This week’s feature is an excerpt from The Benevon Model for Sustainable Funding: A Step-by-Step Guide to Getting it Right, Second Edition. For more information and to buy the book, visit our store.
Remember, first and foremost, that in the Benevon Model, the Ask happens only after the donor has been educated and inspired about your work, has indicated an interest in becoming more involved, and has been cultivated personally before being asked for money.
The process of asking is fun and natural. The biggest challenge is to remember that it needs to be a dialog between two people who already know each other.
Before I go to ask someone for money, I always put myself in the donor’s shoes. How would I like to be approached by one or two key people from the organization, knowing full well what they want from me? I recall that this is an organization I love and will feel excited to support. It feels as though I have guided myself through the cultivation process. In fact, the process has felt very natural. I am wondering why no one has asked me to give until now. I have given many readiness signs to this group, hosted an event in my home, and invited friends to Point of Entry Events. This is one of the two or three places I want to give my money. I love these people and support what they are up to.
To provide some encouragement for what may lie ahead as you enter the cultivation and asking process, let me share two heartwarming Ask stories from our alumni groups. One group had a lunchtime major Ask for $1 million scheduled with the executive director and the board chair (who was also a major donor), but on the day of the appointment, the donor had to cancel. Rather than postponing the meeting, the donor called that morning to apologize, insisting on knowing how much money the organization needed. Despite the executive director’s attempts to hem and haw and reschedule the lunch so the Ask could take place in person, the donor persisted and the nervous executive director finally blurted out, “We were planning to ask you to give $1 million toward the capital campaign for our new building.” The donor replied, “I’d be delighted to do that—just send me all the paperwork.”
The moral of that story is to never underestimate the power of the highly personal donor-cultivation work you will be doing. This same executive director, who has now raised over $10 million for this campaign, calls me often with amazing success stories and to ask me, “How can we attract and cultivate more of these wonderful donors who truly understand and appreciate our work?”
But let’s suppose you aren’t getting millions of dollars over the phone. Let’s assume you’ll need to go out and meet with people to ask. What else does it take to be successful when you ask?
We worked with one very shy executive director of a children’s home who, even after many cultivation visits and practice Asks, could barely bring himself to make the Ask for $100,000. His 27-year tenure with the organization was a testament to his love of the children and the work of the organization. We suggested that when he goes out to make the Ask, rather than nervously anticipating all the ways things could go wrong, he should pause to recall his larger purpose. “Imagine the little kids, tugging at your pant legs as you walk out of the office, saying, ‘Do it for us, Bob! You can do it! We need the things the money will buy.'”
He became a fearless, highly successful asker after that, and yes, he secured that $100,000 gift—for the kids!
Once you have completed your preparation and practice Asks, you need to put it all aside. At this point, asking should be nothing more than nudging the inevitable. You are asking people who already know and love your organization. You already know they have what you are asking for. You already know they are emotionally connected to you.
I recommend you go into the Ask with an entirely different agenda: in those few minutes, see how related and connected you can become with the donor. It is all about listening for every cue and being much more focused on what they are saying right now than on what you should say next.
The key to a successful Ask is you being a real human being—not a robot with a script, but a regular person who truly cares about this organization and this donor. The more authentic you can be, the better. Asking someone for money is an intimate occasion. It can be serious, playful, short and to the point, or long and drawn out. No two Asks are ever the same, because no two people are the same. I recommend you approach it more like your first dance with your new, lifelong dance partner. You may step on each other’s toes, grumble and laugh a bit, but eventually you will get it right. As with dancing, one person is the leader. In asking for money, it should go without saying that the donor is the leader.
Even after doing all your cultivation, some donors may say no to part or all of what you ask for. Your job if they say no is to thank them for being a friend of your organization and to ask if there are any other ways they would like to be involved. Then your job is to figure out how to ask them again in exactly the way they want to be asked, for exactly the thing they do want to say yes to. And then you ask them again, or have the perfect person ask them, so they say yes and feel great about it.
If they say yes and don’t feel great about it, it’s not a “win.” You don’t want to leave them with any sense of having been manipulated into giving more than they were comfortable giving. You don’t need their contribution that badly.
You want each donor to feel as though they have sprinkled fairy dust on the most worthy organization in the world. You want each donor to feel so good about giving to you that they have no need for others to even know they did it. You want them to feel as if supporting your organization is a source of personal pleasure for them.
You must let them know how excited you are to receive their gifts. You cannot be just a little bit appreciative. Let them know right away that their gifts are a big deal to you. Then you will have made a real friend. You have allowed them to truly contribute and feel the way you feel when you know you have made a real contribution.
Cultivating lifelong donors and connecting them to your work is the real nugget of the Benevon Model. Once established and nurtured, that personal connection becomes the driver of the relationship. Rather than giving out of guilt or obligation to a friend who is on your board, these donors have chosen to become—and remain—involved with you, for their own reasons. Multiply that by hundreds, even thousands of donors, and you can begin to see over the horizon to long-term sustainability for your organization.