You’re ready to solicit your prospect—congratulations! Getting to this stage is often the culmination of many months, years even, of work. Let’s talk about how to make the most of the opportunity.
But we need to get one thing out of the way first: there are no silver bullets.
There is no magic formula—no fairy dust you can sprinkle on your prospects that will make them give.
Solicitation may be the culmination of the fundraising cycle, but it’s not the most important part. Your chances of getting a major gift have much more to do with the quality of your cultivation and/or stewardship than they do your solicitation.
Think about the 70 year old on you board with decades of giving history and volunteerism. She’s far more likely to make a big gift than Mr. X, big-time philanthropist with no connection to your organization.
That said, solicitation is still important. Get it right, and it’s the capstone of an already-wonderful relationship with your donor.
This is the beginning of a new series on solicitation. As we always do here at Fearless Fundraising, we’re going to start with the “inner game.” A solid foundation in the psychology of solicitation will make for better conversation about tactics later on.
We’ll start with a peek inside your prospects’ heads. What are they thinking about when you’re soliciting them? How do they feel about your ask? And what has most impact on the outcome?
And then we’ll go inside your head. Given what your donors are thinking about, how should you approach solicitation? How can you prepare mentally? What attitudes should you try to adopt? Which do you need to avoid?
Let’s get started.
Inside Their Heads
Motivation and decision-making are complicated. And neuroscientists and neuro-marketing experts aren’t in perfect agreement about how the brain works. The two-brain system vs. three-brain system debate is just one example.
All sides would agree, however, that some thinking happens in the conscious mind and some in the subconscious. The same goes for decision-making. I’m sure you can relate to this from your own experience.
When you solicit your prospect for a gift there are a number of considerations running through her conscious and subconscious minds. This makes it hard to pinpoint specific motivators, or triggers, in every instance.
But, let’s step into the world of ideals for a moment. What is the ideal gift?
It’s the one that’s freely and joyfully given, right? Those are typically the biggest gifts.
Before making this type of gift, your prospects are weighing at least three things:
Miss on any of these and you’re unlikely to get more than a token gift.
But it’s also a matter of degree, isn’t it? To successfully solicit a $5,000 gift from someone who has much greater capacity, you simply need enough trust, relevance, and opportunity.
Parents supporting their kid’s private school is good example. Let’s say they make a $5,000 gift.
The relevance factor is high because their kid goes there. Getting $5,000 from them won’t take months of trust- and relationship-building. And it’s a gift that’s easily made without the president’s involvement. It could even come in response to a direct mail appeal.
The impact factor here is also good enough—$5,000 isn’t going to transform the organization. The donors are just happy to support their kid’s school.
People give for all kinds of reasons. You don’t need to hit it out of the park in each area (trust, relevance, impact) on order to get a gift.
But, if you hope to inspire a donor to stretch to the very edge of her capacity—if you want a transformative gift—you need to score pretty high in each category.
Let’s take each in turn.
Most giving is emotional. Yet your prospect’s conscious, rational brain will still want to understand what you’re pitching—particularly if you’re asking big. He’ll evaluate the offer as follows:
- How much do they want from me?
- What are they saying my gift will accomplish?
- Do I believe them?
Assuming he has the capacity to give what you’re asking, your prospect will then evaluate the impact potential.
And, generally speaking, the bigger the impact the better. People want their philanthropy to do good things in the world. They want to create outcomes that benefit people and communities—to the fullest extent possible.
Your ask then, should highlight impact. How is it a chance for your donor to make a big difference?
But what about needs?
Your organization has needs. Addressing needs is important. But opportunity and impact trump needs.
Jerry Panas beats this drum relentlessly: Donors give their biggest gifts to compelling opportunities, not organizational needs. Hear Panas:
“People do not give because there is a need. Countless thousands of organizations and institutions have great needs. But donors run away from ‘needs.’ They hide from the institution that is not financially stable. Large donors give to heroic, exciting programs rather than to needy institutions.”
Again, meeting needs is still important. But focus on your clients’ needs. Without them, you don’t have an impact story. Make sure you’re advocating on behalf of the people you serve, not for your operational challenges like keeping the lights on or making payroll.
Trust is foundational to a successful solicitation. People don’t support organizations they don’t trust and they don’t give to people they don’t trust. We talked a bit about building trust in THIS POST on cultivation.
