Why Are You Afraid to Ask?

As amazing as it may seem today, there are hundreds of major gift officers around the country who are afraid to ask their donors for a gift.  Or they are afraid to ask for a significant gift. Why are they still major gift officers?  This is one of the great questions in major gift fundraising that has yet to be answered.

Perhaps, it’s because in our non-profit-so-nice culture we are afraid to fire people.  Or maybe it’s because MGO’s are such fun, good-natured people that we want to keep them around in our organizations.

Sadly, Richard and I see this phenomenon all the time.  I know the for-profit world would not put up with salespeople who are afraid to sell, so it’s time the non-profit world catches up.

I believe there are four main reasons why major gift officers or development professionals are afraid to ask.  If you or someone you manage is struggling with asking donors on a  caseload for a gift, it’s probably due to one of these reasons:

  1. Fear of rejection. Richard actually wrote about this recently in his post concerning  the little person in each of us. We find many MGO’s who have a hard time asking because they have this fear of the donor saying, “NO.”  IF an MGO cannot move past this fear, he will never make it.  And if you are a manager, you cannot allow an MGO to be stymied by this.  In my blog post earlier this week I told you that MGO’s have to be emotionally healthy to be effective.  This is one of those areas that will make or break an MGO.
  2. Lack of Confidence by the MGO that the “ask” is right.  Richard and I have seen this quite a bit.  The MGO either feels pressure from her boss or she doesn’t know her donor well enough to feel good about making the ask. When this happens she either doesn’t ask the donor when they are sitting down in their meeting or she“lowballs” the ask.  And in many cases the ask will be sabotaged by not giving the donor the opportunity to respond to the initial ask.  Here is how that sounds: “Mrs. Smith, would you consider a gift of $300,000 for the new feeding center?”  And, before she can respond, the MGO jumps in and says, “But if $300,000 is too much, anything you can give would be helpful.”  The ask is now dead in the water.  The absolute key to all of this is that the MGO has to KNOW the donor.  By the time you get to an ask, essentially before the words are even uttered from the MGO’s mouth, the donor is ready to say,”YES!!!”
  3. The MGO doesn’t passionately believe in the project or the organization.  It’s absolutely mandatory that an MGO believe in what is being offered to a donor.  If an MGO doesn’t believe in the project, how can he “sell” it to the donor?  He can’t.  This is why he comes back from a meeting with a donor with nothing in his hands.  A great MGO knows how to ask, and he will do it with unbridled passion for the cause.
  4. The MGO doesn’t have the right philosophy of giving.  This is a big deal for me.  I’ve witnessed MGO’s who basically apologize to a donor when asking for a gift.  Why?  Because they felt bad having to ask the donor to give so much money away.  I’ll bet you’ve heard an MGO say, “Gosh, I just don’t feel good about asking a donor for $100,000 in this bad economy.” Or, “I can’t ask her for that amount.  She gave us a large gift last year…” If you are a manager and you hear your MGO utter these words, this MGO has a massive misunderstanding about what fundraising is about.  I like to think that MGO’s are “brokers of joy.”  Donors want to give.  They want to make a difference.  And when donors give, they are happy and full of joy.  The role of the major gift officer is to understand this, embrace it and connect the needs of the world with a donor’s desire.  I want to be clear here.  If your donor tells you directly that he or she cannot give for some specific reason, you absolutely have to honor that.  However, if you are making up a story in your head because of something you feel, but have no real factual basis for it, then you have a problem with what fundraising is really about.

Okay, I’m going to be blunt here.  If you or someone you manage cannot ask because of one or more of these reasons, then there has to be some serious retraining…and it needs to happen quickly.  And if, after the retraining, that person continues to be afraid to ask, then he or she needs to move on.  It doesn’t do the organization or the donor any good to depend on a broken bridge to come together.  Because that is what you are.  You are a bridge between the donor’s desire to give and the organization’s greatest needs.

