Start Your Ask with the Problem!

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By Richard Perry

“Last year, more than one million quarter-inch drills were sold – not because people wanted quarter-inch drills, but because they wanted quarter-inch holes.”

This often-quoted concept by Theodore Levitt sums up exactly what your focus should be as a major gift officer (MGO). Donors want to solve problems. They do not want to hear all the wonderful things about your organization or process.

Every nonprofit appeal for funds, no matter what media or form it is in, should start with the problem. But, sadly, MGOs don’t. They usually start with the organization or the process to solve the problem. And that is not only boring reading it is ineffective.

As you are reading this, think about the asks you are preparing for the donors on your caseload. No matter what form they are in (printed, email, video, personal presentation) look at how you start. Are you starting with the problem you want the donor to address? If not, start over.

Jeff and I suggest approaching every donor ask using the following outline:

A clear and compelling statement about the problem. This is not just some intellectual exercise where you state the facts. Nope. You may have facts in this section, but, mostly, what you need to do here is take your donor to the need with a story, and describe the problem in compelling and emotional ways. We keep mentioning these words “compelling” and “emotional.” Why? Because, right out of the gate, you need to grab your donor’s attention with the tremendous impact this problem has on a human being. If I were to read your problem section, I need to be emotionally affected by it. It must have me thinking about nothing else, but “My goodness. I need to do something about this!” It’s compelling.

What the donor is going to do about the problem. Notice I said what the donor is going to do. There is a nuance here. Obviously, your organization is going to “do the doing.” You have the internal ability to solve this problem. And you will use your people and your systems and process to address the problem. We all understand that. But the nuance is that it is the donor, through his or her participation, who makes it happen. This is why you need to write your ask this way: “With your help, we, together, will solve this problem.” And, of course, you state how the organization is, with the donor’s gift, going to address this problem.

How this solution will bring joy, restoration, hope and redemption. If your solution doesn’t bring all these things to a human being or to an animal or the planet, then what is the point? There must be a solution that brings wholeness – that brings things back to how they are supposed to be. Put emotion in here as well. There is immense gladness, happiness and joy that things are back in place, that potential is achieved, that the hurt has been healed – you know what I mean. Put that copy in here.

And then you talk about the gift. And the money topic then comes up after all of this. Remember, this whole thing is not about the money – we keep saying that – it is about solving problems that match the donor’s interests and passions. The money just happens because you have made the correct match between those interests and passions, and the problem your organization is addressing. Be sure you keep this in mind.

But most of all, get the problem right. And your description of it should affect you emotionally. You must start with the problem, and it must grab you. Work on that in your next ask.

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