Fundraising is an art and a science. It’s hard work and easy to screw up. Right this minute you may be planning to make an “ask” and you may have already set yourself up to fail.
For every 10 asks you make you’ll get, on average, 7 no’s. And that’s if you are really good at it.
But so many amazing and smart fundraisers are sabotaging their own success. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Look, you’re going to make mistakes. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do your best to avoid them.
So let me walk you through the five biggest fundraising mistakes I see again and again, so you can stop making them starting right now.
Mistake #1: Tell the Prospect She Should Give Money
Sometimes a donor has lots of capacity and personal reasons to love your mission and its work.
But never say the “should” word aloud. That’s arrogance. Instead, speak from the heart, listen to the prospect’s interests, and then make a specific ask if (and ONLY if) there appears to be a good fit.
I have made this mistake. A prospect was a natural fit for my organization but had not given. Our research told us he hadn’t really done much giving commensurate with his capacity.
My pitch included the words, “You should make a significant contribution.” I went even further and made a very thoughtless and ill-conceived argument that he was conspicuously absent from our major donor list.
The moment this came out of my mouth, I knew it was a mistake. Lunch continued to be cordial. A week later, we received a small donation. No note. No need. The check was message enough.
Mistake #2: Ask For Too Little
I wish I could tell you how you’ll know if you should have asked for more. I can’t give you the exact formula but it is something nonverbal. They love your organization, but you missed a clue about capacity, you didn’t do your homework – something like that. They say yes with such enthusiasm and not relief so much as disbelief.
Been there. Done that. An ask over lunch. We’re really hitting it off. He’s never given to our organization before and so even though I know he has huge capacity, I’m inclined to ask for something substantive but not a gift at the highest level. So I make a $10,000 ask.
You know you have shot too low when the prospect replies, “What can you do with only $10,000?”
To my credit I did not put my head in my hands. Instead I invited him to a major donor event 30 days hence and told him it was going to be my personal mission between now and then to make the case that in fact it was a $25,000 gift that could make a lasting impact.
He laughed and the challenge was on. And yes, he made a $25,000 pledge 30 days later.
Mistake #3: Ask When the Prospect Has Brought Company to Lunch
An hour before lunch with a serious prospect, she emails you. “I switched the reservation to a party of 3 – hope that is ok. I’d like my colleague Bob/Mary to learn more about your organization too.” That’s what she told you. But more than likely she was playing defense against an ask.
It is a big fat mistake to ask that prospect for money in the company of her pal. Donor asks are individual in nature. Plain and simple.
So what do you do? Shrug your shoulders and adjust your expectations. Make it an opportunity to ignite two people instead of one. No ask. Just see where the conversation leads (and hope that one of them picks up the check.)
Mistake #4: Make a Very Casual Ask
In my fundraising trainings with boards there are two outcomes that are less than ideal. First, one of the board members will ask me in front of the rest of the board (see #3) to make a sizeable gift. Second, folks will brag about the fact that they have learned the art and science of fundraising and in a well meaning / humorous / casual way, ask someone to give.
There is nothing casual or nonchalant about an individual’s decision to invest in your organization.
Mistake #5: Ask For Too Much
OK, this one is a trick. This is not a mistake. You should always ask high. Be bold. Ambitious. Your organization needs you to be.
The Key Thing: Do Your Homework and Listen
One last tip. Do your homework and listen carefully. Change your plans in midstream and if you can connect the dots, you can ask way higher than you planned.
I scored a coveted breakfast with a donor prospect with huge capacity. He began years earlier as a volunteer with our organization. The money was recent. I planned to ask for $25,000. Then he said that there were two organizations that were most meaningful to him. One was ours. He explained his passion for each so eloquently. I learned that his commitment to both organizations was equal.
While doing my homework before this meeting, I learned that he had made a recent $100,000 pledge to that other organization.
Time to change plans. I asked him to match his gift to that organization with a $100,000 gift to ours. He had already made the case himself.
The answer was yes.
Fundraising is way more art than science because it’s about building, cultivating, and sustaining relationships. It’s about mission-driven passion. When you put “passion” and “relationships” into the same sentence, there is ample opportunity to screw up.
Just be earnest, be apologetic if you need to be, and wear your heart (and your mission) on your sleeve.
And besides, what’s the worst thing that could happen?
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