Knowing when and how to ask is the most essential weapon in any effective fundraiser’s arsenal.

For many of us, the journey to becoming a fundraising professional is unplanned. Guided by a strong inner philanthropic compass, we direct our energies toward raising money for causes and missions close to us. The reality, though, is that the lessons most worth learning are often the ones that take the longest to learn. Chief among these is the importance of asking.

Most of us stumble into philanthropy and, once established, we seek to educate ourselves on the best practices of our new profession. This education is frequently self-guided, sometimes including formal education, professional workshops, and conferences. It also almost always involves good old-fashioned trial and error.

Take this simple test. Sit down with a group of fundraisers and ask them the question: “What is the most important thing a fundraiser will be evaluated on in his or her career?” For many, the answer to this question is obvious. For others, it is not.

So What’s the Answer?

Many will answer the question above by saying “relationships” … a good answer.  After all, having solid relationships with our donors, and knowing about what motivates them, is critical to securing a gift for the cause we believe in. Without significant and sustainable relationships, the possibility of raising dollars is greatly diminished. Relationships are at the very core of a fundraiser’s journey.

But, while relationships are at the core of successful fundraising, and important to every successful fundraiser, and essential to building and sustaining a philanthropic culture, I would argue that it is not the most important thing.

At the end of the day, the most important criteria by which to evaluate a fundraiser is his or her ability to raise money.  Money drives mission.  The more money we raise, the more mission we deliver.  It’s that simple.  Building relationships is critical to the process of fundraising, but raising money is ultimately the most important outcome for us as professional fundraisers. Many younger fundraisers fail to discover this important tenet early in their career.

The Obstacles to Asking

Here are the big three obstacles to asking:

  1. Too Much Big Picture

We’re encouraged as fundraisers to look at the bigger relationship picture.  We’re taught that asking exists in the fund development spectrum of identification, qualification, cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship.  Sometimes though, we become so focused on learning the context of fund development that we forget about the importance of fundraising.  The ‘ask’ gets lost in the process.

It’s not that focusing on process is wrong … a solid understanding of the process within which solicitation exists is important to the health of the relationship between the donor and organization, and allows the fundraiser to better prepare for a successful solicitation. Proper identification and qualification strategies, relationship cultivation techniques, and pre-solicitation stewardship techniques of previous gifts, are all important concepts to understand and master. The challenge comes in trying to master the context while minimizing the avoidance of asking.  Remember – provides people the opportunity for people to say ‘yes’.  By trying to perfectly ‘align the moons’ before the solicitation is conducted, we can miss the opportunity to ask.

Rather than viewing the act of asking as the final coup de grâce, successful fundraising professionals recognize that the act of asking for a gift is often the best tactic to flush-out the true obstacles that need to be addressed and negotiated. Reckless solicitation is not being advocated here but, rather, finding the careful balance of knowing when enough preparation is enough, and when the time to ask is upon you. 

  1. Too Little Training

Many of us have not undertaken much (if any) formal training in philanthropic gift solicitation. We often stumble upon it, merging lessons learned in other fields of study and experience, applying it as best we can.  Fundamental concepts such as: how to influence a ‘yes’; thinking like an investor; the psychology of a successful ask; identifying and navigating the obstacles identified during an ask; and the step-by-step process of how an ask might be conducted, are foreign to many new (and dare I say even many ‘seasoned’) fundraising professionals.

Even the concept of solicitation role-play is something many fundraising professionals have little experience with, or less desire to focus on. Exercising the ‘ask muscle’ is an important step along the experiential journey for a fundraiser, so that he or she can identify when the ‘moons are aligned’ sufficiently.

Learning the strategy and tactics for a successful ask builds confidence and allows the fundraiser to better know when to make an ask, and how to address the inevitable obstacles that arise. Building experience in asking also allows practitioners to find the balance between the art and the science in philanthropic solicitation and help build effective judgment and success as an outcome.

  1. Lack of Supportive Organizational Culture

This is perhaps the most difficult to address, for unlike the first two, the lack of a supportive organizational culture can be very difficult to change on our own. There are many organisations, and boards, that still operate on the assumption that ‘if we build it, they will give’.

However, stating needs alone is unfortunately often not enough in today’s competitive philanthropic world. The fundraiser’s role is critical in articulating the compelling and urgent case in the solicitation process. This is where the effectiveness of the passion of the mission and urgency of the case can be made; donor reaction evaluated; and closure brought to the gift offer.

While Canada has a strong philanthropic culture, as evidenced by the grassroots responses to many disasters and emergency appeals, it has yet to evolve into a strong asking culture. It is still considered poor form in many parts of Canada to present an ask in a forthright manner, naming a specific suggested amount.

The best advice that can be given to a board of directors/governors of a nonprofit organisation, is to seek leadership and performance that celebrates and encourages a culture of asking. Asking is the most important thing to focus on as a fundraising professional. Asking leads directly to donor decisions – hopefully positive. While it is important and desirable to conduct the ask in a relationship-based atmosphere, care must be taken always that the relationships are not the end goal in itself.  As fundraisers, money is the end goal … because money drives mission.  And asking leads to money.

Relationships are managed on behalf of an organization for the organization’s benefit, to advance the organization’s mission. From a fundraising point of view this means preparing opportunities to present to prospective donors as an ask. Anything less would dishonour the fundraiser, the organization, and the donor:

  • The fundraiser is dishonoured because they have had their role misinterpreted in the organization. As an agent of development, they are fundamentally focused on finding additional resources to deliver to the mission. To prevent them from achieving this goal is the ultimate folly.
  • The organization is dishonoured because it is dependent on the resources of the private sector to deliver its mission. Anything less affects its ability to be mission-centric – always the fundamental responsibility of the organisation.
  • The donor is equally dishonoured, as they are attracted to the mission of the organization in the first place, and shame on the person or organization who withholds from them the opportunity to provide support.

At the end of the day, as fundraisers we will be judged not by the number of relationships we create, but by the number of dollars we raise for our missions. Learning this early as a fundraising professional can allow us to place solicitation into the proper context of our  acquired fundraising knowledge; allowing us to seek the specialized training in solicitation that we need; and position us change-agents to nurture and build an ‘asking culture’ in our organization.

Guy Mallabone has been a fundraiser for 36 years and is acknowledged as a leader in major gifts fundraising. He is Editor of ‘Excellent in Fundraising in Canada’, and President of Global Philanthropic (Canada).