Making “The Ask” For the Faint of Heart

So here’s the scene:

You’re approaching a donor for a gift to your nonprofit organization. She responds enthusiastically and wants to help with the project.

According to conventional wisdom, this is when you ask her for a specific dollar amount: “Mary, we’d like you to consider a gift of $10,000.”

But this is one of those times when I think conventional wisdom has it wrong.

Why? Well, first of all, it’s tremendously hard for most people to ask for a specific dollar amount. It seems impertinent, aggressive, overly direct. Even scary. And it surfaces all our fears about rejection.

Ours is a society that never stops thinking about money, but we have a hard time asking for it. My experience is that requiring volunteers to ask donors for particular amounts of money effectively eliminates two out of three people from your volunteer pool. Because when people say, “I don’t like asking for money,” they literally mean they don’t like asking for money. They don’t mind the visit, the cultivation, the stewardship, the ambassadorial role, the schmoozing. They don’t mind talking about the project they’re raising money for or why it’s so important. They simply don’t like saying, “Mary, we’d like you to consider a gift of $10,000.”

But there’s another reason, along with losing fundraising volunteers, for being wary about naming a specific dollar amount. That’s because in doing so there are three possible results – and two of them are bad. You may ask for too much; you may ask for too little; or, yes, you may ask for exactly the right amount.

If $10,000 is more than Mary can afford, she will be embarrassed, or even upset. She may feel that she has to explain how she’s suffered some financial reversals, or that her son-in-law has lost his job and now she has to pay her granddaughter’s college tuition, or that she’s nervous about medical costs for a condition you hadn’t known about. You may hear private information that’s better left unsaid. And assuming she does then give something – say, $1,000 – she may feel that her contribution is inadequate or imagine that it is underappreciated, even though to her, and probably to you, it’s a lot of money. She’s left with a bad taste in her mouth.

If Mary was prepared to give a larger amount – say, $50,000 – and you ask her for $10,000, then your nonprofit will likely receive far less than it might have. In this scenario, the charity essentially leaves $40,000 on the table.

Or, if you’re really lucky, you’ll ask Mary for exactly the amount she was considering on her own.

Over the years, I have rarely asked for a specific amount from donors. Instead, in most cases I’ve relied on a table of gifts. That’s one of those spreadsheets where you lay out how many gifts of various levels you need in order to raise the money you’re seeking, updated with information on all commitments to that point.

I have inevitably found it easy and effective to show the table of gifts and ask the donors to consider going as high on the chart as they feel comfortable. Some go higher than you might have guessed; some go lower; but all feel as though their contribution was valued.

And really, isn’t that one of the most important outcomes of a solicitation visit? In addition to getting a financial commitment, we want to have the donors feel more connected to our organization and to walk away feeling great about the interaction. And the numbers have a way of working out. Over the course of a campaign, some people give more than you’d have guessed, some give less, and it all balances out.

I’m sure some folks reading this, particularly from bigger institutions with a significant research capacity, will disagree with this approach. But as I’ve said many times in this space, there’s a vast difference between large, prestigious nonprofits – those in the 1% at the top of the charitable world – and the rest of us.

Most of us working at community-based nonprofits have only a general idea about the capacity of our donors. Yes, you can do a bit of formal research on your top donors. And yes, you might want to ask three or four of them for specific leadership gifts. But for most of your donors, you’ll find it more comfortable and more effective to pass them a table of gifts and ask them to say where they best fit on the chart. Essentially, you’re letting them ask themselves how much they are able to give.

And that, to my way of thinking, is the most effective solicitation of all.

Copyright Alan Cantor 2013. All rights reserved.

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1 Comment. Leave new

  • Hello Alan,

    I agree with your approach. I am on a couple of not profits, as well as one bigger one, and I believe giving the people a couple of choices is a better way of getting a final result for your organization as well as making the donor feel good about themselves and what they can do.

    The bigger non profits have the ability to have a different approach.

    Connie Wechter


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