Orienteering a Fundraising Ask to Its Close
A successful solicitation is like hiking a mountain. It’s exhilarating to summit after traversing the switchbacks. But we must also be as vigilant in plotting the descent—checking in meaningfully with our donors, thinking through who might influence them, sending reminders of the impact their gifts will make. Like adjusting your backpack’s waist strap and choosing your steps carefully, fundraisers need to plan for the negotiation and close.
Did you plan strategically? Did you make sure to listen to what the donor wants to fund in your organization and match them with an impactful project? Did you creatively cultivate the donor’s family, informing everyone about the power of supporting your nonprofit? Did the right person ask at the right time? Were you able to facilitate a journey for the donor, pointing out the beautiful vistas and making sure the donor knew you were traversing to an ask? You don’t want the solicitation to be like a bear on the trail—a complete surprise!
A pre-ask is key to a successful ask. Let the donor know you’re thinking about a big idea or a stretch gift. Explore a family endowment by mentioning the minimum funding level (at our organization, that’s $100,000).
The mountains are calling, and I must go.
Make sure you can check off the box for “memorable cultivation.” You know, the special experience you knew the donor would just love. Capture that moment to remind your donor later. Or mention now the stewardship you have planned for them after the gift is made. (I once outlined a family event to commemorate a treasured grandparent.)
In other words, make sure the ascent to the ask goes smoothly and is well-facilitated, with the donor’s interests at the center of the experience.
Let’s assume the ask goes well and you asked for the right amount for the right project. You summited successfully. Now what? I get frustrated when I hear a fundraiser say, “I’m just waiting to hear back.” Are you lost in the wilderness? Don’t wait passively at the top of the peak until someone chooses your path. Instead, share the map of touchpoints you’re facilitating for the donor until the gift closes. Begin at the end of the solicitation by asking, “May I call in one month to see if you’ll consider this commitment?” Make sure you walk out of the solicitation with a clear plan for follow-up. Check your straps and your load, and know what’s in your backpack.
Plan your descent thoughtfully. Hikers call it “scoping the slope,” where you aim for the path of least resistance as you descend. If it’s a long trek, identify benchmarks, like an upcoming event where a board member can put in a good word for the project. Plan before the ask to touch base with all the donor’s influencers, including your own leadership, who can write notes of endorsement. Send information about an IRA rollover or a stock gift to remind the donor about the tax advantages of giving.
It’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.
—Sir Edmund Hillary
Don’t lean back on your heels. You could catch a pebble and roll down the trail. Hikers who descend well keep upright and controlled; fundraisers should do the same. Remain confident in your ask and the project, devise a Plan B only if needed, and fortify your negotiation by suggesting ways your donor can accomplish the gift. (I encouraged a devoted hospital leader to do his stretch commitment over six years instead of the typical five, because we knew where we could find him!) Fund agreement drafts are great tools for showing donors how a gift will be used. Enlist the support of the all-important financial adviser to help the donor see that the end of the trail is in sight and the hike—er, gift—is doable.
Don’t forget to think creatively during the descent too. Stop and remember the donor prospect personally, the way you savor a sweeping vista. Deliver a small token, with a note saying, “I thought you would enjoy this.” Create urgency by mentioning a public announcement of the gift, a project start deadline, or an upcoming family celebration. You could say, “Why not announce this at Thanksgiving, when everyone is home?”). Or you could share a moving video about a grateful patient.
Celebrate Pulling Off Your Boots at Trail’s End
Be politely persistent, and try to impress upon the donor that, while it’s her choice, you hope she’ll make a decision in the end. Cliffhangers are those who never answer an ask. Endeavor to be the fundraiser who shows a donor what her gift will accomplish by carefully plotting a thoughtful close.
Remember, it’s not a great hike if you can’t share the journey’s end.
Lori Cloninger Sweeney has worked in development for 30-plus years with experiences ranging from her alma mater, Whitworth University, to the Oregon State University Foundation and OHSU Foundation to her current position at Providence Foundations of Oregon. Lori has an M.Ed. from UCLA and speaks regularly on fundraising. She founded Inspired Fundraising Coaching in 2014.