3 Ways to Overcome Fundraising Anxiety

asking for donationsTime for a little exercise. Don’t worry – this one’s easy.

You’re sitting across from someone at lunch. The person has an interest in your cause and you’re about to ask that person to make a $500 donation.

Write down one word to describe exactly how you feel.

I bet I can guess what you wrote…

ASKING FOR DONATIONS MAKES ME FEEL…

I spend a lot of time with boards talking about how to be great ambassadors for the organization they care deeply about. And I know how deeply they care. After all, these women and men have said: “Sign me up! It would be an honor to be on this board.”

They care a lot.

My role is to help them think about what being a great board ambassador looks like. Free association. I keep hoping that one day someone will just chirp “FUNDRAISER.”

Hasn’t happened yet. I continue to hope.

So I do this same exercise with them. I ask them to write down the one word that describes how they feel when asking for donations. And I tell them I am going to shuffle the cards so they don’t have to read their own. Helps on the candor front.

The pens hit the index cards, we shuffle and re-circulate. One by one, a board member is asked to read the word or phrase on her/his card aloud.

It’s the same five words I hear almost every time. I bet you wrote one of these five. Probably the first one.

“Anxious”

“Nervous”

“Uninformed”

“Embarrassed”

“Awkward”

Actually, I also hear the word “excited!” That’s one I LOVE to hear. But the problem is that I usually hear it because I planted a card myself.

Sometimes I call that out and ask the person who wrote it to raise their hand. No one does. Then I make a joke (and a point) “Oh, I’m sorry – somehow MY card got in the pile!” J

Sometimes if we are very lucky we hear the word “opportunity.”

And sometimes if someone is being really honest, we hear the word “terrifying.

ASKING FOR DONATIONS CAN BE TERRIFYING

Now let’s remember. These are grownups. And if they have been recruited to a board, they are probably pretty high-powered, successful, connected. Maybe they are leaders in your community.

Terrifying.

I point out the word kindly and let it sit there in the room. I suggest that it be reserved for really big things. And then I say,

Here’s what terrifying looks like to me.

Miracle on the Hudson

The people in the room usually laugh. They get it.

But it’s one thing to recognize that the level of anxiety is higher than it probably needs to be. It’s quite another thing to overcome the fear when asking for donations.

THE 4 SKILLS OF A CALM FUNDRAISER

When I speak publicly, I “come out” that I was a ‘fundraising virgin.” I promise I don’t have a PowerPoint slide for that.

I had to quickly learn to develop the four skills needed by anybody asking for donations. Some people have these naturally. But here’s the thing. All four of these skills can be developed with practice.

  1. The ability to hear the word “no.” The word “no” can sting. But in the end, it’s just a word. There are plenty of reasons a prospective donor will say no and it’s not a reflection on you in the slightest.
  2. Authority. If you are paid by the organization or your name is on the list of board members, you’ve got this. Check.
  3. Credibility. This comes as a result of your being able to utter these two words: JOIN ME. It is not likely that a prospect will ask you if you give. But you better well tell them. I give because <insert great story here>. I joined this board because . I know that my gift matters because I have seen . It is a privilege to be on the board and to be able to support this work financially. Will you JOIN ME with a gift of $489?
  4. The ability to tell a good story. I was a natural with this one. Not only was I raised Catholic, I also could not possibly be more Irish. That said, this is a skill that must be learned and practiced. All across your organization.

How do you develop these skills? Find somebody associated with the organization who does it well and learn from him or her. For me, I had Julie Anderson, who was already on staff when I joined GLAAD in 1997. So I can’t say I was smart enough to hire her. But I was sure smart enough to listen to her.

ASKING FOR DONATIONS: THREE WAYS TO OVERCOME THE FEAR 

  1. It Makes People Feel Good To Give Money to Causes They Care About
    This is what I consider to be Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket. Even high-powered grownups don’t get this. It’s not like some weird awkward thing like being pressured into buying a used car. When people write checks large or small, they are saying not just, “Yes I can do this,” but ,“Yes I WANT to do this.”
  2. Money = Programs
    Anxious board members sometimes worry that the donor prospect doesn’t know where her money will go – like you are going to add a speed oven in your new kitchen. Really? I have a client who ties the dollar amount of the ask to something specific. “Would you make a gift of $489? Odd number I know but it happens to be the number of calls that came into our help desk last week. Can I count on you?” Done right you’ll get $500.
  3. Remember It’s Your Job
    Maybe you’re on the staff and it’s literally your job. But asking for donations is the job of board members too. And if you were not told that when you were interviewed, I’m telling you right now.And if you are the Executive Director or the Finance Director or the receptionist, it’s your job too. Every single person associated with the organization should feel a duty to raise funds.

In the end, your love of your organization has to be bigger than your fear of asking.

This is so important, I’m going to repeat it.

The love of your organization has to be bigger than your fear of asking.

3 MORE RESOURCES TO IMPROVE YOUR FUNDRAISING

I told you earlier how lucky I was to learn from Julie during my time at GLAAD. But what if you don’t have a Julie? Where else can you go to learn more and develop your fundraising skills? That’s why I’ve created a number of resources for anybody who wants to get better at asking for donations. Here are 3 places to learn more.

1) Read the fundraising chapter in my book.

