons. Here are two:
1. If we're doing sacrificial leadership, then we're sacrificing ourselves for our work. And that's the lens we'll likely use when we look at fundraising. We'll believe that the gifts people give to support our work are sacrificial gifts. We'll forget that people can give out of a sense of joy and connection.
2. We're like fish swimming in a sea of marketing. Ads are everywhere. We see hundreds of them each day. Marketing is fundamental to our culture.
And it's not invitational, it's imperative.
We're not invited to buy if we happen to need a product. We're told that we need it, and we're told to buy it and buy it now and buy lots of it.
Marketers do not give us choices, they give us commands.
Whenever nonprofit fundraising gets contaminated with that spirit, whether it's explicit or implicit, we've got trouble, at least that's what I think.
Let's say you're training to do the pressured ask and you're reading a standard text on fundraising. In the section on "Who to ask" it tells you to go to your friends, relatives, co-workers, anyone and everyone you're personally connected with.
What happens? You work your way through your whole social circle one by one. You pressure them. You diminish your connection with every person you care about. You make them want to pull back, maybe not see you for a while.
You're sacrificing your relationships for the cause. That's why I consider the pressure ask to be part of the sacrificial operating system.
And really, how much money would you have to get from a dear friend to make it worth hurting your relationship with her?
Sometimes I'll meet with a Board of Directors that keeps talking about fundraising but never does it. I tell them, "If the only thing you know is the pressure ask and you hate it and that's why you don't do fundraising, congratulations!"
Of course, this surprises them, because they assume I'm there to put more pressure on them to put more pressure on their donors. But I think it's a good sign when people rebel against hurting their relationships no matter how worthy the cause.
And it's this rebellion that can lead us forward. I believe there's a part of us that knows that asking for money does not have to be a "necessary evil." It doesn't have to be any kind of evil at all.
Over a period of a few weeks in 1980 in the neighborhood in San Francisco where I lived, nine girls, ages 10-14, were assaulted. Four of them got away from the attacker, five of them were sexually abused. Meanwhile the police were not alerting the public and the schools were not warning kids or parents.
So I called Sally Cooper at the Child Assault Prevention Project (CAP), which had been created by Women Against Rape in Columbus, Ohio. In a few sentences, I told her about our situation.
Then in her fast-paced, passionate way, she told me how CAP worked. She told me stories of kids getting away from kidnappers and molesters, and stories of kids getting help to stop abuse at home.
The call was only 30-minutes, but that one conversation changed my life. By the time Sally and I were done talking, I couldn't think of anything I wanted to do more than teach kids how to defend themselves. For the next 13 years I devoted myself to CAP.
I gave money to CAP, a lot for a guy without much money. But even more importantly, I gave my smarts, my moxie, my creativity, and the great majority of my time.
And Sally didn't even ask for anything. The connection between me and CAP ignited on its own because CAP was a genuine match for me.
It was just this simple...
CAP met my need to make the kind of difference that I wanted to make.
Nobody had to beg me or push me. I wanted to sign up.
In a moment I'm going to come back to this need to make a difference, because I believe it's the best ally you can have in doing an ask. But first I want to say something about me being...
Three years after Kate and I, with lots of support from Sally, started our own CAP project in the East Bay, and helped start another 35 projects around California, Maxine Waters, who was then in the State Assembly, called us and said she wanted to do legislation on preventing child abuse.
We wrote legislation for $10 million annually. Then we went into high gear, lobbying to get our bill passed. I loved it.
We negotiated with Assembly Members and State Senators, people who at the time I found plenty intimidating. I felt completely out of my league. Despite that, I couldn't get enough of it.
But after a day in Sacramento I'd come back home and maybe go to a meeting at the Chamber of Commerce where I'd talk to business executives about donating to CAP and I'd stumble badly over my words making a total hash of things. It was agonizing.
Or one morning we'd be sitting in the Governor's office talking with his legislative staff about CAP, our hearts in our throats, getting grilled, but so happy to be there, so happy to be asking for $10 million.
Then back home later that same week, we'd do our membership drive and when I went to ask my friends for $25 I'd be tongue-tied.
Weird. Asking for $10 million from scary people was easy. Asking for $25 from friends was next to impossible.
One morning when we were in the state capitol building, a professional lobbyist said, "You guys are doing your lobbying really differently than how a lot of groups do it." We were shocked: "What are we doing wrong!? Tell us!"
