Knowing when and how to ask is the most essential weapon in any effective fundraiser’s arsenal, writes Guy Mallabone.

For many of us, the journey to becoming a fundraising professional is unplanned. Guided by a strong inner philanthropic compass, we direct our energies toward raising money for causes and missions close to us. The reality, though, is that the lessons most worth learning are often the ones that take the longest to learn. Chief among these is the importance of asking.

Most of us stumble into philanthropy and, once established, seek to educate ourselves on the best practices of our new profession. This education is frequently self-guided, sometimes including formal education, professional workshops, and conferences. It also almost always involves good old-fashioned trial and error.

Take this test. Sit down with a group of fundraisers and ask them the question: “What is the most important thing a fundraiser will be evaluated on in his or her career?” For many, the answer to this question is obvious. For others, it is not.

Raising Funds is the End Goal

Many will focus their answer on the strategies of building relationships – an important and critical skill to be sure. Knowing about our donor prospects, and what motivates them, is critical to securing a gift for the cause we believe in. Without significant and sustainable relationships, the possibility of raising dollars is greatly diminished. Relationships are at the very core of a fundraiser’s journey.

But, while there is no question that building solid relationships is important to every successful fundraiser, and essential to building and sustaining a philanthropic culture, I would argue that it is not the most important thing.

At the end of the day, the most important criteria by which to evaluate a fundraiser is his or her ability to raise money. Building relationships is critical to the process of fundraising, but raising money is ultimately the most important outcome. Many younger fundraisers fail to discover this important tenet early in their career.

The Obstacles to Asking

The reasons for the delay fall into three broad categories:

Learning the bigger picture of the ‘development lifecycle’ and ‘fundraising process’ obscures and delays the end-goal of asking. The lack of fundamental solicitation training leaves many ill-prepared and fearful of the ask itself. The lack of an ‘asking culture’ within the organisation.

It’s a common belief that the fundamental role of a fundraiser is to ‘set the stage’, and leave it to the donor prospect to connect the dots and offer a gift of their own volition.

The first ‘bigger-picture’ obstacle isn’t so much a question of ‘what’ is focused on, it’s a question of ‘how much’ focus is given. A solid understanding of the process within which solicitation exists is important to the health of the relationship between the donor and organisation, and allows the fundraiser to better prepare for a successful solicitation.

Proper identification and qualification strategies, relationship cultivation techniques, and pre-solicitation stewardship techniques of previous gifts, are all important concepts to understand and master. The challenge comes in trying to master this context at the expense of delaying the ask. By trying to ‘align the moons’ before the perfect solicitation is conducted, we can miss the opportunity.

Rather than viewing the act of asking as the final coup de gr’ce, successful fundraising professionals recognise that the act of asking for a gift is often the best tactic to flush-out the true obstacles that need to be addressed and negotiated. Reckless solicitation is not being advocated here but, rather, finding the careful balance of knowing when enough preparation is enough, and when the time to ask is upon you.

The second obstacle is more easily understood. Many of us have not undertaken much (if any) formal training in philanthropic gift solicitation. Fundamental concepts such as how to influence a ‘yes’; thinking like an investor; the psychology of a successful ask; identifying and navigating the obstacles identified during an ask; and the step-by-step process of how an ask might be conducted, are foreign to many new (and dare I say even many ‘seasoned’) fundraising professionals.

Even the concept of solicitation role-play is something many fundraising professionals have little experience with. Exercising the ‘ask muscle’ is an important step along the educational journey for a fundraiser, so that he or she can identify when the ‘moons are aligned’ sufficiently.

Learning the strategy and tactics for a successful ask builds confidence and allows the fundraiser to better know when to make an ask, and how to address the inevitable obstacles that arise. Building experience in asking also allows practitioners to find the balance between the art and the science in philanthropic solicitation and help build effective judgment and success as an outcome.

Finally, the third obstacle is lack of an asking culture. This is perhaps the most difficult to address, for unlike the first two, the lack of a particular culture can be very difficult to change. There are many organisations, and boards, that still operate on the assumption that ‘if we build it, they will give’.

However, stating needs alone is unfortunately often not enough in today’s competitive philanthropic world. The fundraiser’s role is critical in articulating the compelling and urgent case in the solicitation process. This is where the effectiveness of the passion of the mission and urgency of the case can be made; donor reaction evaluated; and closure brought to the gift offer.

Creating a ‘Culture of Asking’

While Australia has a strong philanthropic culture, as evidenced by the grassroots philanthropic responses to the 2004 tsunami and 2009 bushfire disasters, it has yet to evolve into a strong asking culture. It is still considered poor form in many parts of Australia to present an ask in a forthright manner, naming a specific suggested amount.

The best advice that can be given to a board of directors/governors of a nonprofit organisation, is to seek leadership and performance that celebrates and encourages a culture of asking.

Asking is the most important thing to focus on as a fundraising professional. Asking leads directly to donor decisions – hopefully positive. While it is important to conduct the ask in a relationship-based fundraising atmosphere, care should always be taken not to manage relationships for their own sake alone.

Honouring Our Mission

Relationships are managed on behalf of an organisation for the organisation’s benefit. From a fundraising point of view this means preparing donors for an ask. Anything less would dishonour the fundraiser, the organisation, and the donor.

The fundraiser is dishonoured because they have had their role misinterpreted in the organisation. As an agent of development, they are fundamentally focused on finding additional resources to deliver to the mission. To prevent them from achieving this goal is the ultimate folly.

The organisation is dishonoured because it is dependent on the resources of the private sector to deliver its mission. Anything less affects its ability to be mission-centric – always the fundamental responsibility of the organisation.

The donor is equally dishonoured, as they are attracted to the mission of the organisation in the first place, and shame on the person who withholds from them the opportunity to provide support.

At the end of the day, as fundraisers we will be judged not by the number of relationships we create, but the number of dollars we raise. Learning this early in your career can allow you to place solicitation into the proper context of your acquired fundraising knowledge; allow you to seek the specialised training in solicitation that you need; and position you as a change-agent to nurture and build an ‘asking culture’ in your organisation.

Guy Mallabone has been a fundraiser for almost 30 years and is acknowledged as a leader in major gifts fundraising. He is presently the vice-president of external relations for SAIT Polytechnic, a leading institute of advanced technology in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

To hear more insights from Guy, attend his session at the FIA’s 33rd International Fundraising Conference in Adelaide in February 2010. Check out www.fia.org.au

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