how to make an ask

When I was Executive Director/CEO of a nonprofit, I had the opportunity to make asks face-to-face, eyeball-to-eyeball with donors. I actually made a few six-figure asks. And a boatload of smaller asks.

I can tell you in all modesty I was absolutely lousy at it.

A miserable failure (as in “not successful” and “feeling lousy” about it).

Why was I so bad?

I was afraid.

I didn’t understand how donors think.

I thought it was about me. I was afraid of what the donor was going to think about me. I was laser focused on myself and the budgets I was trying to meet. Completely “org-focused” as we say around Oneicity.

I tried better-designed materials.

I tried more statistics.

I tried gimmicks.

I tried sales techniques.

I tried really, really cool looking PowerPoint presentations.

I tried video.

I tried low-design, simple materials.

I tried everything everyone else was doing.

Crickets. A few small gifts.

Mostly what felt like a big, fat load of awkward silence. A miserable experience for the donors and for me.

I read about how major/large donors are investment minded, and so you have to make your pitch like a business or investment pitch. That bombed.

I read how I was supposed to “manage” the relationship with the donor and how everything I did was to guide the donor down the path to give. I was an even bigger failure at guiding a relationship toward a gift. “Hey, let’s go play golf so I can guide you into giving.” The fun never turned into meaningful giving.

I read about the exact way to frame an ask. I felt like I was in an amateur production of Aladdin trying to get the lines for my 3 wishes said just right.

I then I did something rather brilliant. (I didn’t think it was brilliant at the time, I was desperate).

I talked less and listened more to donors. I stumbled on the profound truth that if you consider your donor as a real-live person, the game changes completely.

Everything changed once I figured out that it was about what my donors wanted to do.

Direct-mail messaging shifted from pretty good theory to spot-on messages about what the donor could do.

Newsletters became about what the donor was doing (and could do again).

My in-person conversations with donors became exciting and interesting (because I wasn’t trying to be exciting or interesting). I wasn’t managing them (or trying to manage them). I wasn’t manipulating them.

I was serving them. I was helping them do what was in their hearts.

And it became fun.

And income increased.

Give it some thought. It really is all about the donor. Focus on what the donor wants to do. Help the donor with their personal dreams of solving the problem or changing the world.

That’s where the magic is.

How about you? Have you had your version of this journey? I love hearing from you.

Steve Thomas
Partner, Oneicity

(photo credit: PageDooley)

Picture of Steve Thomas

Steve Thomas

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