She said, "Don't change a thing. This is good what you're doing. It's working."
It wasn't until long after the bill passed that I figured it out. We weren't just asking legislators for their votes. We wanted them to join the CAP family. We wanted converts. So we worked extra hard to build relationships. And it paid off. We got 100% of the Senate to vote with us and 76 of 80 Assembly Members.
In my strange mind, however, even though the point of the legislation was to raise the money we needed to reach every child in the state...
It wasn't fundraising, it was organizing. And I love organizing.
Asking CEOs, asking friends, that was fundraising and it made me go stupid. But organizing was the best kind of fun. When I was organizing I was awfully bold for such a shy person.
Here's another angle on the same point. During the day, Kate and I would work on our CAP project, then evenings and weekends we'd jump in the car and drive out to other counties recruiting people to start their own projects. We weren't asking these women for a donation, we were asking them for their lives. And so many of them threw themselves heart and soul into the work.
When I asked them to join us, I was passing Sally's gift to me on to them, that's all. It wasn't something I had to strategize or write a script for...
I loved doing it so I did it.
So I encourage you to study your own life...
When have you asked for something that mattered to you and asking was straightforward and uncomplicated?
When have you enjoyed asking?
Then think about how you can import that that mood, that ease, that part of yourself, into the world of fundraising.
I'm sure you know the line: "Put the fun back into fundraising!"
Sometimes it's a bunch of crap. I remember in the days when I was struggling, how I'd tell myself, "Wow, this is fun. Really. I mean it. Oh, boy. Lots of fun. This is such big fun. I can't imagine having bigger fun than this."
But now I do know what it's like for asking to be fun. Not always, but often enough. And sometimes more than fun. I know what it's like for asking to deepen my relationships and create new relationships. I know what it's like for asking to be life changing—on both sides of the ask.
What we really want vs. what we're supposed to want
When we do an ask what do we want?
"We want a yes!"
That's the answer I hear pretty much every time I bring up that question in a workshop. It's the answer I would have given, too, until I got into training with Jim Camp. Now I have a different answer...
I don't care if I get a yes or a no.
What I want is...
A real decision.
The most important question I ever have for a prospect is...
What's true for you?
This may sound noble, but forget noble. Think instead about the freedom this gives you.
Personally, I don't want to be dependent on someone else's response. I don't want to judge myself as a success or failure depending on whether someone says the magic word or not.
I can't control someone else's behavior. I don't even want to. So why should I judge myself based on whether I'm able to "make someone give"?
Now let me ask you this. Are there times when you might not want a yes?
What if you ask Eleanor for money and she's terrible at saying no, almost never does it, wishes she could, but she's not there yet? So she says yes and writes you a check, but she doesn't feel good about it. It's just one more instance where she's failed to stand up for herself.
Do you want that yes?
I call that an unhappy yes.
The flip side is what I call happy noes. There are times when I'm glad to get a no.
Suppose I ask Eleanor and this time she says what's true for her and tells me no. I'd want to celebrate. Take her out to dinner. Dancing. Something.
Or what if you run a children's program and you ask Henry for a donation, but he tells you, "Sorry, I give 20% of my income to nonprofits, but they're all hospice programs working with low-income seniors." What's not to like about that no?
Or what if Stella told you, "I lost my medical insurance and I have to have an operation, so I'm going to tell you no."
I'm sure you can think of a dozen more examples easily.
Oh, and one more thing about no. You get to say no to the donor. Why would you ever want to do that? I put that question to a workshop once and got 20 answers in three minutes.
One nonprofit turned down $500,000. Half a million dollars! How hard was that?
In a sense it was a snap. This was an education program working with teens. The donor wanted to demand a birth certificate from every kid they served. He didn't want any money going to undocumented teens.
That was a violation of the nonprofit's mission, so they said no. What did it give them to stand by their mission? It gave them shine. Their regular donors were so proud to be part of a nonprofit that means what it says.
Here's another situation. What if a prospective donor calls and says, I will create for you a $90,000 website and not only that, I'll handle everything. I'll design it, write all the copy, update it, and manage it. You won't have to do a thing, just turn it over to me, and that's the only basis on which I'll make this donation. I really want to make a difference."
Whoops. Can you turn over control of your core communications to someone just because they offer money? Or would you have to say no?
Your prospect gets to say no and so do you. Which means you're in a genuine negotiation. It means you're doing a negotiated ask.
