The Fear of Asking…. And Getting Over It
Recently, several of my colleagues and I had the privilege of sitting down with old friends whom we have had the pleasure of working with, to talk about philanthropy and…. yes, asking! These friends have made magnanimous gifts over decades that have had an untold impact on society and the lives of individuals, whether that is young people completing an education they never thought possible, physicians and scientists who are able to deliver care or make pioneering discoveries, or young people exposed to the world of imagination and music.
These luminary champions of philanthropy have also been very passionate about the organizations and institutions they champion. They have asked for enumerable gifts from others to support their shared visions and passions.
So, how did they do it? How have they been so successful in magnifying their own gifts with those of others who chose to participate with them? Were they daunted or totally undaunted in forging ahead in making the ask?
These are just a few of the things we set out to learn. And did we learn a lot! The conversations are a part of a video by Vision Philanthropy Group on the Art of Bold Asking. We want to share some of the wealth of information we took away from those conversations.
Most of us, if we’ve spent anytime in the fundraising profession, have encountered more than one “reluctant asker.” Board members, development committee members, and sometimes even campaign committee members feel uncomfortable asking others for their support. Throughout my career, I have found this surprising. Asking others to support noble causes that advance our society and communities, should be just that—noble! But, when it comes right down to it, most people have probably more than a little bit of discomfort when asking others for help. That is, until we are armed with the right tools and language, practice, and passion for the cause. Truly effective asking does not occur until we have dug deep and made a meaningful investment in the cause ourselves. Until then, we really do not know how to ask.
Speaking of ……
Each of the friends whom we interviewed for the program had learned to become comfortable, successful volunteer askers. As one of our friends said, “… once I found that if I really cared about the success of the organization, I just got over it. I never even thought about it.”
Although each one had taken a different path to get there, there were a few common themes to their success:
1. PASSION. Everyone agreed first and foremost, that they were not successful solicitors until they truly believed in the cause themselves. They were not effective if they were just taking an assignment given to them by the development office. And, most importantly, they were truly passionate about the cause, the institution or the project. Each had carefully considered his or her own gift and made a meaningful philanthropic investment in the project. As a result, they were able to speak personally about their confidence in the institution, their belief in the leadership and their determination to see the project or campaign through to completion and success.
2. FOCUS. Almost everyone had some hesitancy at first in making the ask. And then, as one interviewee explained, “I just got over it. All I wanted to do was to get to ‘Yes.’” Her laser focus and passion for the project helped her get past the fear of failing or any discomfort. Instead, she focused on sharing her passion for the institution and the importance of the impact of the project.
3. PRACTICE. As in the case of any great musician or athlete, all of our interviewees improved over time with practice. Each one learned, usually with the guidance of a good development officer, what worked well for them on a solicitation call. Walking through the solicitation scenario, rehearsing the roles and responsibilities of each of the participants on the call, and reviewing the critical points to be made as well as the closing conversation, helped everyone feel more comfortable and improved success. They made an outline, they rehearsed it with the other participants and they were nimble during the call, listening, reading body language and responding to the prospect.
4. STYLE. The most effective askers develop a style and approach to the call that reflects their own unique personality. Each of our participants had developed phrases or specific language they were comfortable with and were effective for them. These phrases became their “go-to” language and they used them on every call.
The word “consider,” was felt to be especially effective and even magical in fundraising. Asking a prospect to consider participating in a project or a campaign was one phrase that helped the solicitor become more comfortable especially in approaching good friends. Asking a prospect to consider a gift also elevates the level of seriousness of the request: Consider the impact of the project; Consider the gift’s impact; Consider the problem to be solved; Consider the role and transformation you can make. The scenarios are almost endless.
Philanthropic investment. Inviting a prospect to consider a philanthropic investment is powerful. It moves the prospect, and hopefully the donor, from a mere gift transaction to transformation. And, an investment versus a transaction positions the prospect to enter into a long-term relationship with the institution.
5. HOMEWORK. All of our friends benefited enormously from the planning and in-depth research that the development team brought to the table: wealth and philanthropy indicators, relationships, connections, professional and personal interests and aspirations all play a role. The team’s work was essential to success. But, each of these Board members also went a step further: they did their own research. Whether that was quietly speaking to others about the prospect’s circumstances, vetting their interests, or even gingerly laying out some “what if’s” scenarios with the prospect in advance, all of this information became an important part of the planning and gift strategy.
6. READINESS. Of course, these successful major gift calls do not happen without deep, oftentimes personal engagement with the prospect over time. The dance leading up to the actual solicitation call is critical. Preparing the prospect for the call is essential. The prospect needs to be ready. He or she needs to have had an opportunity to almost craft the proposal with you and the Board member! The development officer and the Board member should have spent a lot of time talking with and listening to the prospect. One of my mentors, the leader of a health care institution, was a joy to watch in action. Before every major gift proposal was crafted, he would meet personally with the prospect, oftentimes with the development officer, and ask the prospect’s permission to come back to him or her with a proposal. This scenario always had a happy ending! Perhaps, the ending was a little different than first imagined, but it was successful for the donor, the solicitor and the institution.
Watch for the next blog: The dreaded “botched” call.