Not all asks are the same.
And you know that.
But it means that what you say when asking depends on the type of ask you’re making. And what you’re asking for, how much you’re asking for, etc.
In this post, we’re going to focus in two general “types” of asks:
- What I like to call a “soft ask”, and
- A “direct ask”
The first of these, the “soft ask” is essentially asking to ask. You don’t ask for the gift outright, but you ask for permission to ask. For example, “Should we be talking to you about…?” or, “Would you consider supporting…?” or, “Can we send you some information outlining an idea for your support?”
The second, the “direct ask” is exactly what it sounds like. It’s direct. You ask for a gift of a specific amount for a specific purpose.
This post is about how to ask. And, more specifically, it’s about what to say when asking. So let’s dig in.
At some point, every solicitation meeting or conversation will need to “transition.” You’ll need to move from chit chat and general conversation to the business at hand, namely your request for support.
Sometimes your prospect will transition for you and ask something along the lines of, “So how can I help?”
If this door opens, you need to walk through it.
At other times, you will need to transition the conversation.
A transition initiated by your prospect is usually preferable. Why? It increases his ownership of the conversation.
I like to wait a little longer than might be comfortable to see if my prospect offers to transition the conversation. The risk here, obviously, is that you never get down to business, so proceed with caution. But, if you can get your prospect to transition for you, it’s like getting their permission to make an ask. And again, it usually indicates a little more buy-in on his part.
This is especially true for first visit asks (if appropriate), or “soft ask” situations. If making a request was the basis for the meeting, and that was very clear going in, this matters less. You already have full permission to ask.
Nonetheless, be prepared to create the moment of transition. Let’s talk about what that looks like.
Always, always, always focus on relevance. Especially when asking. And therefore, also when transitioning to an ask.
Your ask will have a higher chance of success if you can help your prospect tell a compelling story about the gift.
Set the technical details aside for a moment and step into her shoes. Given her life story, how does this gift fit in? When preparing for the meeting, imagine you’re her and you’re explaining the reason for the gift to family and friends.
This exercise will give you a sense of what you’re aiming for in your ask. It will also help you set up a meaningful transition.
Here’s an example:
You know Sarah, it’s always a joy for me to hear people reflect on their time as Girl Scouts. It sure sounds like the leadership opportunities you had in the program helped set you on your path. The same is true for many girls today. And, if it’s OK with you, I’d love to tell you about a new program we’re developing that really brings leadership training to the fore.
It’s pretty easy to see the approach taken in that transition, right? The prospect was a Girl Scout. The experience had an impact on her that she had shared earlier in the conversation. The fundraiser is transitioning to the ask assuming a classic “repayment” mindset.
A transition with a “communitarian” might look a little different. Instead of the pivot point being personal impact, it would be community impact and the prospect’s desire to make her neighborhood or city a better place.
By the way, for more on psycographic profiling (communitarian, repayer, etc), click here.
We mentioned at the top that there are two types of asks, soft and direct. Here are examples of both:
A soft ask is essentially asking for permission to ask later.
We’re grateful to have had this opportunity to share plans with you for the Creating the Future campaign. And we hope you’ll join us in the effort. Can we send you some ideas for how you might get involved?
You’ve been a wonderful supporter of ours over the years. Should we be talking to you about a gift during the Creating the Future campaign once it launches?
You can learn a lot with a soft ask. It’s a polite way to test the waters if you’re unsure whether or not your prospect is ready to receive a proposal.
Just be prepared to go further in the event your prospect wants more information. She may respond to your soft ask with, “Well, what do you have in mind?”
You want to avoid a premature “Yes” to a smaller amount, so resist the temptation to just make an ask then and there. Instead say:
We hope to have a conversation with you about a campaign gift that will have significant impact and will also be personally meaningful for you. This could look a number of different ways. When we learn how you might like to be involved, we’ll prepare a written proposal for your review. Can we schedule a follow up conversation later this month?
Most of your prospects will be just fine with a slow and steady approach. Your most cut-to-the-chase types, however, may still press you for a dollar amount, “Just tell me how much you want.”
At this point, you want to mention two gift ranges: one that is higher than you expect your prospect can give and another that you think represents a significant, yet acheiveable investment for her:
Well, the success of our campaign will depend upon support at all levels, from a seven-figure naming gift, to commitments in the mid- to high-six figures and so on. Is there a range of support that we should be speaking with you about?
You’ve given context now. If your read on your prospect is that she’s challenging you to give a dollar amount, follow that with:
We’re not going ask you to name the whole thing, but would you be willing to consider a gift of $500,000 or more?
A direct ask is more straightforward. At higher giving amounts, this approach assumes that you’ve done the heavy lifting of cultivation. Your prospect has awareness of the project, and you have a good sense of the size of gift you should ask for. At lower giving amounts ($1,000-10,000ish), less cultivation may be necessary.
Here’s an example of a direct ask:
John, we hope you’d agree that this project is the right next step for the Central Library. And we hope you’ll choose to be part of it. Would you consider a gift of $100,000—over the next five years—to name the Children’s Reading Room?
Simple. Direct. And it includes a specific amount and purpose.
Very often, a direct ask for a major gift will be accompanied by a written proposal.
Why? Marketing, mostly.
Proposals signal a measure of seriousness to the donor. They communicate that the organization is invested in the project and cares about the donor’s involvement.
And since, most major gift decisions aren’t made right away, they provide a reference for the donor as she continues to consider the request and perhaps speaks with various advisers about it.
So, how do you decide whether or not to use a proposal to support your ask?
I always consider at least these two things. First, how big is the ask? The bigger the ask, the more likely I am to put something in writing. With a longer incubation period, the proposal, as mentioned, is a helpful reference.
