There are times you do need to actually ask

by Stephen Tall on November 16, 2009

A couple of weeks back, I wrote about ‘Asking without asking’ – how an institution can build such a close relationship with a prospective donor that, in the end, asking them for money is either unnecessary or a formality.

I stand by what I wrote then – but there is a big caveat. Sometimes you really do need to ask for money. And you need to ask upfront, explicitly and specifically.

At first sight, that might seem a bit of (okay, a hell of) a contradiction. It’s not. And here’s why.

I was reading Top 10 Ways to Screw up Your Year-End Fundraising Campaign over at the Step By Step Fundraising blog, and entry No. 3 was:

3. Bury The Ask deep inside a paragraph at the end of a sentence.

So true. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve received mailings from institutions apparently asking me for money – letter: check, brochure: check, giving form: check – but giving me no clue as to how much they needed, or what they were asking of me.

I’m sure we’re familiar with the reasons why charities sometimes prefer not to ask directly:

  • they don’t want to seem too pushy;
  • they don’t know how much those they’re mailing can afford;
  • the head of the institution is uncomfortable putting their name to a direct ask;
  • etc.

I’ve heard the excuses before. But they’re all rubbish.

And worse than that, they’re selfish rubbish: because they’re excuses made by the institution sending the letter with no regard for the impact it creates on the reader receiving the letter.

Here’s the effect a ‘no ask’ letter has on me when I receive it from an institution:

  • I’m confused what their aim is by writing to me – is it to give me information, or is there a real need I can help them meet?;
  • I don’t know what difference I can make – are they asking for a single £50, or a direct debit and a legacy?;
  • I regard the institution as diffident, unsure, aloof – why are they not engaging with me personally, helping ensure I know what my role is?;
  • etc.

My reaction to ‘no ask’ letters? I don’t give. Not because the cause isn’t important to me, nor because I can’t afford to (at least if it’s at the beginning of the pay month), but because I can’t see how my gift will make any kind of impact.

And because it doesn’t look like the institution actually, really, truthfully needs my gift. After all, if they did need it – why didn’t they do me the courtesy of asking me for it politely but directly?

And that’s why ‘asking without asking’ and asking upfront, explicitly and specifically aren’t contradictory fundraising methods – because both place the prospective donor right at the centre of the institution, and make crystal clear how the donor’s money and the institution’s expertise will, together, fulfil a joint mission.