A good friend of mine used this phrase with me once, when he was being approached to donate some of his expertise to a charity that he barely knew. As someone who has done a fair bit of pro bono work, with a large range of organizations, this is a question that he is asked often. What regularly astounds him, however, is that sometimes these requests are handled so badly, that his inclination is to just say no. In this case, the ask was abrupt, came out of nowhere, there was no attempt to build a relationship or to determine if there was even a fit with regard to his skills or passion for the work that they do.
When he said to me “They hadn’t yet earned the right to ask”, it made me think more about fundraising, and how we all, as fundraisers, should be making sure that we are earning the right to ask our donors for support, before we ask for anything at all.
So what does this mean, in major gift fundraising terms, or for fundraising in general? When it comes to charitable giving, here are some pointers that could indicate whether you have earned the right to ask for support.
You’ve thanked them for their previous support. You may recognise that this is often at the top of my list, but it’s so important, I will keep repeating it. I have known organizations to reach out to ask for another gift before they’ve even thanked a donor for the last one. Sometimes this is an oversight, but sometimes it’s because the organization has been so focused on the fundraising, they neglect to put enough thought into donor stewardship. It could even be that someone other than a fundraiser with the organization (for example, a board member to a volunteer) was tasked with thanking a donor for a gift and, for whatever reason, failed to do so. So however, you manage your donor thank yous, ensure that you have the processes in place to make sure that no one falls through the cracks.
You’ve thanked them enough. A great fundraiser I know used to say, “I make sure I’ve thanked people at least seven times before I ask them for anything again”. This doesn’t of course mean she sends seven, identical thank you letters to her donors! What it does mean is that she keeps donor stewardship top of mind, rather than simply focusing on asking for donations.
It also helps her to be conscious of whether she has communicated with her donors enough before she asks for further support. Because of this, she is constantly looking out for new ways to engage, and thank, and connect with her donors, and making sure that they are fully aware of how much they are appreciated.
You’ve taken them on a journey. When someone makes a donation to an organization, they will usually want to know what happened with it. Ultimately, this means taking donors on a journey, where you demonstrate how, with their support and through effective storytelling, the people or communities you work with, have gone from a place of need to a place of strength. This also means staying away from using standard responses, like “your gift is doing great work”, to being specific with regard to what the donor has supported and the change that they have brought about.
This also means that as your program progresses, let your donor know. Not only will this help them to trust in your approach, but it helps the donor to feel involved in your success, and identify new opportunities in which they can get more deeply involved.
You’ve actively listened to them. When you actively listen to your donors, you begin to properly understand them. When you understand them, you are more likely to offer opportunities for involvement that meet their own needs. Active listening isn’t just about looking like you are listening, but also about reading between the lines. What are their anxieties, their passions, their motivations? What are they looking for from you? What DON’T they want from you that they might not be telling you explicitly? What action do they want you to take to support them in their dreams and needs? What are they ready to do for you?
When you have a good understanding of these kinds of questions, you will be in a much better place to make an ask for the right project, at the right time, for the right amount, and that you are the right person to make that ask.
You’ve laid the groundwork. Part of earning the right to ask, is that you have laid the groundwork properly to make it. No one likes to be surprised with an ask that they weren’t expecting, were not prepared for and one that does not suit their individual circumstances. Being sure of the person’s capacity to give, making the need clear from the beginning, and by giving donors an opportunity to opt out if this really isn’t the place or time for them, results in a truly respectful fundraising approach.
If you aren’t getting a sense that your prospective donor is coming along with you on this journey, then it may be that you haven’t prepared the ground enough, you haven’t listened enough, or that the donor just isn’t ready to make a significant contribution.
You are able to fulfil your promises. Fulfilling your promises can relate to a number of things. It could mean that you have done everything that you said you would with regard to their gift and your relationship with them, from calling them back when you say you will, to recognising their gift, both privately and publicly, in the way that they would like you to.
It could also mean that you’ve delivered what you said you would regarding your programming. I’ve heard some horror stories where donors have been told that their gift will be spent on a particular project, but then discover that the project didn’t even go ahead. Ensuring that donor giving and your programming is fully aligned is essential to fundraising success and effective donor cultivation.
You are willing to steward the relationship. Of course, it’s not just about the ask. It’s about how willing you are to properly steward the relationship afterwards. This takes us full circle, to thanking your donors, to keeping them involved, to giving them opportunities to learn more and to engage more.
In my view, if you aren’t prepared to spend the time and resources looking after your donors, don’t even think about asking them for anything in the first place. One way to ensure that you do this, is by creating a donor stewardship plan, where clear activities for donor stewardship are properly identified, planned for and fully resourced. By doing this you can ensure that no one falls through the cracks and that the people who help you to do your work in the first place are properly looked after.