I have never heard anyone say, “when I grow up, I want to be a fundraiser.” For most development professionals, pursuing a career in "asking for money" is a product of accident or necessity. Fundraisers are not usually grouped with high profile, revered careers like firefighters, freedom-fighters, or entrepreneurs; however, falling into this track (for me at least) comes from a similar desire to make an efficient, measurable, resounding, and lasting impact, specifically for the charitable causes we care about.
For many non-fundraisers, the idea of asking for money has a similar appeal to cleaning your shower drain or running wind-sprints after a night of heavy drinking. Asking for money is easy to write off as a task that seems best suited to brazen personalities - extroverts who are unphased if the person sitting across from them does not want to part with their hard-earned dollars.
In this post, I would like to deconstruct the idea that asking for money is a necessary evil or an undesirable, and unwelcome thing to do. Instead, I would like to explore the idea that making a philanthropic "ask" is not only imperative for the wellbeing of nonprofits, but also, if done correctly, welcomed, natural, and extraordinarily empowering for both the person asking and the person who is asked.
Without fundraising, the charitable organizations we care about could not survive. Philanthropy is the lifeblood of an organization, and asking for money is one of the most effective ways to impact your organization's bottom line. . . aside from cutting costs. More money in the bank creates the possibility of scaling up, achieving larger outputs and better outcomes - thus broadening the impact you are working to accomplish. This simple fact, along with the ability to directly measure the success of your work, is the reason I was drawn to fundraising.
Many have inquired, “how can you get up every day and ask people for money?” My response, every time, is that I help people define their passions and meet their goals. I am a matchmaker with the directive to find people who want to give and connect them to an opportunity they are devoted to. The better I get at connecting the dots, the more folks will volunteer to give and get involved. The right fit will make a donor feel like they are making something happen as opposed to fielding a solicitation. Finding this alignment takes a lot of direct observation and legwork, and much of it is a trial and error process. You have to field many “no’s,” but viewing a “no” as a data point for that individual's financial situation or relationship with the organization, and an indicator for how well you have articulated the philanthropic opportunity, sets you up to make a better ask the next time. All progress is good progress, even if it isn't always the outcome you wanted or expected.
An effective ask is a natural part of a larger conversation, not an abrupt or abrasive question. Instead of going in guns-a-blazin’ asking “would you support our scholarship fund with a gift of $100,000?”, try “based on our prior conversations, and my understanding of what you are passionate about, I think supporting scholarships at an endowed level of $100,000 might be a good fit for what you are trying to accomplish. Is that correct?” While both asks have the underlying motive of bolstering scholarship funds, the second shows that you have listened and are making an effort to connect the donor’s passions with what is currently a priority in the organization. An ask like this tends to naturally fall in the middle of a conversation and leaves the door open for both the development professional and prospect to pivot and refine the ask gracefully. It also builds a relationship of trust and understanding between the donor and the organization.
When preparing to make an ask, I always find the following framework helpful: taxable income can go in three directions - family, the government, or philanthropy. While most choose to allocate money to their family first, and despite unpredictable changes in the tax landscape (e.g., the estate tax exemption raised from approximately $11.2M to $11.6M per couple, and the annual gift tax exemption from $14,000 to $15,000 per individual), the reality still remains that many of our donors are actively looking for ways to shelter their wealth from taxes. Having a tool belt of different philanthropic vehicles such as bequests, blended gifts, gifts of real estate, life insurance, appreciated assets etc., builds a creative landscape where you and your prospect can find a mutually beneficial philanthropic solution. Why pay taxes on appreciated assets when you can increase the value of your gift by transferring stock instead of writing a check? Good development work articulates these benefits and maximizes our tax laws for the donor and recipient’s benefit. Coming to a meeting prepared with these options makes you a problem solver and a resource. . . you are providing a service.
Through exploring my experience of “asking for money,” and articulating the empowerment that comes with exercising these skills, my goal is to challenge those who don't see themselves as “fundraisers” to rethink their position and try this new perspective on for size. You might find yourself pleasantly surprised by how satisfying this work is, especially when you see the direct results applied to the charitable causes that are closest to your heart. My best fundraising partners are programmatic experts who are passionate about their cause and have moved past their fundraising hang-ups. By the end of work together, many of them were asking me to go out on the road and fundraise with them, because they saw first hand the impact that "making the ask" has on their programs.
In the end, if you're not comfortable enough in yourself or your program to ask someone for money, why would they be comfortable enough to give it to you? If you articulate a compelling case for support, and get to know your donors, most often the ask spills out naturally and the philanthropic support is easily given. Philanthropy is about building a solid foundation, and committing to the work of finding and actively listening to your benefactors. Once you have a solid foundation built on trust and a shared vision, donors will seek you out to take advantage of your service and expertise. And from there, the only way to scale is upward.