Dear Nonprofiteer, With friends like these . . .

Dear Nonprofiteer,

I serve on the Board of a nonprofit and I understand that we’re supposed to do the fundraising for the agency.  But here’s the thing: I hate asking my friends for money.  Isn’t there any way out of this?  Signed, With Friends Like These . . .

Dear Friends (hmm, sounds like a Firesign Theatre bit):

The best way to avoid asking your friends for money is to ask someone else’s friends for money, and have that person ask yours.  This may sound like the long way ’round, but it’s really the only way to keep money and friendship separate while serving on a nonprofit Board.

(I infer from your question, by the way, that you’re a woman.  We’re often concerned about the negative consequences of injecting money into a relationship, whereas men–at least businessmen–understand that mutual charitable solicitation is just part of the cost of doing business.)

If you know someone who might be willing to support your cause, call that person up and ask her to lunch.  Then go with another member of the Board and let that person do the asking.  It’s a sort of good-cop, bad-cop routine, where your job is to say, "I got involved in the agency because it’s so fabulous" and the other Board member’s job is to say, "We hope you’ll consider a gift of $5000."  You’re still involved, but you don’t have to do the ask yourself: you’re just the host.  Can you help it if this person you invited along turns out to be an irrepressible fundraiser? 

Of course, turnabout is fair play, so when Other Board Member mentions a friend of hers who might be a good target, she extends the lunch invitation but you’re ready to accompany her and ask for the gift.

It may seem a small distinction–whether you’re there when money is asked for or whether you ask for it yourself–but it’s not.  I doubt you hate asking your friends to lunch, and that’s really all you’re required to do–that, and be enthusiastic about the agency to which you give so much time and energy.

Here, by the way, is my never-fail recipe for a fundraising meal:

If lunch is going to last an hour, spend–

  • 10 minutes in ordering and small talk;
  • 5 minutes on how the contact Board member got involved and how great it’s been;
  • 15 minutes asking the prospect what she knows, what she’s heard, and what she thinks, about the agency, the problem(s) it addresses, the people it serves;
  • 20 minutes on the way you’ve transformed the lives of people you serve (be sure you have this information–-not statistics but sample stories), especially in ways the prospect has suggested are important, or that she thinks you don’t do;
  • 2 minutes thanking her for her previous support; and
  • 8 minutes on how she can help.

*Note: "If you want people’s money, ask for their advice." Ask prospects questions and listen to their answers. You will presumably know going in that this is your friend who’s very interested in fighting domestic violence, and you should bridge the talk of your involvement to the talk of her involvement with the comment, "I knew you were very interested in fighting domestic violence, and I wondered what you know about the work we’re doing."  Don’t let her just say, "nothing;" if she does, broaden the subject: "Are there obvious gaps in services?" Ask how she assesses the community you serve. Warning: People will express false, ignorant and prejudiced opinions.  Don’t argue.  Listen to them, respond with gentle corrections when you can ("Is that right? I always thought . . . ") and ask about something else. You’ll get your chance to talk.

*Note: don’t talk about programs you have; talk about people you serve. No one wants to give to support a program; they give to help others.

*Note: talk about how they can help. Try to go prepared with something you can ask them for in addition to money: often, a volunteer effort. This is the reason that many organizations create "Advisory Boards;" not because they need more advice but because the way to open a door is to ask whether the person would be willing to learn more about the agency and share her ideas on a regular basis.

*DON’T FLINCH AT THE CRUNCH. (If this is really the person’s first exposure to your agency, rest content with getting her to agree to join the Advisory Board, or the Board itself–-and don’t forget that Board recruitment should walk hand in glove with major-gifts fundraising–-but remember in most cases where you’re asking for major gifts, you’re not walking up to strangers and asking them for $500; you’re talking to your friends or the agency’s own donors, giving them a progress report on the agency they already support, soliciting their advice for how it could be run better.) So say, "And–-you’ve been so generous already–-we’re also hoping you’ll think about increasing your financial support.."

Who says it?–-again, if there are two Board members, it’s the one who is NOT friends with the prospect. If it’s the prospect’s friend and the Executive Director, it’s the Executive Director.

There will be some joking about "Of course," "I knew lunch wasn’t free"–and people do know when you say "Could I buy you lunch and talk to you about the Chicago Abortion Fund?" that you’re likely to want something–-and let that play itself out. Then you, as the prospect’s friend, say, "I try to give $1000 a year, just because the work’s so important," and the E.D. chimes in, "I wonder if you’d be willing to consider a gift of $500."

*Note: always ask the prospect for less than the Board member gives.

* Always say "consider." It’s easier for people to consider things than agree to them.

*KEEP SILENT AFTER THE ASK! This may be the hardest thing about major-gifts fundraising–-not what to say, but when to say nothing. People find silence uncomfortable and they will say anything to fill it–-even ‘yes.’

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