FDR, Jedi Mind Tricks, and How to Overcome the Fear of Fundraising

phobiasBy Robert H. Isaacs

Wikipedia’s exhaustive entry on phobias includes a number of obscure terms such as turophobia, the fear of cheese, pupaphobia, the fear of puppets, and bathmophobia, the fear of stairs or slopes. But it seems that no one has ever thought to coin a term for fear of asking others to donate money to a charitable cause. Fundraiserphobia doesn’t really have a ring to it. Yet plenty of people are uncomfortable with – or downright fearful of – asking others to give, even if it is for a cause they are passionate about. In years spent advising nonprofits, we’ve heard many reasons: Some people are terrified of rejection, others feel that making an “ask” is tantamount to begging. In planning fundraising campaigns, many potential volunteers say they will do whatever they can on behalf of a campaign, except ask for money.

The truth is, asking others to support an organization that you care about is one of the most important things you can do to help that organization. It isn’t begging for money, but instead it’s offering someone the opportunity to make a difference, to fulfill a mitzvah. With proper training and preparation, most people with a passion for an organization and a certain degree of social skills can become effective in this role.

Seasoned athletes and actors often talk about feeling nervous and harnessing this energy to boost their performance. The danger for athletes, artists, fundraisers, or anyone in high pressure situations is of being overwhelmed by these nerves, of losing control. But as Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously said in his 1933 inaugural address, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

The key to success in asking for donor participation in a campaign is not all that different from what inspires an excellent athletic or artistic performance: Preparation. Staff members of our firm have led volunteer training sessions for dozens of organizations.

First And foremost, each volunteer must make his or her own financial commitment to the campaign. Without a personal investment, volunteers lack credibility when asking others to participate.

Here are some of the most important things that novice volunteers – and the professionals supervising them – should keep in mind:

1. Expectations: We always inform potential donors ahead of time to expect the meeting to last for about 45-60 minutes.

2. Research: Volunteer or professional, you should know as much as possible about a potential donor before a meeting. This cannot be overstated. It helps if at least one of the individuals going on the ask has a connection with the potential donor and knows some personal information. It is the responsibility of the nonprofit and its professional staff to ensure that volunteer solicitors have the most accurate information about potential donors. What is their giving capacity? What is their giving history with the organization? What are they passionate about? It is pivotal that information be as up-to-date as possible. Whether the solicitor is a novice or a pro, success is to a large part determined by the quality of information provided.

3. Team Up: There should always be at least two campaign workers at each personal ask. There are many reasons for this. First and foremost, arriving as a pair demonstrates that this is not a personal request, rather, you are asking for the gift on behalf of your organization. Also by going as a pair, you are able to support each other during the conversation and help to ensure that no important points are omitted from the discussion. Additionally, as the conversation draws to a close, you have two individuals who can confirm the outcome of the meeting.

In some ways, it is helpful to think of this model as an apprenticeship. In a nod to the newest installment of the Star Wars saga and borrowing an analogy from a galaxy far, far away: A Padawan learner, a Jedi-in-training, never goes on a mission without a Jedi master. The teacher and the student always travel in pairs until, one day the student becomes the teacher of another. On their initial visits, a new campaign representative should join with a more experienced volunteer or professional. Asks are a subtle discussion, in which timing and certain cues play key roles in the outcome, and it is important to experience this process before playing a leading role. With each ask, the new volunteer can play an increasingly active role.

4. Study: Volunteers should read and reread the nonprofit’s Case for Giving and learn as much as possible about the goals of the campaign. Like a job interview, it is important to try to anticipate questions that could be raised and to practice framing the answers. Volunteers and professionals representing the organization are often the primary sources of information for potential donors. The details must be imparted in an accurate and compelling manner. Campaign representatives should allow and encourage questions from the potential donor. It is better to get back to a potential donor after the meeting with an accurate response than to incorrectly answer the question on the spot and risk providing a donor with misinformation on an important topic.

5. Be Flexible: Perhaps the volunteer’s most important task is to listen closely and carefully. Listen to what the prospective donor is saying, follow the verbal cues, and observe body language. There are times when the discussion during the meeting may force a substantial change in the specific ask amount. During a recent meeting with a potential major donor, the volunteers learned that he had very recently suffered a catastrophic financial setback. The planned ask amount had been $200,000. Instead, the volunteers asked for $25,000 and the donor appreciated the lower ask and made the pledge. By not requesting an impossibly high amount, they saved the donor the embarrassment of having to say no and admitting that he couldn’t afford anywhere near the original ask. . Of course, the opposite can happen and, by listening closely to the donor, a solicitor may discover that the amount planned to ask would be too small. Remember, this isn’t a business transaction, but rather a pledge from the heart for a contribution to a shared community.

6. Ask: There’s no way around it, a solicitor has to ask for the money. If you’ve left the interview without explicitly asking for a gift, you haven’t done your job. It can be difficult to know when is exactly the right point in the meeting to ask and the right way to phrase the question. Here are four different ways to ask for a $100,000 :

  • Could you join us in making a $100, 000 commitment to the campaign? (This is the most powerful ask.)
  • We are hoping you could make a gift to the campaign in the amount of $100,000.
  • We thought that, because of your interest in the project, you’d like to join us at the Founders ($100,000+) giving level.
  • We were wondering if you’re willing to give us a gift of $20,000 a year, over five years.

7. Repeat: As you are finishing up, in addition to expressing your sincerest appreciation, restate the conclusion of the meeting. If the donor makes a verbal pledge, make sure to restate the pledge amount and payment period. If you need to follow up, state the time frame within which the donor can expect a return call (usually about a week). The last thing you want is a misunderstanding.

8. Follow Up: Follow up immediately with a personal thank you. This can take the form of a personal hand written note (always appreciated) or an email, if appropriate. Never send a form letter. In addition to expressing appreciation for the potential donor’s time, you should also restate the result of the meeting (gift amount, follow-up, etc.).

Asking for substantial charitable gifts does not require special mastery of the Force. We constantly train volunteers on how to succeed. It requires passion for the organization, preparation, study, and maybe just a bit of chutzpah. We recognize that asking for money may not be for everyone. If you love an organization that is running an annual campaign, there are plenty of ways to help besides asking for gifts. But if you can overcome your initial fears, there may be no more meaningful way to help position your cause of choice for the future. As Yoda, that most wise of Jedi masters once said, “Do or do not, there is no try.”In fundraising, the only way to ensure failure is to fail to ask.

Robert Isaacs is CEO of the Evans Consulting Group, a firm that helps nonprofits meet and exceed their strategic and fundraising goals. The Evans Consulting Group advises nonprofits, manages fundraising campaigns, facilitates strategic planning processes, evaluated nonprofit business practices, engages in donor research and cultivation, coaches nonprofit leaders and performs a number of other development-related services. He spent more than 20 years in executive roles at two large synagogues and a major JCC and is passionate about sharing what he’s learned. He can be reached at risaacs@theevansconsultinggroup.com.