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Getting People to Ask for $$

(an excerpt from Zimmerman Lehman's book, Boards That Love Fundraising: A How-To Guide for Your Board)

Even in tough economic times, there is more than enough philanthropic money to go around. Between 2000 and the end of 2002, for example, when the U.S. economy was perilously close to deflation, Americans gave away in excess of $672 billion to charity. Do the math: can 1.5 million nonprofits survive on an average of $224 billion per year? We think they can. Your principal concern, then, is not whether donors will contribute; it is whether you can secure the consistent, imaginative support of board members, staff members, and other volunteers in planning campaigns and asking for money.

You Are Not Inferior
Many board (and staff) members suffer from a terrible inferiority complex. They assume that fundraising is a process of going on bended knee to the donor, asking for the least possible amount of money, and being graced from on high with a contribution.

No! Fundraising means getting in people's faces (politely) to let them know that, if they are not giving to your organization- and giving a significant amount- they are missing an important opportunity. You should make every effort to limit use of such words as gift, contribution, and donation and instead think of fundraising as an investment in a successful community enterprise.

As noted earlier in this book, being a board member of a nonprofit is not much different from being a board member of a corporation. Board members and fundraisers are salespeople: you are selling the benefits that will accrue to the community thanks to the donor's investment. We sell concepts (a cleaner environment, a healthier population, better-educated children), not products, but we are salespeople nonetheless. A donor's decision about whether to give and how much to give is no different from his or her decision to invest money in corporate stock. When an individual "invests" in your organization, the "return" is the benefit your organization bestows on the community- be it cultural, environmental, educational, health-related, or in any of a variety of other disciplines.

Your organization provides a service to the community, and philanthropists pay for that service. It's a quid pro quo arrangement, not tin-cup begging. Keeping this principle in mind enables you to raise money as boldly as any business seeking to grow its revenue through sales and investments.

It is also vitally important that your organization ask for money in as many ways as are appropriate. In the next chapter, we review in detail the fundraising techniques available to nonprofits. It is the rare organization that is raising money in every way available to it. Whether it is solicitation of gifts by mail, special events, proposals to foundations, fees for services, or any of a host of other avenues, chances are your organization is missing at least one opportunity and probably more.

You Need Not Fear Asking for Money
Most board members fear fundraising. All too often the executive director or development director accedes to this fear. Board members are relieved of their fundraising duties, and staff members do what they can to solicit small foundation grants and modest individual contributions. Big gifts? They never make it onto the organization's radar screen, because the people who should be doing the asking- the board members- fail to pick up the ball.

The bad news: the typical organization fails to identify all of its major donor prospects. Some don't identify any. As a result, individuals who could give thousands or tens of thousands of dollars are sent direct mail letters requesting contributions of $100 or less. The good news: hundreds of millions of dollars could be gained every year by the simple decision to pursue major gifts.

Please understand first that in asking for a contribution to the nonprofit on whose board you serve, you are not asking for a personal loan. Rather, you are so enthusiastic about the work of your organization that you want to give your friends the opportunity to participate in the life of the organization by making a contribution.

Some years ago, a member of our consulting firm accompanied the board president of a legal aid program on a solicitation visit to the managing partner of a large local law firm. The board president and the consultant described the good work of the legal aid program and emphasized the importance of support from law firms. The managing partner listened politely to the pitch and replied: "Thank you for your presentation. I love the work that legal aid does. To tell you the truth, I'd much rather work for legal aid than for this stuffy downtown firm. Unfortunately, I have a big mortgage and two daughters in college; considering the salary you could pay me, I couldn't possibly work for you. And I'm so busy I don't even have time to volunteer at legal aid. The least I can do is give you some money!"

The managing partner wanted to demonstrate her respect and affection for legal aid. She couldn't do so by working, or even volunteering, there, but she had an option: a financial contribution. Money in this context is not an end; it is a means to connect with an organization that excites the donor's imagination.

The Fear and Loathing of Fundraising
Let's look at the fears that keep us from raising funds. In our experience, the most common fears are rejection, embarrassment, and the quid pro quo. Rejection is the fear we encounter most frequently: "If I ask a colleague for a contribution and he or she says 'no,' then, like the wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz, I will melt into the floor, never to be heard from again."

In convincing you not to fear rejection, it's useful to think of a vacuum cleaner salesperson going door-to-door. If that salesperson goes to thirty-five houses and sells ten vacuum cleaners, was that a good day or a bad day? It was a fine day, even though twenty-five of the thirty-five prospects said no! The fact that many people will say no to your solicitations is not the point. What matters is this: if you do appropriate donor research and approach prospects intelligently and respectfully, enough of them will say yes to make your efforts worthwhile.

What about embarrassment? We noted earlier that the most important tactical consideration in fundraising is access to the prospective donor, yet most folks are terrified to ask intimates for contributions. Why do we fear asking the people who are closest to us? Some folks think that fundraising is embarrassing, obnoxious, and invasive; asking for a contribution, they believe, is trading unethically on a friendship.

It's odd, isn't it? We live in a capitalist society, yet the most embarrassing subject in our society is money. Many of us were taught as children that it is bad form to inquire how much someone makes, or to estimate how much someone is worth. Board members have transferred this prohibition into the fundraising realm- where it does not belong. Again, we are giving people the opportunity to feel good by helping an organization that is doing important work. We mustn't let embarrassment about money get in the way.

The third fear we often encounter is the quid pro quo: "If I ask a friend for a contribution to my organization, what's to stop him or her from asking me for a contribution to his or her favorite organization six months from now?" The answer? Nothing at all. But talk about a poor reason for not doing the fundraising! Your friend may or may not give to your organization; you may or may not give to your friend's. The sun will come up tomorrow. In our many years working with nonprofits, we have never heard of a friendship destroyed by Person A asking Person B for a philanthropic contribution. If you-the board member/solicitor-view fundraising as empowering and ennobling rather than invasive and obnoxious, you will succeed. Fundraising techniques- which we discuss later- can be learned with relative ease. The real work is convincing you of the validity and decency of the fundraising enterprise.

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Copyright 2007 Zimmerman Lehman.

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Copyright © 2005, Zimmerman Lehman