For the biggest of gifts, trust needs to go all the way up. Most likely your chief executive will make the ask. Your prospect better have a high level of trust in his or her ability to run the organization before you ask for a major investment.
Prospects evaluate your trustworthiness and your organization’s trustworthiness on a subconscious level. Absent overt demonstrations of honesty or deceitfulness, it’s a “gut feeling” for most people.
Now, make no mistake about it, the best way to earn trust is to be trustworthy. This isn’t rocket science. Be honest, be fair, be transparent, show genuine care and concern, do what you say you will do. These are basics, but they will earn you most of the trust you need to be successful.
Beyond that, neuroscience suggests a few other things you can do to enhance people’s feelings of trust in you. Again, the more of this you can do during cultivation the better.
Did you know you can impact the oxytocin levels in you prospect’s brain? Oxytocin is a hormone. It’s secreted from the pituitary gland, and it’s linked to our emotions. More oxytocin in the brain generally increases feelings of happiness and relaxation. And an increased willingness to trust other people. Smiling, hugging, a good handshake—these can all trigger oxytocin.
Laughter is another way to build trust. It enhances “liking.” We tend to trust people we like. Injecting some humor into your conversations and laughing with your prospects will make you more likable. Laughter triggers dopamine, a neurotransmitter, which the brain perceives as a reward. Making people laugh adds value to them—chemically!
Again, these are margins of trust. They’re the unconscious plus-factors. If you’re dishonest to begin with, they won’t help you. But if you have integrity, these will help you build some extra trust.
Does the project matter to the prospect? This too is foundational. And again, you should have covered this ground while in cultivation stage.
If you can’t answer your prospect’s Why me? Why now? questions, you won’t get more than a token gift.
Donors reserve their biggest gifts for organizations and projects closest to their hearts. Again, Jerry Panas:
“It is a plain fact, however, that familiarity begets involvement, and involvement begets commitment, and commitment begets giving. Often, sacrificial giving.”
That’s why trustees usually make the largest gifts. Trusteeship is the ultimate engagement experience. And among the surest paths to relevance.
Your prospect’s conscious and subconscious minds evaluate the relevance of your ask. Her analytical mind weighs the project against her giving priorities and interests.
But much of this work also happens in the subconscious—or at the “gut level.” Especially when it comes to your prospect’s self-interest.
In fact, three-brain subscribers would say that much of our decision-making happens in the “old” or “reptilian” brain. It’s the part of the brain that humans and animals have in common. And as the theory goes, the reptilian brain makes decisions based almost entirely on self-regard and self-preservation. Will this help me survive? Is this a threat?
In a fundraising context, this is the part of the brain that’s interpreting your proposal in terms of raw self-interest. Will I feel good about this gift? Will this gift increase my influence? Will this gift enhance my reputation?
This is the ultimate, selfish core of “relevance.” Appealing to your prospect’s altruistic nature is fine, but know that—consciously or unconsciously—she’s making “what’s in it for me” evaluations.
Inside Your Head
Now, let’s talk about you. What’s going on in your brain when you make an ask? And what type of self-management will enable you to put your best foot forward and increase your chances of success?
We’ll start by talking about what goes on in your head before the ask.
If asking someone for money terrifies you and you have to work through fear and anxiety beforehand, check out THIS POST I wrote on the topic.
One of the best ways to deal with normal, non-clinical pre-ask anxiety is to reframe your thinking. Remember, asking for a gift isn’t about you at all. You’re not on stage performing for an audience. The entire world isn’t holding its breath, waiting to see if you can pull it off. It’s not about you—it’s about your donor. You’re merely presenting him with an opportunity to achieve his philanthropic goals—to create real change.
And, thanks to your good cultivation, you know a lot about the person you’re preparing to ask. You know his motivators and you know the change he wants to see in his community and the world. Maintaining a focus on serving your donor will help you avoid spending too much time in your own head.
Nonetheless, it can be hard to take your mind completely off of yourself, particularly if you’re anxious.
I’m going to share another simple reframe that has received attention in the popular press in recent years. Instead of trying to calm your nerves (hard to do), this technique is about channeling anxious energy into excitement. THIS VIDEO from The Atlantic sums it up pretty well.
An appropriate level of excitement can actually be helpful to your ask. You certainly don’t want to come across as sleepy or laissez-faire. Remember, your enthusiasm is an important part of the equation. If you’re not excited about an opportunity, how is your prospect supposed to get excited? This approach will help your mind and body get prepared for action!
