Taking the Fear Out of Fundraising Asks – with Marc Pitman

Today, we’re kicking off a new, semi-regular series called “Learn from an Authority,” where we will interview the best and the brightest in non-profit fundraising to learn from their expertise.

We’re starting with Marc A. Pitman, “The Fundraising Coach.”  Marc is a successful consultant, author, speaker and blogger and is an expert on making fundraising asks… On to the interview!

1.  As the author of “Ask Without Fear” you certainly know that many, many people, even those with long careers in non-profit development, are terrified of making face to face fundraising asks.  How important a skill is “making asks” for an aspiring development professional?

You can’t really be a “development professional” without making the ask.

It’s that simple.

You can make the ask through mail, through email, through advertising, through social media, over the phone. But the most transformational asks are made face-to-face.

I am shocked by the number of people that get into professional fundraising jobs and seem surprised when they find out they have to ask for money.

2.  Why do you think so many people get nervous about making asks?  What is the scariest part for most people?

I think it boils down to fear of rejection. “What will they think about me if I ask?”

Or warped imagination. Rather than imagining that we’re exactly what the donor is looking for—a great place to invest her hard earned money—we imagine we’re bugging her. And then we create weird narratives to back up that thought.

3.  You’ve developed a fantastic strategy for people to get over their fear and get out there and make asks.  You call it “Get R.E.A.L.”  How does it work?

I’m a Gen Xer so  I grew up hearing “Get real!” a lot.  So I decided to use that to help people learn to fundraise. The R stands for Research; the E for engage; the A for Ask; and the L for Love.

Research: Do your homework both on your cause and on your prospects

Engage: Get to know them and let them get to know you!

Ask: Nothing happens without the ask

Love: You don’t have to like their response, but you still need to treat them as humans. They are always worth more than the size of the gift they might give.

4.  How important is research to the overall process of making an ask?  Why?

I’d say it’s the most important, but I know asking is the most important so I’ll say “research” is in the top four.

I’m dismayed by how many nonprofit professionals can’t clearly tell you how much they’re trying to raise. It’s shocking. So many nonprofits live in a poverty-conscious motivated “more is better” mindset, that they don’t know what their goal is. If you don’t know your goal, you can’t explain it to potential donors. And if you don’t know how to measure your goal, you’ll never know if you’re accomplishing anything!

Research also involves getting to know the prospect. You can’t market to everyone. You must figure out who you best fit with. Based on your current donors and where you need to grow, who is your ideal donor? Make it one person. Tell us her gender, her age, if she’s married or not, whether she has children or grandchildren, if she’s working, how much she’s making, where she lives, what she values. Get it all down. Then give her a name.

Your mass marketing and communications will work much better when you’re laser focused on communicating with one donor. If you try to “craft” a message that will fit everyone, it will become so diluted it won’t reach anyone. Do the research to stand out by knowing your perfect donor.

5.  Let’s talk about engagement.  So many non-profits try to go right from the research phase to the ask phase.  This really turns potential donors off.  What are the best ways to engage a prospect before making an ask?

Yeah, skipping from research to asking is like a guy running into a bar and asking the first woman he sees to marry him. We laugh, but nonprofits do that all the time. Nonprofits consistently seem surprised when those generic form letters in the chamber newsletter don’t produce results.

Engagement can be a complex strategy starting with being introduced to a person by people that know him. It can involve multiple “touches” – meals, visits, handwritten letters. But it can be as simple as engaging donors like the ideal donor you identified in your research. As you speak their language, they’ll see that you “get” them.

6. How long should the engagement period last?

I have to be careful with this step. Over the years, I’ve seen people say we have to “cultivate” or engage the prospect for years before asking for a gift. I’ve even heard people say it takes at least 18 months to go from no relationship to a major gift. That’s simply not true. You can do all of this over a cup of coffee.

The key with engaging is to let them know that you are more interested in them as a person than as an ATM. Find out what they value. And let them know about your cause. The intersection of their values and your work leads you naturally to the ask.

7.  Ok… I’ve done my research.  I’ve engaged this person.  They’ve become a supporter, and I am ready to make my ask.  What advice do you have for me?  How can I get this person to say “yes?”

Well, you’ve done all the hard work. You’ve researched your cause so you know what you’re trying to accomplish and how much that will cost. You’ve researched your prospects to know who is a good investment of your time. And you’ve engaged this person so you have much clearer picture of where their interests intersect with your cause.

So just ask them to invest in it.

Seriously. There’s no schpeal here. No slick speech or crafty manipulation. It’s a sincere desire to invite them into your project or mission.

There are lots of things about setting up the appointment and phrasing you can use, but the biggest thing to help them say yes is: make the ask and shut up.

Seriously. Sales training says, “He who speaks first loses.” It’s not really win-lose in nonprofits. It’s simply a matter of respect. You’ve just asked the person to do something they have never done for your organization. So give them the space to process your request. They’ll be thinking things like “Do I have that in my account?” “How will I justify this to my business partner?” “Oy, how will I justify this to my spouse?!”

They’ll let you know when they’re done processing by being the first to speak.

This silence is the hardest part of making the ask. But if you don’t shut up, you will talk a prospect out of a gift.

8.  Who should make the fundraising asks at an organization… the Executive Director, the Development Director, a Board Member, a Development Officer, or some combination of the above?

The first answer is: Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. If you have the luxury of having so many choices, use them.

The second answer is: it depends. After doing the research and the engaging, you’ll have a great sense of who is right to  make the ask and how many should be there.

I advise most people to go in pairs. Going with another person helps keep you honest. Since you both know you’re going to ask, the odds are much better that you actually will ask.

9.  The last step in the “Get R.E.A.L.” system is “Love.”  That’s great – I really like that.  As an organization, how should we be loving our donors?

In many ways, this step starts during the ask. Most prospects don’t say “Yes” or “No.” Most have a desire to give but see obstacles in their way. They communicate these as “objections.” Loving the prospect involves partnering with them to create ways they can overcome those objections.

But it goes beyond that. It’s great if the donor says “Yes”! But you have to thank them. An acknowledgement letter within 24-48 hours. Depending on the size of the gift an additional hand written note or a phone call may be in order. And making sure every communication from there out is done out of gratitude: thanks to donors like you, we’re able to change the world in this way.

If the donor says “no”, the love step is harder but even more important. A nonprofit that can handle a no well stands out in a donor’s mind. The person is always worth more than the gift they can give. And if you’ve done the research and engaging to get down to an ask, it is worth keeping a relationship with this person.

10.  Finally, Marc, you’ve got a fantastic website at TheFundraisingCoach.com where you’ve got lots of great books and seminars, as well as a weekly Fundraising Kick newsletter… What’s the most interesting project you are working on that you’d like our readers to know about?

Thanks for asking! I’m pleased with how FundraisingKick is helping give people the extra “kick” they need to get out and ask for money. People can learn more about that here: Fundraising Kick.

And I’m really excited about my new book, Ask With Confidence! 104 tips, tricks, and techniques to help you keep your head in the game and fund your nonprofit. I’ve been working on this book for the last few years and it’s almost ready for publication! People can read more, and sign up to be the first to know when it’s available, at Ask with Confidence!


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The Top 8 Ways to Increase Your Prospect List

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Like great sales organizations, great development operations need a constant stream of prospects… individuals, companies, and foundations that are, or are likely to be, interested...
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