I also consider the donor’s personality and his level of familiarity with the organization. If you’re making a request of someone who is well known to the organization and to the “asker,” consider a less formal proposal—a letter (two pages max) might do the trick. And if the ask amount is on the smaller side, say $25,000-50,000, consider whether you even need a proposal.
Asking with a proposal doesn’t change the game all that much:
We hope you will get involved in this project a gift of $100,000 to name the Children’s Reading Room. We’ve prepared a written proposal that will give you more detail. *Pull out proposal* Would it be okay if we looked at it together?
Again, pretty similar, right? The ask should still be clear, direct, and finish with an actual question. Just keep in mind that in this instance, you haven’t yet asked for the gift. Rather, you’ve asked for permission to review the proposal. Be prepared to follow up with:
Jim, thanks for letting me walk you through our proposal. Do you think this is a gift that you and Mary would consider in the near term?
And then Be Quiet
So, “ask and then shut up” is a widely-accepted practice in the fundraising world—it’s basically dogma.
I usually like to push back a little and second-guess things that everyone says are true. But this one deserves the airtime it gets.
“Ask and shut up” is effective to 1) make sure you ask a question, and then 2) stop talking so that your prospect can answer that question.
It’s harder than it sounds. And again, this is why preparation is important. Make sure you know how you’re going to ask.
For example this:
Jim, would you be willing to consider a gift of $100,000 to support this project?
Is better than this:
And so we hope you’ll consider a gift of $100,000 to support this project.
The first is clearly a question. You could stop talking after that sentence and it would be obvious to your prospect that you were ceding the floor—it’s now his turn to talk.
The second is a statement. You could still stop talking afterward, but it wouldn’t be as clear to your prospect that you’re expecting a response.
In fact, years ago I made a pseudo-ask statement like example #2 above and then dutifully paused. My prospect looked at me for a few seconds and then said, “Oh, was that a question?”
So, yes, ask (in question form) and then be quiet.
Objections, Deferrals, and Declines
We talked a lot about objections, deferrals, and declines in our last post, and for good reason. You definitely want to be prepared for each these.
Since we’ve touched on this before, what follows is a blow-by-blow list of sample responses. Again, if you want to go back and review the thinking behind these examples, click here.
OBJECTION: It’s just not a good time for me to make a commitment like that. Or, I can’t get involved at this time.
YOUR RESPONSE: Thanks for your candor, and I certainly understand that timing is everything when it comes to a gift like this. In fact, many of our supporters pay off their commitments over a number of years. The same flexibility is available to you. Would that impact your decision?
OBJECTION: That’s a larger gift than I’m prepared to make.
YOUR RESPONSE: Thanks for your candor. Given the importance of this project, it’s true that we’re not asking for small commitments! If we could provide flexibility around the timing of your gift, would that impact your decision? For example, you could pledge your support now, but fulfill the gift over a period of three to five years.
If still no:
I certainly understand, Jim, although I do hope we can find the right opportunity for you and Mary to get involved in this project. Success will require gifts at all types. Is there a level of support that you would be more comfortable with?
DEFERRAL: Let me think about it for a bit. Or, I’ll need to talk it over with my spouse.
YOUR RESPONSE: Of course. Is there any information I can provide you in the meantime that would be helpful as you’re thinking things over? Or… as you’re discussing it with Jim?
I’ll plan on checking in again in two weeks to see if I can answer any further questions. Would that be okay?
Keep the initiative with the follow up whenever possible. You don’t want to be in a position where you’re waiting around for your prospect to call you. And, of course, clarify the timing of your follow up.
DECLINE: I value the work your organization does and I appreciate you updating me on this project, but I’m not going to be able to get involved. Or…but I’m not interested at this time.
YOUR RESPONSE: Mary, thanks for your candor. And we’ll completely understand if this simply isn’t the right project for you. But can I ask if there’s a specific aspect of our proposal that isn’t resonating—perhaps the amount, the timing, or something about the project itself?
Remember, you’re playing a long game and the first “no” isn’t always the final answer. Any additional information you can glean will help you either reshape your current ask, or help you craft your next one.
This is more like it! Let’s close on a positive note.
So, what do you say when you get a yes?
First of all, say “thank you!” Express joy and gratitude in keeping with your personality.
Next, confirm next steps and how you will follow up. But you’ll need to read your prospect carefully on this. Some people will want all the details right away. Some will want to make a “gentleman’s agreement” now and handle the rest later.
Which, dovetails into my next point, and this is very important: Once a commitment is made, do not keep selling.
Unless your donor specifically asks, do not continue to make a case for support. Do not continue talking about the project or the impact your donor will have.
There is no need to retread this ground. Why? Because you’ve already achieved the best possible outcome—you got a commitment! There’s now where else to go but down.
Instead, transition back to chit chat and focus on wrapping up the conversation as pleasantly as possible.
So there you have it! The language of solicitation.
No magic dust here, right?
Frankly, when you get to the point of soliciting the gift, things are pretty straightforward. The best fundraisers I know aren’t successful because of the “magic words” they say when asking. Rather, they’re successful because they help good people connect to good organizations, they build a lot of strong donor relationships, and, as a result, they put themselves in position to make a lot of asks. In short, they are masters of qualification and cultivation.
If you do, however, have any solicitation hacks or “go to” turns of phrase that work well for you, I’d love to hear about them. Leave a comment below.
Most big asks don’t result in an immediate decision about the gift, so our next post (maybe two) will focus on how to follow up. If you don’t know how to follow up, you don’t know how to fundraise. So stay tuned!