Asking without asking: what fundraisers can learn from churches

by Stephen Tall on November 6, 2009

Earlier this week, I co-presented a training session on ‘Making the Ask’ (most professions, and fundraising is no exception, enjoy their jargon, the more so if they can transform a verb into a noun). Essentially this is the way in which you go about asking people for money in face-to-face situations – and when you’re asking folk to part with large sums of cash this is nearly always done personally, rather than by letter or phone.

As with most things, there is no right way to ask people for money (though there are, most definitely, wrong ways). The emphasis of our presentation was that fundraisers have to develop their own style; they need to feel comfortable in order to ensure the person being asked for money (the fundraisee?) feels comfortable.

After all, asking for money – or being asked for money – is the most embarrassing thing a Brit can do with their clothes on.

One thing’s for sure: if you are asking for money and are visibly tense or stressed not only will you make a mess of ‘making the ask’, but the person you are asking to part with their hard-earned cash is far more likely to say no – why would they feel confident entrusting money to an institution whose representative is sweating and stumbling?

Anyway, the presentation talked people through some of the key do’s and don’ts (and, yes, the inevitable PowerPoint slides are available if anyone wishes to email me for them).

But one thing we didn’t explore – the aspect of fundraising which I find more fascinating than the technical ‘ask’ – is how you ask people for money without actually asking them for money.

To be clear, I’m not talking about shy fundraising: the most typical British form of which is to say, “Well, I’ll leave the information with you, and you can get back to me.” That’s not politeness, that’s your insecurity talking. There is a fine line between assertive and pushy: as fundraisers, it’s our job to stay the right side. But if you’re not assertive, constantly on the front-foot, ask yourself this tough-but-genuine question: do you really, actually, truly believe in the institution you’re raising money for?

The ‘asking without asking’ fundraising I’m talking about is this: how do you get people to so believe in your institution – to view its values and theirs as identical – such that you don’t need to deploy ‘making the ask’ techniques: the money just flows.

I’m not describing a non-existent Utopia … This happens week in, week out, up and down the country in churches. With minimal announcement, a collection plate is passed around the congregation with the high expectation that all present will make a financial contribution. Nobody objects; no-one complains about being ‘hounded’ for money; no-one calls it begging. It is quite simply accepted as part of the cultural norm.

So, what is it about churches that they can ‘get away’ with such a high-level of asks, while other charitable institutions which tried asking their supporters for donations every week would find themselves antagonising vast swathes of their potential donors?

Here are three suggestions:

1. Identification with values. The theology might be complex, but the simplicity of the church’s mission is universal, and shared by millions. The fulfilment of that mission is viewed by the church’s supporters as fundamental to their own lives, and those of others. How important is your charity’s mission seen to be? What influence can you have on that perception?

2. A sense of community. The church community is a close-knit group; that has weaknesses (personality clashes, reliance on a small group of leaders), but it also has great strengths (personal involvement and a common sense of purpose). Everyone feels they can get involved, and can find their own place within the organisation, in a way which will help it achieve its mission.

3. A culture of giving. The concept and tradition of tithing, of giving a percentage of your income to those who are less fortunate, is ingrained within churches (and of course non-Christian religions). There’s no need for glossy brochures, direct mail or telethons. Just a covenant.

I am not saying churches and charities (whether religious or secular) are identical. There are, of course, vital differences.

However, there are lessons to be learned, ways of applying those three tenets of philanthropy within churches beyond churches.

Because it strikes me that the most powerful ask that can be made – the ultimate ask – is not an eyeball-to-eyeball encounter in which a donation is negotiated between fundraiser and donor. Rather, it is the gift which a donor makes because they share the charity’s mission, they know their role within that mission, and they realise their gift is vital to the mission’s fulfilment.

At that point, you don’t need to ‘make the ask’; you’re asking without asking.