The Art and Science of Fundraising: When to Ask

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Click here to read on The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

By Jim Eskin

As a fundraising trainer/consultant, I hear several questions over and over again from nonprofit leaders we’re privileged to advise:

  • Who do we ask?
  • How much do we ask for?
  • Who should do the asking?

Another question on everyone’s mind is: When do we know the prospective donor is ready to be asked?

Like for the other questions, the answer to this one is based on part science/part art — the better you know the science, the more artful you can be.

There is no hard and fast answer that fits all circumstances, but I feel an honest assessment of the following factors will provide practical and effective guidance.

  1. It all starts with the strength of the relationship. A longtime supporter you’re attempting to move up the gift ladder is very different than the person who has never made a gift to the organization. You need time to make the prospective donor aware of your mission and story and, more critically, earn trust.
  2. It depends on the size of the gift being solicited. We like insisting that most fundraising is based on common sense. The larger the amount requested, the longer the cultivation and trust-building process. We like to say that the goal is something deeper than a relationship — genuine friendship.
  3. Donors rarely start with a big gift. Typically, they like to “kick the tires” and find out how the nonprofit does with a modest gift. Sound stewardship letting the donor know and see how their dollars are being spent prudently sets the stage for grander philanthropy.
  4. Getting insights from someone who knows the donor is immensely valuable. He/she can hopefully know about personal and financial issues that might be pending and influence the timing of the ask.
  5. Fundraisers tend to be intuitively paranoid. I was always afraid if we were planning to ask a donor, there were likely several other nonprofits in town with similar designs. We never wanted to delay the solicitation one more day than absolutely essential for fear that someone else would beat us to the punch.
  6. At the end of the day, I prefer scheduling the meeting as soon as possible and risk making an error on the side of asking too early. If we have truly built a strong friendship based on shared values, interests and priorities, the friendship can survive a “no” or “this isn’t a good time.”

Let me close with the way I opened, by emphasizing that fundraising is a combination of art and science. There is no guarantee in this profession other than if you don’t ask, you don’t get!

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