So, to summarize: stay enthusiastic about your mission all the way through the process. Channel anxiety into excitement. Stay honest and continue focusing on serving your donor. And always put yourself in his shoes. Do everything you can to understand what it must be like on the receiving end of your cultivation and your ask. You’ll be fine.
In other “inner game” posts we’ve talked about the difference between useful attitudes—mindsets that help you achieve your objectives—and unhelpful attitudes—patterns of thinking that cause you to get in your own way. Let’s start with some attitudes that are helpful during solicitation.
Service Orientation. It goes without saying that a service orientation will help you. As a fundraiser, you connect a donor’s interests with philanthropic opportunities. This is customer service. You are meeting your “customer’s” needs.
Position of Strength. To the extent possible, you also want to approach asks from a position of strength. This approach is particularly helpful when framing a gift as an opportunity for your donor.
Let’s face it, when asking, we don’t often have very much leverage—certainly not economically. This is okay. Asking for philanthropic support is inherently different than business negotiations.
So, what do we have?
We have compelling ideas and great opportunities for our donors to make genuine impact. We can help them do something truly noble and beneficial. This is strength. And, to the extent possible, we need to leverage it.
Coming from a position of strength also means not airing out your dirty laundry. All organizations have warts and blemishes. If you’ve been in the workforce for more than a few years, you know this to be true. If you’re early in your career—surprise! No organization is perfect. (And if you find one, stay away. You’ll just mess it up.)
Your donors doesn’t want to hear about that stuff. It erodes their confidence. They want to back a winner and feel great about their involvement
The point is, keep the big picture in mind. Small frustrations are nothing compared to the sum total of the good your organization is producing day in, day out. Emphasize those strengths. And show your donors how their support would build up on them to create wonderful outcomes.
Empathy. It’s also important to adopt an empathetic mindset before and during your solicitation. You’re always seeking to get inside your prospects’ heads so you can understand what motivates them. You also want to consider how it would feel to be on the receiving end of your ask. Ask yourself: Am I being pushy? Am I reflecting back what I’ve learned about their values and giving priorities?
These mindsets will help you avoid some of the following unhelpful attitudes when soliciting.
A Combative Attitude. Beware of bringing an oppositional mindset to your solicitations. New fundraisers can do this without realizing it. They’re on one side; the prospect is on the other. And the goal is to get something from her that she may not want to give.
A combative approach disrupts empathy. Again, most fundraisers don’t intentionally adopt this mindset. Take a moment to make sure it hasn’t crept in and become your “default mode.”
In danger of viewing your prospect as a competitor? Reframe and try thinking of her as you would a friend or business partner. She’s someone you care about. You want her to be happy and successful. You’re committed to helping her accomplish something meaningful and important.
Remember, the best (and biggest) gifts are given joyfully, not grudgingly.
“Hitting up.” I’m not entirely sure I know what this phrase means, but it too comes with an attitude that can get in the way of your empathy. If you think of your work as “hitting people up,” it’s hard to be donor-centered. Your donor won’t tolerate being treated like an ATM for very long.
Overloading with Detail. We all want to appear knowledgeable and competent in our work. We all want to earn the trust and respect of our donors. These are completely normal desires, but beware. They make for terrible goals.
Young fundraisers will often overdo it on the details and technical information because they want to show they know their stuff. They want to be taken seriously. We’ve all been there, right?
Get too far into the weeds though and you’ll do yourself and your organization a disservice.
Yes, you should strive for deep knowledge of your organization and the available giving opportunities. But remember, it isn’t your readiness with facts and figures that will motivate your prospect to give.
Focus on serving your donor. And be empathetic. Understand his wants, needs, and desires and make connections. Communicate simply and clearly, using layman’s terms.
You can provide the extra detail if absolutely necessary, or if requested.
To sum it up: keep the big picture fully in view. The technical stuff might be interesting to you, but it can become a distraction for your prospect.
Well, we’ve spent a bit of time in your head and a bit of time in your prospects’ heads. Starting with the “inner game” is critical. It’s the backdrop for everything you do in fundraising. Get the mental game wrong and it’s hard to perform well.
Next, we’re going to talk about solicitation strategy and planning. How do you get ready for the big moment? I’ve talked about this before: most of the work of fundraising happens before you even get in the room with your donor or prospect. Good preparation is key.
Following that, we’ll get even more granular. I’ll share specific tactics and language you can use when making your asks. Stay tuned!