After 30 years, I’ve learned to interpret my husband’s words.  “Maybe” in response to my query if he wants to do something or go somewhere means “not on your life.”   “Sure,” means sure thing—right after we stop at Home Depot and two to four other hardware stores. And then, if we have time, sure, we can do that.

Learning to decode what someone is saying with their words is an important skill.  But you don’t want your donors to have to work that hard.  After all, your job is to connect them with your organization—not to make them jump through hoops trying to figure out what it is you are asking of them.

The most important fundraising lesson I ever learned was that it was my job to be clear and specific. That way, my prospects didn’t need to guess at what I was—or was going to be—asking of them.  That meant that when I called and asked for a meeting, I told them why:

“Joan, I would love to get together to talk about your next gift.”

When Joan said yes—and, honestly, I got more positive responses with honesty than I ever did when I tried to hide my purpose—she not only knew what our agenda was, she had given me the go-ahead to have that conversation.

And when we started discussing that gift, I didn’t dance around.  “To do this project, we will need to raise $750,000.  We are hoping you will be the lead gift at the $250,000 range.”

Of course, it wasn’t always about gifts of this size.  The conversation was often, “I’m hoping you will again support our annual fund. You’ve been giving at the $1,000 level and we’re hoping you will consider increasing that to $2,500.” And sometimes there are more zeroes; more often there are less.  It’s not about size.  It IS about being transparent.

You also have to have clarity that you are asking for the right project.  At my very first fundraising job, I worked for months with a man who wanted to fund work in environmental studies.  But my Dean only cared about the new electrical engineering building that was going up.  This donor was sold on the idea of a 6-figure gift to fund work he cared about, but was horrified when he discovered that the Dean didn’t care what he wanted; he only cared about HIS building.  That was bad enough, but during the months that I was meeting with the prospect, often with my Dean in tow, he—the Dean—never ever said a word about the building.  Not to me and certainly not to the prospect. A lot of wasted time, anger and anguish could have been saved had the Dean used his words early on—and listened to the words the donor surely would have said in response.

Another thing to get straight is who needs to be at the table when you do an ask.  “Sounds great.  Let me talk it over with….” are not the words you really desire to hear after a planned solicitation meeting.

Clarity is important when asking, but it is also important when you discuss how the donor will be recognized. I had a donor who insisted, for years, that he didn’t understand why people wanted their names slathered all over the place.  A simple, heartfelt thank you was enough for him.

We didn’t have that conversation and discovered, years afterward when the relationship had gone very far south, that when he made that very large gift, he expected to see his name somewhere—and somewhere where everyone else would see it also.

My boss thought it was the donor’s fault. “He should have told us.” But no.  It is our job to find out what a donor expects, hopes and wishes for. We should have brought up the question of recognition and should have had some ideas to present.

It often works in the other direction.  At a Board Retreat, a board member walked in waving a signed gift agreement for the largest gift this organization had ever received.  Applause, kudos, cheers.

And then the board member turned to the ED and said, “Tuesday we have to meet with this donor to talk about the signage.”
Signage?  For what?  To name something that would have cost a whole lot more than the donor had just pledged.


Using your words can save a lot of anguish—on your part as well as on your donor.  When you clearly state your purpose, your hopes, your expectations, your donor can respond appropriately.  And then she won’t be angry when, after detours to Home Depot and several hardware stores, you didn’t actually get to where she thought you had promised to go.



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