Let's look at this for a moment from the prospect's perspective.
When someone calls me for money and they're doing the pressure ask, I don't like it. But I don't have to wait it out.
The minute I know a conversation is headed into an ask, I jump in...
"Are you going to ask me for money?"
That may sound impolite, but the reaction I've almost always gotten is relief. This is not true for the pit-bull telemarketers of course. But I'm talking about friends, acquaintances, relatives, or even strangers who are calling as volunteers for a nonprofit.
Relief is what I hear. And that's a sign that they're not enjoying asking. Which is a shame.
By interrupting the ask dance, we can now have a real conversation.
And speaking of dancing, do you know the term "back leading"? That's when, in partner dancing, the guy is not a good leader so the woman, from the follower position, takes over and leads the steps, sometimes obviously and sometimes the guy doesn't even know.
What I do when I'm asked for money in the pressurized way, is to back lead. I take the pressure out of the conversation both for myself and for the asker. It sounds like this:
"Are you going to ask me for money? Let me give you a little help here. I'm a very experienced donor and I have no trouble making my decisions on my own.
"I give a few organizations bigger donations rather than giving small donations to lots of organizations. And I'm already set with who I give to.
"So it's almost impossible to get me to give to a new organization."
From here things can go two different ways. If I'm busy or not interested in the organization, I'll say...
"I'm not a good prospect for you and you'll do better taking this time to call someone who might be."
If they don't pick up on that for whatever reason, because they're nervous or there's a lot of pressure on them to bring in money, I'll be even clearer...
"I'm going to tell you no right now. I'm quite sure I'm not going to make a donation."
I consider this to be a kindness.
The asker doesn't have to go through their spiel for nothing. They can in fact make better use of their time elsewhere. If I know I'm going to say no, then I don't want them to do their presentation and feel like they blew it when they never had a chance in the first place. I want to tell them right up front that there's no chance.
If, however, I'm interested in hearing something about the organization, I might want to talk for a bit, but still with the understanding that I'm not a good prospect for a donation.
And sometimes they do get something from me.
Ginny, a coaching colleague, called and told me she had just joined the Board of an organization I know and I love the people there. She started asking for money, so I told her she was going to get a no from me.
Then I said, "But hooray for you! What a great Board member you are that you're actually doing fundraising."
And I was sincerely interested in hearing why she got on the Board. By the time we were done, I offered to come do an evening with the Board on fundraising or whatever they wanted to focus on.
They said yes, I showed up, and we had a great time together doing something very productive. If I measure that donation in terms of what I would have been paid for my professional time, Ginny got way more from me than if I had written a membership check.
For me, it was a gift I enjoyed giving, because it met my need to contribute in the way I wanted to ontribute.
And having met the Board, I now go around raving more than ever about the organization. I'm spreading the word.
Next time someone asks you for a donation, you might want to try back leading. I find it deepens my understanding of relational asking, and my appreciation for it.
So now you can see why I urge you to...
Detach from the yes and let yourself be passionate about getting a real decision.
But what does that mean, a real decision? What's it based on?
Asking into need instead of asking into sacrifice
I love how Marshall Rosenberg talks about needs.
He says needs are beautiful. They connect us to each other. They are the motivation for many of the best things we do in our lives.
He emphasizes the need to contribute to the welfare of others. Yes, the dark side of human nature is real and it's deadly, but of course that's not all there is to us.
If I ask into sacrifice, if I pressure you to give, then what I'm saying is...
"I don't believe in you."
"I don't believe you have a need to care about others."
What a terrible foundation for a relationship with a donor.
What's the cure?
Ask into the need to contribute.
If we speak to the part of the person which needs to make a difference in the world, which needs to make it a more compassionate place, really needs to do that, then we have a very different ask.
We can speak to that need even if we can't see it or hear it at first. We can take it on faith that it's there. By speaking to it, we invite it forward. And if it never shows up in the conversation, we haven't lost anything by assuming the best.
The focus of this page is asking into the need to contribute. But there are two other closely related needs that matter which I recommend speaking to.
1. We have a need to be seen for who we are.
This is different than bragging or being so needy for praise that we demand it. It's different than the drive for fame.
This is a simple, lovely, core need. Let me give you an example:
Years ago I was helping a small nonprofit theater company with fundraising. The first time I saw them on stage, I was quite taken with them. Once I got to know the nine women who were the charter group and saw what good hearts they had, I was just there. I didn't have to make a complicated decision about supporting them.
