When Not To Ask For A Contribution

I received a number of comments about last week’s posting; many people wanted to learn more about two issues: (1) when is it not the right time to ask for a contribution and (2) how to approach a donor or potential donor when you know it is not the right time to solicit them for a contribution. These are very common concerns that professionals and volunteer solicitors confront when fundraising for a nonprofit organization.

There are several different situations in which a donor should not be approached for a contribution. Yet that does not mean that in those times there should be no contact between the contributor and the professional or volunteer solicitor. The real issue is finding the appropriate way of connecting with the donor even when it is either inappropriate to ask for a contribution or it is crystal clear that the person is neither willing nor able to make a contribution. It is also important to understand when the reasons for the lack of a contribution are related to the donor’s personal circumstances and when they concern the donor’s relationship with the particular solicitor.

For example, I recently witnessed a most inappropriate solicitation when a woman was sitting shiva for her husband. One of the long-time fundraisers from the yeshiva where the deceased had occasionally prayed came to the family’s home to pay a condolence visit. After a brief conversation with the adult children and the widow, the solicitor suggested that the husband’s name be memorialized with a donation to the yeshiva.

Needless to say the wife and children listened in disbelief and the visitors who had also come to express their condolences were shocked by this fundraiser’s approach to the widow and her children. Although he did not intend to make the family feel uncomfortable, it was clear from everyone’s response that this “ask” was inappropriate, even though it was couched in the context of memorializing the deceased. What the fundraiser should have done instead was continue his relationship with the family so that he could raise the possibility of memorializing the husband at a later time.

Similarly, one cannot approach a potential donor during a special family event, such as a wedding or bar mitzvah, and expect a positive response to this solicitation. In most situations the damage will be impossible to repair because the family will feel put upon and insulted. It may seem as if this guideline does not need to be expressed. However, having witnessing such inappropriate solicitations more than once, I feel it is important to reiterate this basic principle in the practice of fundraising.

At times a donor may be reluctant to support an organization or has decided not to renew his or her annual contribution. I have heard many stories about solicitors who have continued to approach such donors, using a tone of voice and language that can only be described as “badgering” the donor. Although these solicitors were hoping to convince donors to give by continuing to ask them for contributions, this relentless approach can produce the exact opposite effect. How do you deal with the donor who is not forthcoming in a way that does not alienate them and turn them totally off from supporting the agency?

A number of years ago I was the executive director of a Jewish family service agency in a midsized community and was responsible for the administration of a resettlement program for Russian Jews in the community. After several months of directing the resettlement program, I heard about a long-time resident of the community who had emigrated from the Soviet Union in the 1950s and was unhappy with the way the resettlement program was working and its approach. Indeed she was angry at the local Jewish Federation, and staff and lay leaders almost trembled when they uttered her name.

Ms. S., a woman in her eighties, was very wealthy, and she operated her own private resettlement program parallel to the Jewish family services program. By the time I came to the community, she was quite ensconced in her approach and was not interested in supporting the Federation in providing educational tutoring for children and vocational services for adults. Although invited, Ms. S. refused to come to Federation and agency committee meetings and was seen as an eccentric old woman.

I then decided to telephone Ms. S. and ask if I could meet with her. She was suspicious at first, but after a few minutes she not only agreed to meet me but also invited me to her home in one of the fashionable suburbs of the city.

After being served a cup of tea I asked Ms. S. to tell me about her connection/disconnection with the Jewish community and its organizations. Yes, I had to listen to a 90-minute tirade about the Jewish Federation and the communal organizations. However, Ms. S. felt she finally had someone who was willing to listen to her without being defensive. She finally found a place where she could express her opinions, thoughts, and feelings, and she sensed an openness to hearing her ideas and thoughts about what the Russian immigrants in the community really needed.

Ms. S. and I continued to meet every week or two weeks for a few months, and some of her criticism were correct. I was able to create a space for her to be involved in the community’s services, and we were able to integrate aspects of her program into the Jewish Federation and family service’s programs. Several months later Ms. S. was not only satisfied with the changes that had been made in the resettlement program, but she also expressed a willingness to make a sizeable contribution to the Federation.

In this case, I was able to provide an opportunity for a reluctant donor to express her opinions and to find her place at the agency and Federation table. The key to success was my willingness to both meet Ms. S. on her territory and listen to her perspective without being defensive or combative. It required patience and a commitment to the process of working with the donor.

There is no question that Ms. S. would never have contributed to the community if approached for the Annual Campaign. She would not have been open to meeting with any of the solicitors, whom she saw as not respecting either her perspective or her personal experience. The direct approach is not effective and should not be taken with people who are angry at the community. In these cases it is best to engage with these donors but not solicit them immediately, recognizing that, by not making the “ask,” you can sometimes bring them closer to the community and its services. At the end of the process they may be more of a supporter than you could have anticipated.

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.