Jeff

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About Jeff Schreifels and Richard Perry

Jeff Schreifels and Richard Perry have over 55 years of experience fundraising for non-profits. Richard Perry was co-owner of Domain Group until 2005. Jeff Schreifels was a Senior Strategist for Domain Group for 12 years. They came together a few years ago to start Veritus Group, a full-service major gift fundraising agency. Veritus Group has a unique, data-driven approach unlike any agency focused on major gifts. Jeff and Richard are passionate about their work, passionate about life and hopes this blog will provide you with insights and tangible benefits for you and your work. Thank you for reading!
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4 Responses to Why Are You Afraid to Ask?

  1. This is spot on as always. Your marketing of this blog is all wrong — you need to be as ubiquitous as Seth Godin to our our field. You need this as an op-ed in the Chronicle or at minimum as a discussion starter in some LinkedIn group. If no one comments here, that even confirms the depth of this problem: Denial. One of the primary reasons (in my view) that leading consulting firms can use college grads to implement their formulaic capital campaigns charging many multiples of what what their client charities pay their own development staff is simply because the college grads are fearless and obedient. It’s crazy. The owners of these consulting firms are peers with the charity’s major donors (corporate jet shares, second and third homes around the world, etc.) simply because we “professionals” simply are not doing our jobs and we are the ones who presumably have the mission internalized for the long-term. So the wizards move in, sell the firm’s magic and then have young adults with no experience do the work because the work is in the end painting-by-the-numbers and the kids are too fresh to have any reluctance to organize and make sure the ASKING gets done according to plan. The whole point of development staff is to sustain the joy of giving, as you say. One of the culprits to this malfunctioning in our profession may be the flood of books and conferences and workshops on HOW TO do development/asking. As the old saying goes, the office (or conference) is a dangerous place from which to view the world.

    • James, very cogent, inspiring and thought provoking comments. Very interesting insights into the capital campaign consultant model. We don’t work in that world, but often rub shoulders with these groups due to our work focusing on major gifts. Perhaps you should be our PR consultant. Hey, at least you found us. The problem as you know is that there is always the tension of having the time to market and actually doing the work. Richard and I do a majority of our work with clients and over time have hired, seasoned professionals who understand major gifts to work with others or in tandem with us. We’re trying to get the word out about Passionate Giving and Veritus Group. It’s been successful and we are having the time of our lives. Thanks for writing.

  2. Jess Green says:

    I wrote a post recently about how fundraising is really a lesson in how well – or not well – you handle rejection (here: http://ow.ly/d4BuH) which I think is the biggest thing that holds me back from the ask. 3 and 4 on your list are interesting, the first two reasons can be fixed but 3 and 4 (and especially 3) are kind of deal breakers. If anyone on your fundraising staff isn’t passionate about your mission, they shouldn’t be on your staff.

    • I agree about #3 being the prime mover (a “first cause” of existence for any fundraiser). However, Jess, how would you respond given this scenario. You are one of many MGO’s at a large international humanitarian organization with a 100-year-old history. You’ve been there for say two years, always passionate. The new VP for major gifts (or whatever you want to name your boss) tells you to push XYZ program to one of your major donors. You know that the project has flaws as it is given to you to push (e.g., the count of “beneficiaries” in say Haiti includes the number of kids who play in pick-up soccer games — that sort of thing) that you know your donor is going to find out about because she is smart and asks lots of questions. In other words, you love your cause but you love it with integrity, you know your donors and you cannot sell a lie. In fact, you love your cause far more than your frightened (and therefore arrogant) new boss who ends up being there for only seven months until he is found out for being the lowlife he is. But what do you do during those seven months in hell? How do you manage incompetence from above? How do you protect your donors from Alec Baldwin in his Glengerry Glen Ross cameo? (Watch this all-time amazing Youtube clip written by David Mamet, if you can stand the profanity.) Life is complicated. Sometimes you need to leave when the passion is stolen vs. merely lost to indifference and the job becomes just a job. The gamble becomes whether or not you can outlast or at least accommodate toxic leadership. All the while your donors, people you’ve come to care about, are looking to you for honesty and integrity.

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