Below is an excerpt from Fundraising for the Long Haul, recently published by Chardon Press. In this book, I explore the particular challenges of older groups and share with readers some of the mistakes I have made in my fundraising career. The following is one of those mistakes.
When I train people in how to do fundraising, I find a lot of active resistance. People object to all kinds of things I present: direct mail doesn’t work, phoning is too invasive, people don’t want strangers asking them for money, and so on.
But the strongest resistance is to practicing asking for money. This resistance is expressed passively. When I announce that we are going to practice the phone call, a fourth of the people get up and leave. When I divide people into groups of three to practice asking in person, most of the groups turn into groups of two. Suddenly everyone has to go to the bathroom or make a phone call or get something from their car. Those who stay often wind up talking about the exercise rather than doing it.
Everyone needs to find out what their limitations are when it comes to asking for money. Some people just need to get over the first hump of asking. After that, they can ask for any amount of money, from a dollar to a million dollars. For others, like me, there is some ceiling past which we cannot go without further work – that is, some amount of money that seems like the most we can possibly ask for. Practicing asking will allow you to find out what your boundary is and help you get past it. People who don’t practice probably are not going to ask in real life. If they do, they are likely to mess up.
I know this from my own experience. Early in my career I helped found a shelter for battered women, and I helped raise money for it. I had gotten to the point where I could ask for $50, $100, even $1,000. I thought, therefore, I was in the clear. So, in a planning meeting for a fundraising campaign, everyone wanted to practice what they were going to say. I felt this was a waste of my time, so I went home early, saying that I was tired and did not need practice. I had agreed to ask a man who had helped the shelter in a number of ways for $10,000. He had given that much to another domestic violence program and had told a friend that he would be happy to give “a significant gift.” I was cool with the idea of asking for $10,000, even though my entire annual salary was $6,000, a decent amount in those days. I had an appointment with him and I decided it would be more efficient if I just went alone. (Efficiency is another fallacy.)
He was a wonderful man. He was about 50, which to my 23-year-old self seemed old, and he was active in a lot of nonprofits. He said he had personal experience with domestic violence because his mother had been beaten by his stepfather. What was most impressive was that he admitted that he had struggled with being violent to his own wife and children and, through counseling, had overcome it. I had heard dozens of people admit to being abused (which can be very difficult), but I had never heard anyone admit to being abusive. After we had talked for an hour, he said, “I know one of the reasons you are here is to raise some money from me.”
“Yes,” I said, realizing that he was also a dream donor, setting up the request like that. I moved into the close very smoothly. “You have been very generous in the past, and have helped in a lot of ways. Today I am hoping you will consider a gift of ten…” Suddenly weird thoughts careened around my brain: “You can’t ask for that much! Do you know how much $10,000 is? A lot!! You shouldn’t even be here. Someone closer to this guy in age and ability should be asking him. What are you doing?” After those thoughts, I was almost overcome with an urge to laugh out loud – “$10,000! Right! What an absurd request – you don’t even know how much $10,000 is.” The donor stared at me expectantly. I don’t really think that much time went by between the start of my sentence and the finish, but it was enough to blow the request. I backed up part way and started over, “I hope you can help with a gift of ten hundred dollars.” His look of puzzlement and confusion sent my brain into another round of criticism. “Ten hundred dollars? What kind of a number is that? You nitwit!”
He said, “You have a very folksy way of speaking. I would be happy to give $1,000. I had imagined you would ask for more.” He wrote out a check, which saved me from having to look at him for a few minutes. I managed to thank him and raced out of his office, completely flustered and embarrassed. I had found my “ceiling” too late to practice enough to overcome it.
My macho unwillingness to practice had cost the organization as much as $9,000. I have never missed a practice session again. To this day I practice every type of fundraising before I do it – selling raffle tickets, making phone calls, talking to people door-to-door, asking friends, asking strangers. I want to find out if I am going to choke, and I want to be prepared.