I have worked with thousands and maybe even tens of thousands of volunteers, teaching them and trying to put them ‘at ease’ with asking someone for money to help their cause. There is, as it says in Ecclesiastes, nothing new under the sun. Yet, the things that work more effectively are seldom intuitive or natural, and often they seem to conflict with what we have learned before.
Among the things that will help you succeed, many are familiar and will help you with anything you do in life. You want to know your organization and especially the case for support—or the reason you want the donor to give to this particular cause or initiative. You want to learn as much as you can about the donor: their cares, their concerns, their interests and the causes to which they have given in the past. How much did they give? Why? Is there a pattern of support for religious, social justice/equity, educational causes or the arts? If so, is there some way that you can tie this project to that appreciation?
There are many other things that ought to be considered as you are cultivating the interest and involvement of your donors, but this brief article is going to tackle the simple choreography of the call itself. Some people may not have ever considered this, but I have found that it is most effective to plan and manage the time you have with a prospective donor (usually an hour) very carefully. Who will say what and when? When we are beginning our work with a nonprofit client, I actually insist on mapping that out, and rehearsing it together—not so that we will be mechanical, but so that we are confident and comfortable. Confidence leads to comfort and the two of those scream competence to a donor—they can see that you are well prepared.
In my opinion, you should get comfortable. Enjoy some small talk and catch up about old friends and recent events, but within a few minutes you should transition quickly to the story you want to share with them and then to making the request. Ideally, you have already asked them for their support fifteen minutes into the meeting. You have explained the exciting program you are building, shown them how they can make an incredible difference in the lives of everyone involved, and asked for a specific gift to fund the project in question. If you do this, then you have the next 45 minutes to hear their thoughts, answer any questions, and address any objections.
Some may feel this is moving too quickly, but I have been on calls where my co-solicitor was having a wonderful time, and had really connected with the prospective donor, and I ended up having to send signals or even pass them a note saying that we are almost out of time. By that time, we are both nervous and they make the request just as the prospect is announcing that they have to get to another meeting, or worse yet, that happens before the request is made.
You know you have waited too long if the prospective donor says to you, “Ok, so what is it that you want? Or, how can I help you today?” Do yourself and your organization a favor. Be gracious and good natured, but get to the point. It is far more respectful of their time to get comfortable and then get the business done. You may even find that it allows you time to engage them further when they show they are very excited and wonder aloud what they might do to help you in other ways. What a blessing. They say ‘yes’ to the gift and ask if they can help you further.
Try it and I am sure you will find that it is very effective. Sure, there will be some of your donors who want a lot of conversation before you ask for their gift, but most of them will have been your friends for a very long time.