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How to ask

By Tom Livers

"If you don't ask, you don't get."
- Mahatma Gandhi

SUMMARY: From our first cries to be fed and changed, we begin a life of asking. Yet, when asking a prospective donor for money, we freeze.

People want to help. If you can get a donor first to volunteer, showing the need and the solution, the donation will come. However, how do you find the right person who can ask for the right amount at the right time?

The basis of all fund raising is asking. How you ask means the difference between success and failure.

The "right person" has a personal relationship with the prospect. He or she may be a long-time neighbor, a member of the same social circles or a business colleague. You need to qualify the prospective donor. The best way is to gather four or five people active in the church and the community in a casual setting with one topic on the agenda--- providing confidential information about the prospect. You need to know if the prospect has any interest in what you are attempting to fund. Second, is the prospect philanthropic? Third, how much does the prospect know about your church or program? Rate the prospect on a scale of one (poor) to 10 (high) in each of these three areas. If the prospect rates high on philanthropy but low on knowledge about your church and only medium on interest in the project, you next need to meet with the prospect to educate and cultivate. Always have two people on the education/cultivation team. The first is the "right person," and the second is the "expert witness" who can answer any questions.

Fund-raising axiom: "Every zero in the gift you seek represents how many meetings you will have with the prospective donor."

Your meetings to educate and cultivate the prospect are short (30 minutes maximum). The meetings should not be during a meal, unless you are trying to raise funds for a food-related program. During a meal at a restaurant, distractions prevent a focused, concise presentation. Before meeting with the prospect, the "right person" and the "expert witness" should meet and rehearse the "script" of what they will talk about at the meeting and who will tell different segments of the story. If you go cold into the meeting with the prospect, you will waste valuable time. The reasons for the 30-minute window are first, the prospect can usually carve out 30 minutes from the schedule for a friend, and second, you can focus on the reason for the meeting. After the first meeting, the prospect will provide invaluable information about his or her interests, intent and possible gift level.

By the time you have the "ask" meeting, you will have determined the gift level and ascertained the prospect's level of interest and intent. You meet with your prospect and ask him or her to consider a gift at the level you feel is right. Once you ask, do not speak again until the prospect speaks. The first person to speak loses. I know it is difficult to wait for an answer, but often it is worth the wait. The prospect may ask for an extension to respond. If so, ask when you can meet within the next two weeks. Ask if he or she has questions you have not answered satisfactorily. Make the prospect as comfortable as possible with making the gift.

One caution: if the prospect agrees to the donation but attaches strings or conditions to the gift, ask to call him or her within the next few days after you have consulted with the "powers that be." On a rare occasion, you may have to refuse a gift because the donor's conditions are not suitable or too restrictive.

When you have secured the gift, can ask the donor how he or she wants to be recognized. More and more, donors wish to remain anonymous, and you must honor that condition. The exception may be if the donor's name will enhance the potential to secure more large gifts. If that is the case, ask the donor's permission to use his or her name for that purpose with other prospective donors. In most situations, the more publicity you give the donor and the gift, the happier the donor.

I recall walking away from a successful major gift meeting with a check or a pledge, all smiles while doing an instant replay in my mind. Suddenly, I stopped, slapped myself across the forehead and said, "That was too easy! I left money on the table." You will leave money on the table if you do not qualify the gift level as closely as you can. If you ask for money and the donor agrees just a little too quickly, you did one of two things. Either you made a perfect case for your need and the donor was eager to help or you asked for too little and the donor agreed too quickly. The latter may mean you let the donor make a donation that was less than he or she considered giving. You left money on the table. Everyone loves a bargain-even donors.

---Livers, a certified fund-raising executive, is director of development, Foundation for United Methodist Communications.