I remember the night they first put my name in their program under the thank yous. My initial reaction was, "Wow, I like that." Immediately my inner critic jumped on me, "No. Stop it. You're not supposed to like that. That's ego stuff."
But then I gave myself a moment to think it through and I realized that this wasn't ego. At least not most of it. I imagined a friend of mine coming to a performance, seeing my name in the program, and thinking, "Oh, this is something Rich cares about."
They would be able to see what I value and who I value. They'd see a side of me that's different from the child-abuse-prevention guy. They'd see my love for good writing and storytelling.
What I realized that night is that giving to a nonprofit I love is a way of expressing who I am. It's a way of being seen. And that's a legitimate need, a genuine need, a beautiful need.
So now I want people to be seen for who they are when they give. I like breaking the tyranny of the ego interpretation.
Sure if someone is just looking for status through their donation, we could call that ego. But heartfelt giving is different. I want people to be seen for what's in their hearts.
And being seen is one way we can lead. When we give, we're encouraging others to do the same. I don't want people to be modest or retiring about their gifts. I want them to be passionate and vocal and visible about why they love the nonprofits they support.
2. We have a need to grow.
It might seem strange at first to connect contributing with growing, but here's what I mean. When I gave myself to CAP, I grew. Did I ever! A lot of it wasn't easy. But I developed talents and strengths I didn't even know I had. I learned so many things about myself. Some of them made me happy. And then there were things that I didn't like, but once I could see them I could set about changing them.
Before I talked with Sally, I had no idea that my need to prevent child abuse, to contribute to the world in that way, was so central to who I am.
It was in my conversation with her that I connected with this need to grow into the next phase of my life.
This is another reason to have a person-to-person conversation rather than a script-to-person conversation...
In real conversations, people make real discoveries.
I believe it's okay, and more than okay, for an ask to have challenge in it.
I know an organization that's at the cutting edge of their field. They get lots of criticism. Attacks even. They've been vilified by right-wing talk shows. When you give to them, you're taking a serious stand. As they take on new challenges, their donors take on those challenges with them. They're all growing together. In both senses of that phrase.
There are people, especially those who believe in social change, who very much want to be part of exactly this kind of journey. Let's invite them to step into the challenge. Let's give them a chance, as donors, to change their lives.
Let's give them a chance to...
Give from what's deepest in their hearts and let that change them.
When we ask in that way we no longer have a passive donor who we have to pressure and "close." The reverse is true. We take the pressure off and they open and step in. We have an active decision maker. A partner in the ask.
We put our focus on their needs first, not the organization's needs. Maybe that seems backwards. And it is backwards if you're under pressure to get a yes.
But it's exactly right if you look at what the key to the ask is...
The prospect's decision making process.
Yes, you can find people caught in co-dependency who will accept the pressure ask without protest. In fact, they might want you to tell them what to do.
But if we're doing social change work, don't we want donors who make their own decisions?
Don't we want donors who are taking a stand, not donors who are caving in?
Here's another shift for us...
With sacrificial asking, our donors are our adversaries.
Because we see them as not wanting to give.
With relational giving, we are advocates for our donors.
What is it to be an advocate? We want our prospect to make the decision that is right for her. Period.
But we have to mean it. This has to be more than a good intention. We have to live here. It matters that they feel our advocacy for them. That it's so present they don't even have to think about it.
Yes, we need money, so when we pick people to go talk with, we'll pick the people most likely to be kindred spirits. That's a smart and strategic thing to do.
But when we are there one-to-one with a prospect, what matters is that they make the decision they need to make. The fate of our organization is not riding on this one person. At least it better not be. Desperation is not good for relationships.
Let's say I've gotten myself completely into the relational mindset, I've got the advocacy spirit, I feel no pressure to get a yes, I'm happily anticipating a straightforward, personal conversation. Then I walk in the door and get hit by a wall of resistance.
Getting ourselves out of the pressure mindset, that's only step one. Step two is making sure our prospect meets us there.
When someone realizes you're going to ask them for money what's their first reaction? Are they overjoyed? Or do they start playing defense?
Before we ask into the prospect's need to contribute, we may have to clear out...
Cultural interference—Our culture has a particular attitude about asking for money. Pressure is the default. It's what people expect. And their expectations get triggered the minute they know an ask is impending.