Now, without question, fundraising comes up all throughout the book. But I have an entire chapter in my book dedicated to fundraising. I discuss topics like:

  • How do you get your board to fundraise successfully?
  • What are all the ways you’ll screw this up (and why that’s OK)?
  • Asking for the “right” kind of money, such as wells fargo online banking tutorial by ccbank.us (getting this right can make a HUGE difference for your organization).

Because it’s a book, I was able to get into these topics in MUCH more depth than I can in a blog post or podcast.

You can purchase it from Amazon at this link.

If asking for donations is something you do for your organization (and as I wrote above, that should be just about everybody involved with a nonprofit) do yourself a big favor and pick up a copy of this book.

2) Check out our series on “The Perfect Fundraising Plan.”

My colleague Seth Rosen, fundraiser extraordinaire, wrote a series on my blog that is powerful for anybody responsible for fundraising.

Here’s a link to part 6 of the series (which links back to the first 5 parts): Time to Get More Creative With Your Fundraising?

3) Listen to a fundraising podcast.

Maybe you spend a lot of time in the car or on the treadmill? That’s a perfect time to listen to a podcast!

Here’s a cool episode I did with Brian Saber of Asking Matters called, “The Art and Science of Asking for Money”.

If you look on my podcast page, there are a bunch of episodes that focus on asking for donations.

ONE LAST THING

In the comments below, please share the one word you came up with at the beginning of this post. To remind you, you’re sitting across from someone at lunch. The person has an interest in your cause and you’re about to ask that person to make a $500 donation.

Write down, in the comments below, one word to describe exactly how you feel.

And then share the single biggest thing you took from this post that will help you overcome your fear of asking for donations.

I’ll do my best to respond to every entry.

Joan Garry
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Joan Garry

Widely known as the "Dear Abby" of nonprofit leadership, Joan works with board and staff as a strategic advisor, crisis manager, change agent and strategic planner. Joan also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on nonprofit communications and leadership.
Joan Garry
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  • Jan Owen James

    EXCITED! 🙂

    • Jan. Then go for it! There are some lucky prospects awaiting your invitation to become a part of your organization.

  • Jodi Vander Molen

    Acidic. My stomach is in knots. And I’ve been doing this almost 20 years! This post is great because it shows how wildly normal this response is. I’ve learned to observe the feeling but try to not let it overwhelm my experience. Kind of like fight or flight. Go with “fight,” and get those funds!

    • Jodi. Next time you are off to make an ask, take two Tums and re-read this blog post (or the others on I have that will help)!

  • sugarmag

    Anxious would be closest, but it doesn’t have the magnitude of what I feel. I am the most talkative person on Earth, until I have to ask for something. I’m not scared, but I just become overwhelmed with anxiety, because I hate asking for anything at all.

    • Sugarmag. Remember that in asking you are actually giving someone the opportunity to be GENEROUS – To GIVE to something meaningful. That might help!

  • Did I miss the podcast somewhere?

  • Alison Patterson

    Honored

    • Alison. It strikes me that you have found the right line of work 🙂

  • Thomas Fowlkes

    As a natural introvert, Nervous probably covers it, but actually it’s more akin to feeling like a used car salesman… maybe “Schmarmy?” Two big takeaways from this post are that “terrified” or “scared” should be reserved for bigger things, and that people feel good about giving money to things they care about. The win-win is what this conversation should be about!

    • Thomas. Just always remember that your passion for your mission is greater than your fear…. That always help to repeat to yourself before the ask.

    • Bootsie

      Me too, “Schmarmy” good word.. Stomach in knots.
      I started out excited but feeling discouraged and
      ineffective that my online/ email asks are ignored. Promises to donate not materialized.
      Time is moving on and the future of my organization depends on donations.

  • Brian Bollinger

    Ha! The timing of this message is impeccable. I was literally looking at my list of calls for our monthly donor campaign and thought “I’m feeling nervous. Let me just read a couple more emails while I settle in…” Instant courage Joan. Thank you. I pulled up my list of ‘$X per month means…’ and story sheet of our current refugee families being served in those ways, and I am ready to dial!

    • Brian. I am so delighted I arrived at the right moment with “instant courage” – i just love that phrase. Go for it!

  • Sabrina Vincent Slater

    Tongue-Tied, I am so passionate about my cause and I know how important those funds can be that I get so nervously excited I sometimes don’t get my point across.

  • beast

    Thrilled! Just thrilled that I can share the great work that we do. That I have a board member who actually asked someone to just chat with me about the direction of this organization. The board member is sitting there at the lunch with us right? Cause then FINALLY they will see that it is so easy to ask for money. They will go back to the board meeting and tell everyone how easy it was. And maybe just maybe my calendar will be booked with lunch meetings for the next three months of people wanting to work in our mission. (dreams…..sigh!)

  • Ethan Bair

    seen.

  • Muriel

    Ready! I just began my journey as Executive Director of a emergency family shelter. My second board meeting is this upcoming Monday and I must get them prepared to raise money. I’ve prepared a power point analysis that shows dollars raised, etc. The interesting point that I want drive home is that 95% of the wonderful soup kitchen volunteers don’t give a dime. And, the board of directors have never been trained to raise funds. Any tips for me?

  • Emily Culler

    Kinship. It may seem like an odd word to choose, but what I love most about this work is establishing relationships with the people who believe in our mission and programs. It’s a wonderful (if sometimes nerve-racking) feeling!

  • Hope!

  • John

    Queasy.

    I guess the thing I hadn’t thought about before was credibility. I don’t necessarily see myself as having “earned the right” to ask people for money.