The Ask: Why, When and How?

Last week’s posting generated a comment from a reader who said, “Cultivating donors is not really a problem and I find that volunteer and professional solicitors know how to do it. The problem I see is that they never seem to move beyond the cultivation stage and get to ‘The Ask.’”

All of us would agree that the most important part of soliciting the donor is the request for the contribution and for some people it is the most difficult part of the solicitation process.

Let’s break it down to three questions, “Why, When and How?” Although donors tend to be generous people it is the rare donor who calls up the organization and says, “I have not made my contribution for the year and I want to let you know that I will be happy to donate__________.” It is even more unusual for a donor to call an organization they have never supported and say, “I have been following your organization and I am very impressed and I would like to donate _____________ to you.” The fact that people do not volunteer gifts does not mean that they do not have the desire or willingness to contribute to philanthropic causes. It does mean, however, that most people need to to be approached with a request before they are willing to make a donation.

There are volunteer and professional solicitors who feel comfortable asking for donations and there are others who are involved in fundraising who do not always feel it is easy to request a donation. The difference could be how these two camps look at the solicitation process. If there is a feeling that I am asking someone to part with some of their financial resources and I am not sure I should be doing this then this creates an uncomfortable feeling about “reaching into someone else’s pocket and asking for money.”

However, if a solicitor has developed a relationship with the donor and understands ‘The Ask” does not deprive them of their personal funds, but makes the world through supporting a particular cause. In this way, the donation is an expression of the donor’s interests and concerns, which the solicitor grows to recognize through their conversations. The solicitor can make the connection between what the donor is concerned about and the organization’s priorities and programs. The donor is then given the opportunity to support services that are consistent with their interests whether through health, education or welfare.

The goal for the solicitor is to get the donor to understand that their contributions connect them to bettering society in ways that are personally meaningful for them. For example, the donor who is concerned about the state of the family will most likely be open to supporting services to children and families. When the state of Jewish education is a major concern then the donor will support the community day school. Solicitors are doing much more than just asking for money; they are enabling the donor to contribute to causes that reflect their interests and concerns and to ultimately make a positive impact on the issues.

There are a number of indicators that can be used by the solicitor to determine whether or not it is the right time to solicit the donor. These include the development of a comfortable, warm relationship between the parties and the understanding by the donor that they can play an important role in providing much needed services for the community. The solicitor should be able to identify when it is the right time to approach the donor.

After the stage has been properly set we then focus on “How to solicit the contribution?” The actual solicitation should be in the context of a face-to-face meeting where they are discussing the agency, its services and the impact on the community. The solicitation usually comes after the culmination of a series of conversations about the issues facing the community and the need for continued support of existing services or initiating new programs.

Every solicitor has their own approach and their own favorite phrases. There is no set formula, however, it is important to be clear that the solicitor cannot take responsibility for whether the donor gives the gift or turns down the chance to support the needed services. The solicitor should never place himself in the position of focusing on his success or failure based on the gift and its size. If this is the case, then there is a lack of understanding of the nature of the fundraising process.

The solicitor, whether a volunteer or a professional, has to know and believe that he is providing the donor with an opportunity to assist in providing services that will strengthen the community.

The best approach is to be honest, open and direct. Essentially, the solicitor is using himself as an “instrument” to raise the needed funds and there has to be a sense of both authenticity and integrity in his relationship with the contributor. His hand is not being “put into the pocket” of the donor and he must truly believe that he is giving the donor an opportunity to partner in providing the services. It is a process that is both interesting and exciting and will be meaningful for the donor and the solicitor. The impact of the solicitation is far greater than just raising the funds and will build a sense of commitment in the nonprofit organization for all those involved.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening nonprofit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.