Personal interference—Many people have had less than happy experiences with being asked for money. Rarely do they feel seen and heard in an ask, so it's not a pleasant experience. And it's easy for those memories to get triggered at the beginning of an ask.
So when we step into an ask, a lot might get stirred up. And we can't count on our prospect to see that our ask is different if we don't tell them it's different. We're going to have to untrigger them before doing anything else.
My first focus, therefore, is to make sure my prospect is in my ballpark. I want to know that she has crossed over from the pressure ballpark to the relational ballpark. When I know that has happened, then and only then will I do the ask.
The power of presence
If I were reading this page back in my early nonprofit days, by now I'd be saying, "Enough background already. Tell me the words to say. Show me the practice."
Except it's not about the words. And the background is actually the main point, because...
Presence trumps technique.
And your best practices emerge from your presence.
Imagine this combination:
You're asking into your prospect's need to contribute.
And your prospect is really good at saying what's true for her.
What else do you need? I can't see any problem here.
You're at home with asking as the prospect's advocate.
Your prospect is at home with making her own decisions.
If these two elements are present then asking is easy. Okay, scratch "easy." I don't want asking to be easy. I want it to be alive with challenge and possibility.
Even in an optimal situation, though, I'd still want to give my prospect explicit permission to say no. I'd want that to be spoken and present between us, to relax us. It can be just a quick check-in:
Gena: Hi, Jack!
Jack: Hey, how're you doing?
Gena: I want to ask you about being a donor for my nonprofit. Now one thing I know about you is that you're good at setting boundaries and saying no when you mean no.
Jack: Yep. No problem there. Never has been.
Gena: Well, if you're willing to have this conversation with me, can I count on you to simply tell me what's true for you? If this is not a match for you, will you tell me that?
Jack: Sure will
Gena. And if it is a match, I'd love to have you say yes, because I'd love to have you be one of our key donors, and I'd be glad to tell you why we want you.
Jack: You're on. Go for it...
One time I forgot to give the permission upfront. At the end of the conversation, Tricia said to me,
"You know what was great about this? The whole time we were talking, I felt like it would be completely okay to tell you no if I wanted to."
That's when I understood the power of presence in an ask.
Notice the difference between these asks:
1. A friend called me. I could tell by the breath he took before he said "Hi" that this was going to be an ask. Have you ever had that happen? You can feel the tension even before the first word is spoken. That's a kind of presence, but not the kind we want in an ask. I immediately put up my guard.
And this is a guy who's usually lots of fun, sometimes a jokester. I wanted to ask him, "Who are you and what have you done with my friend?" Which actually, now that I think about it, might have been a kind thing to do. I could have tossed in a bit of humor to break the spell and reconnect us. He's actually the kind of person I could have said that to.
2. A colleague called me and said, "Hi, Rich! How's it going..." We rambled around for 15 minutes before I realized she was sneaking up on an ask. And then I just felt sad. She's a charismatic woman. I hated seeing her crawl like that.
3. A cousin, eight years old, calls me up and says, "Hi Rich, this is Emma! Do you want to make a donation to my soccer team?"
She goes on to tell me how everybody on her team likes each other and how the coach says that's why they have a chance to get to the playoffs this year.
But she's already got me. She knows nothing about fundraising. She's just herself so her ask is full of sunshine and it's fun, not an obligation, to write her a check.
If asking robs us of our sunshine, then isn't there something wrong with the way we're doing it?
I remember I used to do what I call, "bringing the fear to the party."
I'd come to an ask...
feeling like a failure,
scared I was going to blow it yet again, and
not wanting to be embarrassed.
I was so twisted up I was a sad pretzel of myself.
I'm sure my prospect could feel it. I'd give her my best attempt at sunshine, but she could easily tell I was faking it. Instead of putting her into a state of relaxation, I put her into a state of sympathetic distress.
Even under the best circumstances, people are quick to put their guard up against an ask. But my prospects put up a double guard because I was so uncomfortable and they didn't know what to do with my discomfort.
There's no technique in the world that will make up for this kind of mess.
Okay, now that we're warmed up, it's time to...
Where you get to see...
How powerful the "upfront contract" can be, plus
How to make an Advocacy Ask flow in an actual conversation, and
How to be bold...
Do much bigger asks, and
Maybe get way more than you expected.
© 2008 Rich Snowdon