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Making the Ask

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.

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Is One-on-One the Only Way to Ask?

Ask Benevon: The Ask Event is Not a First Date

Q: If someone has attended our Point of Entry and gotten involved but can’t come to our Ask Event, is one-on-one the only way to ask them to join our Multiple-Year Giving Society? What about our year-end annual appeal or other special mailings?

 Amber in California

 A: Yes, asking one-on-one is the only way. Do not send a letter asking people to join your Multiple-Year Giving Society for $1,000+ a year for five years.

If you blend in the higher Multiple-Year Giving Society giving levels into your normal annual appeal letter, it will confuse people who have been accustomed to being asked for smaller gifts in the annual letter.

Once someone joins your Multiple-Year Giving Society, you should take them off your direct mail list and cultivate them personally as a major donor.

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Cultivate Me: One Example

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.

Imagine yourself as one of the guests at your organization’s Point of Entry Event. You’ve had just this one contact with the organization and you are inspired.

Now what?

They didn’t ask you for money. They sent you home with some materials. You take a minute to read them. How interesting. There is an easy-to-read Wish List of all kinds of things they need. There are little items like toothbrushes, shampoo, pots and pans, help in the office once a week. And there are some medium-sized items like old computers, carpeting for the youth room, a van, math tutors. The list goes all the way up to the really big stuff: a new gymnasium, an underwriter for their international conference, a new office building, a properly staffed reading program.

You see that you could actually contribute some of the things on that list, but you are too busy to pick up the phone and call them or you might not want to appear that “forward.” You put away the Wish List and go on to the next activity in your day.

Two days later, you get a phone call from Sue, that nice staff person you met at the tour or lunch meeting. She is thanking you for taking your time to come and asking for your input. “What did you think of our program?” You tell her in a reserved way how impressed you were. You mention that the intercultural studies program was especially appealing. At some point she asks, “Is there any way you could see yourself becoming involved?” You may be thinking about underwriting that international conference. After all, it links to many other interests of yours, yet you don’t want to lead off with something so big. “I notice you need some old computers,” you respond. “I could help you with that.”

Sue is very appreciative and tells you immediately how much they are needed and for what program. The demand has increased so much that the computer lab is now open every evening and there are still people who can’t get the computer time they need. My goodness, you are thinking, my old computers could really make a difference. We’ve upgraded our system at the office and those old ones are actually in the way. I’d be a real hero if I found a good cause to donate them to.

“Would it help if we came to pick them up?” she offers. “I know how happy it will make the people in the computer lab to have them before the next round of classes start.” Before you know it, they have picked up the computers and you are getting a call inviting you to come back and see the expanded computer program in action one evening when it is in full swing. “Feel free to invite anyone else you’d like,” offers that same warm, efficient staff person.

You arrive with your spouse and two work colleagues just to check it out on your way to dinner. You are dazzled. Those old computers that had been cluttering the back room at the office are now front and center, with eager, curious children and their parents clicking away. The head of the computer program, a brainy-looking fellow, happens to be there in the midst of all the action. He can’t thank you enough.

Of course, as part of the evening’s show-and-tell at the computer center, your low-key guide points out the students from the intercultural program, communicating with their international “e-pals.” “It’s just a start,” she says.

“They’re always hungry for more real connections with other cultures.” You go off to dinner with your friends. Everyone is feeling good, and you are looking like the person of the hour. For your friends, this was a pre-Point of Entry Event; for you it was a validation that you picked a winner.

The next week, the same nice staff person calls back to thank you for coming out again and for bringing those friends. “I hope they enjoyed seeing the program,” she says enthusiastically. You find yourself telling her that one of your friends is a teacher and asked if he could learn more. And those work colleagues who came to the center and then to dinner have spread the word to a few others in the international department at the office. They’re wondering if someone from the program could come out to talk with them about what they do. Before you know it, you find yourself checking calendars and arranging a date for a Point of Entry in a Box at your offices, and you’re supplying the lunches!

And so it goes. A one-time visit to a Point of Entry Event and an effective Follow-Up Call lead to the birth of an in-kind gift, a volunteer, an Ambassador and—down the road—a new major donor. This is why we call it the Cultivation Superhighway.

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Ask Event vs. Individual Asks

Q: At what point do you decide not to hold an Ask Event and focus on individual Asks instead? We have very small communities in which it might not pay off to hold large events.

Bryant in Utah

A: Start with an Ask Event in your main location. It is best to launch the Multiple-Year Giving Society at an Ask Event, even a small one. Then you can do one-on-one Asks in the outlying communities, inviting donors to join the Multiple-Year Giving Society that you have just launched at your Ask Event. Otherwise, if you just start with one-on-one asks, the levels seem surprisingly large.

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How to Conquer the Fear of Asking

The fear of asking for a charitable contribution from a complete stranger (or worse, from a close friend) is legitimate. I certainly would not want to do that either. It puts everyone in an uncomfortable position. But if you follow the Benevon Model, by the time you ask a potential donor for money, they will have been cultivated sufficiently to be ready to give. There should be no awkwardness or fear. It will merely be a matter of nudging them gently to do something they had already been thinking about doing.

Most of the fear associated with asking for money has nothing to do with money anyway. It is our fear of asking for anything. There you are at the fancy dinner party, sitting at the round table of ten people, desperately scheming how to have the salt or butter passed to you from the other side of the table. Asking seems like intruding. It seems rude. It seems selfish. From a very young age, we have been taught not to intrude. At Benevon, we call it fear of “please pass the salt.”

When you overlay that fear of asking for anything with our cultural neurosis about money, it is no wonder we all have so much baggage about asking.

In our workshops, we remind our participants that people would rather say yes than no when asked for something. Think of the last time someone asked you for something and you said no. How did it make you feel? Most people feel like they are being mean when they say no. We feel like a much nicer person when we say yes.

So your job, as an asker, is to figure out what you can ask people for that they can naturally say yes to. We say that people can only contribute freely what they have in abundance. Anything else would be sacrificial giving, which is inconsistent with the abundance-based principles of the model.

Make a mental list of a few things which you personally do not feel you have enough of right now. Perhaps you feel you don’t have enough time or money. Now imagine that someone comes to you and asks you, very persuasively, to give them some of your time or money. Although you would like to say yes, if you are true to yourself, you would have to say no.

Now think of a few things that you have just about the right amount of—friends, family, clothes, pillows. If someone were to ask you to give them some of your friends or pillows for a project of interest to you, you would be more likely to say yes.

Finally, make your mental list of those things that you have in abundance. Books, shoes, old sporting goods? If someone were to ask you to give some of those, it might feel as though they were doing you a favor to take them off your hands.

Your job with your donors and potential donors is to discover what it is that they have in abundance, and then to ask them only for that. You are no longer looking for sacrificial donations. You will need to get to know each donor well enough to know that they can easily and naturally say yes to what you will be asking them for.

Even if it means you may get less than you had hoped, you will have left your donors with a positive experience of giving, rather than a negative experience of being pressured to do something they did not authentically want to do.

That way, they will be looking forward to staying in contact with your organization throughout the next year as you deepen your relationship further before asking them to give again.

In the Benevon Model, the key to successful, terror-free asking is the answer to only one question: Is this person ready to be asked? Another way of saying it is: “Have we gotten to know this person enough so that it would feel natural to ask them to make a financial contribution to the organization now? Would asking this person now be nothing more than nudging the inevitable?”

If your answer is anything other than a resounding “yes,” if it feels to you as if it is too soon to ask, then wait. Go back, re-listen, re-involve, re-cultivate, until the person is sufficiently engaged.