The Everyman Fear: How to Overcome the Fear and Embrace Asking for Money
Ask anyone to help fundraise for your favorite cause or charity and the reaction is likely to be somewhere between mild anxiety and outright terror. Why? Such a reaction is almost always born out of an inadequate or misinformed understanding of what constitutes "fundraising."
In my 25 years of involvement with philanthropy professionally, when volunteers and professionals think of fundraising they almost invariably think of that moment when an "ask" is made. Whether through the mail, e-mail, social media or the dreaded face-to-face meeting, the act of asking for money sends chills up the spine and tremors of fear through the limbs.
The subject I am most often asked to speak about and offer guidance on is that of solicitation, the actual "ask." I am very quick to point out that the act of a gift solicitation is but one small part of the effort to acquire a new investor or renew an existing commitment. Yes, yes, many respond but — there is still the ask. Clearly, there are those who would rather share intimate details of their lives rather than ask for money. Why?
Too many of us equate fundraising with begging or, at best, buying and selling. When we approach another seeking a gift, we see it as taking from that person — extracting something that without significant, undue influence or the promise of a material return, this person would not otherwise give. Nothing could be further from the truth. Individuals who are philanthropic, and more than 70 percent of Americans make charitable gifts (upward of 90 percent as incomes rise), do so to improve the lives of others and make their communities better places to live.
So why do we persist in seeing fundraising as "taking"? The predominance of transactional approaches to fundraising — auctions, galas, product sales — certainly contributes to that perception. Even the techniques employed in many direct asks — asking directly for a gift, per se — are often about little more than "getting the gift" and then moving to the next "prospect." More fundamental, perhaps, is a widespread lack of understanding of why donors make gifts in the first place.
Donors make gifts to see the realization of their personal values, the visions they hold dear. Stop. Read the previous sentence one more time. Donors make gifts to fulfill some of the ideas, values and dreams that they hold most dear.
True, you can harass someone to make a gift. You can create guilt. You can even threaten. Each of these approaches may — and often does — have some effect. These approaches never result in a gift that is reflective of the individual's financial capacity, however, and they are almost never repeatable. So I really don't intend to address these tactics here as they are not "philanthropy" in any sense of the word.
When individuals make gifts that are reflective of their personal values, visions and goals, they are much more like "investors" than "consumers." I'm focusing on individuals forasmuch the professional literature is often focused on grants and organized funders, individuals are and always have been responsible for almost 90 percent of all philanthropy.
With this understanding, seeking a charitable gift is no longer a transaction but the invitation for an individual to share in your organization's vision and its values. This intangible return is what philanthropic investors seek. And to them, it is much more valuable and powerful than money.
Armed with this understanding, fundraisers — professional and volunteer — become much more confident that, properly communicated, they are offering the philanthropic investor the opportunity of a lifetime: self-fulfillment, which something that money alone simply cannot buy. The stakes are raised, however, for investors want to be partners in your success, not merely bystanders.
Philanthropic investors want to be appreciated more than recognized. Including donors in this way takes an ongoing commitment to them. That ongoing commitment to communicate, show meaningful results and heighten donors' personal stake in your organization's success often requires a total rethinking of an organization's fundraising paradigm. It can be a little bit scary. A paradigm built upon the concept of investment, however, is not only the key to developing meaningful relationships built on mutual trust and benefit, thereby eliminating the anxiety of the process, but is also the critical component to fundraising sustainability.
This paradigm — this manner of thinking — of fundraising provides for sustainability and expandability precisely because it is built upon long-term renewal of donors whose stake in the organization or cause, personal and financial, grows over time. Fundraising costs plummet as the cost of acquiring a donor for the first time is very high. Those organizations that depend upon a steady influx of new supporters to make gifts discover that their costs for doing so consume much of what is given.
I call this approach the "triple win." The organization "wins" as its outreach is sustained and expanded at the lowest possible financial cost. The fundraiser "wins" by being successful in procuring essential resources for an organization he or she believes in. And last, and most important, the donor "wins" through the opportunity to fulfill personal values — something money alone will not buy.
What could be more empowering than offering people the opportunity to fulfill what is closest and dearest to them? Such is certainly not the stuff for anxiety or fear. If you've made your own investment — you've put skin in the game — you're demonstrating to any and all whom you approach that you share a common bond, a common vision with them.
So, when you're approached to fundraise for your favorite cause or organization, there's no need to cringe and duck. The key is to shape the method and approach to attitudes that are built upon mutual benefit and personal investment. You'll even make some new friends.
Larry C. Johnson, CFRE, is an internationally recognized philanthropy coach and speaker, and author of "The Eight Principles of Sustainable Fundraising" and the Adopting the Right Paradigm blog.
An internationally recognized philanthropy and fundraising thought leader, Larry C. Johnson trains the staff and volunteers of worthy causes to achieve real impact through the creation of reliable, growing revenue streams. He emphasizes principles before methods as the key to long-lasting success. He stresses the simple, the practical and the joyful.
Larry is the founder of The Eight Principles, the premier brand for educational products and services in relational fundraising and philanthropy. The Eight Principles provides digital education, live workshops and structured coaching to nonprofit organizations.
Author of the award-winning book, "The Eight Principles of Sustainable Fundraising," AFP named Larry Outstanding Development Executive in 2010. The Wall Street Business Network ranks him in the Top 15 Fundraising Consultants in the USA. Larry is a graduate of Yale University. Larry speaks widely and serves on numerous nonprofit and corporate boards, including The Philanthropy Council of The Carter Center, the philanthropy of the 39th President of the U.S.