The Art of Fundraising: Don’t Bring Shame into Your Game

by Daniel Billingsley, Vice President of External Affairs

Whenever I teach a workshop on fundraising, I’m always struck by the eagerness of participants to learn. But that eagerness is coupled with the visceral fear of asking a person for money. It never fails, in a room full of people, only one or two will raise their hands when asked the question, “Who here loves to ask for money?”

I know that asking for money involves some fear and trepidation, but hopefully – if you’ve played your cards right – you have built a trusting relationship with a donor and they have already developed a passion for what you do. But when we don’t get past those fears, it exposes an even deeper problem – shame.

This shame permeates every aspect of the fund development process. There is shame in donor identification and qualification. “We really shouldn’t be discussing a donor’s wealth or capacity because it is impolite.” There is shame in the planning. “I hate to ask our board member to get involved in this because they’re such close friends.”

The shame extends to cultivation and education of donors. “I know how busy you are and I am so sorry to take up any of your valuable time to talk about our little cause.”

Finally, there is shame in the actual ask. “I didn’t want to bother you, but we would appreciate your support for our cause. It doesn’t need to be much, and I feel badly that we have to come to you to help support us.”

This shame eventually finds its way into the stewardship process, where some organizations apologize for having to “take a donor’s money.”

I want to stop the shame game right now! I have workshop participants say a few words together in every class, and I want you to repeat this simple, but effective, sentence that each and every fundraiser should have emblazoned into our heads (and if you’re bold, tattooed somewhere).

“I will not be ashamed to ask for money to support our nonprofit.”

There are a few important words here. First, let’s talk about “I.” I, as a fundraiser, am in charge of my own behaviors, communication and boldness in connecting a donor to a project that they should already be impassioned for. The second word is “money.” No money – no mission. Your organization has to have money to do the work necessary to change peoples’ lives. Without it, we fail. The final is “our,” because nonprofits belong to so many people, and that includes the consumers and clients we serve. It also includes the donor. The collective “we” is an important part of fundraising. The fundraising professional uses time-tested ways to connect a donor to a person. We are all in it together. We are all heroes.

The shame in asking for money is learned or developed over time. If you don’t believe me, look at your children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews. They certainly know how to ask for money, and they use some very interesting psychology to make it effective. Translated to fundraising, all one has to do is look at a Girl Scout to see that boldness can be reclaimed.

In this upcoming season of cookies, we can learn a lot from the Girl Scouts. Think about walking into a grocery store where these young ladies have a stand. Proud in their uniforms, they stake the parking lot out for potential buyers. This is basic donor identification, and these young women can qualify a donor from 30 feet away. If you’re single and not traveling with children, you’re fair game for their wily and perfected pounce. They see the grandmother type and are already putting a plan of action and message into their heads about how to sell more cookies. They know when to send the youngest, cutest and most adorable of the group to catch someone’s attention. In essence, they are running through the entire fundraising cycle in their minds, and it is only taking 30-45 seconds. Their ask is simple, and they can even “up-sell” at a moment’s notice by probing the donor. Even if you have a freezer full of Thin Mints, you are bound to end up with a few boxes more.

You see, these young women are bold. They have no shame. They know that the programs they love are thanks in part to the cookies they sell. It’s a cute analogy, but we can learn a lot from a Girl Scout.

On a serious note, if we are not bold as fundraisers – proactive and caring – we end up in this unfortunately shame spiral. The shame hurts everyone, but it especially hurts the very people we are trying to help. If we can’t move past the fear and the shame, we merely fail to connect a donor with a project. In essence, no one becomes a hero. The donor can’t be the hero through her investment. The client can’t become a hero because the program can’t help the client.

So whenever you feel as if you don’t have the strength to make that ask, look to a Girl Scout for inspiration. It makes the cookies that much sweeter.

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