Karen Eber Davis
Nonprofit CEOs: How to Ask for Charitable Contributions
You’re out to dinner with your significant other. Your children are at home with a sitter. Suddenly, an earthquake shakes the ground, obliterating the only road between you and your house. When you learn the news, what is your response? Do you telephone your children to say goodbye? “Sorry, kids, we’d like to get home, but the bridge is out. It’s been delightful knowing you.” Or, with conviction, do you state, “Don’t worry. Somehow, someway, we’ll get to you. No matter what it takes.”
The second choice illustrates the fierce resolve parents feel, despite obstacles, to reunite with their children. It’s akin to the determination many nonprofit leaders experience to help nonprofits succeed. Perhaps you, too, are a nonprofit leader and share a similar resolve. If so, it is likely your daily activities include numerous beyond-the-call-of-duty actions. You lead client sessions when staff members call in sick. You rescue board members with dead batteries. After hours, you go back to your facility and lock doors. Your commitment: Do whatever it takes to succeed.
You will do anything, except one thing: Ask for money. After all, your development staff handles donations. Just as your organization’s financial reports require the expertise of an accountant, development requires expertise. You’ve hired the experts and you invest your time, like any good manager, on other essential tasks. At least, this is your public answer.
It is also likely that you, like many people around your nonprofit, have another reason. In private, you might admit that you don’t want to ask for money. You dislike the idea. Your distaste may stem from times that you have been solicited poorly. Your parents might have cursed fundraising telephone calls that interrupted family meals. Perhaps you were asked for a gift during your student days, and you had to say no because you didn’t have the means. You still regret it.
Your dislike may arise from current concerns. You may fear asking will damaging healthy relationships, especially ones with current donors or board members. You may fear that the person you ask will tell you that your current funds are not being spent well. You may be concerned about the time these relationships take.
Then, too, your refusal may stem from future concerns. If the donor agrees to make the gift, what obligations will it create for the organization and you. Will you be required to make a large gift or other sacrifice to the donor or the donor’s cause in the future? You may fear that asking makes you vulnerable to something in the future.
Most likely, your disinclination to ask stems from a mixture of experiences. In short, asking for money is (prepare yourself for a technical term) icky.
Despite this logic and your feelings, to be effective in obtaining donated dollars you need to ask for gifts. Donors like to engage with you. Donors want to talk and have a relationship with you. Donors feel recognized when you personally ask for a gift. In a lot of cases the exchange is between the donor and the CEO, with the development staff serving as the liaison. Donors must decide, among other things, if they can trust you with their money. They do this in face-to-face meetings. They want to know, if under your leadership, the nonprofit will fulfill its side of any monetary exchange.
Refusing to ask is akin to deciding to fill a bathtub in any way possible. You’re even willing to bring water from across town, but you will not reach down into the tub and insert the plug. Since actions shout over words, leaders who refuse to ask for charitable contributions risk undercutting all of their nonprofit’s development efforts. Refusing to ask implies to staff and others that there is something mysterious about fundraising that only development experts understand. In some cases, the message heard is that there is something shady or untoward about the exchange.
Besides responding to donor’s expectations and staff impressions, why else should you be willing to ask for charitable contributions? It works! CEOs who lead nonprofits that succeed in fundraising actively engage with major donors. University presidents and hospital CEOs spend up to 75 percent of their time developing donors.
If you have been an anything-but-ask CEO, ask yourself why? Realistically, asking for a donation involves uttering some one hundred words in the privacy of a donor’s home and then being quiet so you can learn. A jury of your “asking” peers will swear that this not life-threatening behavior. Some even find it exhilarating! Even if you never like the process, asking beats failure, mediocrity, and the regret of not doing everything that can be done to help your nonprofit succeed.
If fear holds you back, recognize it as a worthy but beatable adversary. Start with self-education.
Read books—including these published by CharityChannel Press:
- Asking Styles: Harness Your Personal Fundraising Power, by Andrea Kihlstedt
- Asking about Asking: Mastering the Art of Conversational Fundraising, Second Edition, by M. Kent Stroman
- Help! They Want Me to Fundraise! By Susan Black
Read articles, including over 650 articles on fundraising published by CharityChannel Press.
Ask your peers for advice. Practice asking. Experiment. Get permission from a friend and ask. Ask staff to give. Ask your favorite board member. Over time, master asking skills. What exactly should you practice? As Bob Holmes, CEO of the University of Central Florida Foundation suggests, “Practice asking donors to give so that they can feel good about the gift for rest of their lives.”
If time management is your biggest concern, free some hours.
Few activities are more important to your nonprofit’s future than engaging people willing to be fiscal partners in your work. Increasingly nonprofits are hiring staff to do jobs that were formerly done by the CEO. Can your hire a chief financial officer to handle payroll? How about a chief of staff for personnel issues? What about a board liaison specialist?
If you are determined to help your nonprofit succeed by doing anything that is legal and ethical, be willing to ask for money. You don’t have to like it, but if it gets you home, isn’t worth it?