A campaign volunteer once asked my advice on a call she was would be making on local executive. The sum total of what she knew about this person included: 1. She ran a family-owned business that was doing well, 2. She sat on the boards of several nonprofits (not ours), and 3. She was a young professional with elementary school-aged children.
“What should I ask for?” my volunteer wanted to know. A good question, but premature. In the absence of a crystal ball, though, there are still a number of ways to find out what range of gift might be appropriate for an ask.
To begin, I encourage campaign volunteers to identify as many prospects up front as possible in a brainstorming session. The first names people contribute are often the usual suspects – people who are known to have big gift capacity. They may not even be local. Oprah Winfrey is frequently on initial lists “because she gives stuff away all the time.” The same with Bill Gates. I don’t quibble. I put Oprah and Bill on the list.
Next I ask my brainstormers to visualize people in their own lives. If social circles, family politics or propensity to drink to excess and dance on tables were not boundaries to intermingling diverse groups of friends, who would be invited to your party of the century? Or, for introverts who don’t plan on ever having such a bash, who would attend your wake? Not one of those stiff-collar-sit-up-straight send-offs, but a good, old fashioned, Irish Catholic, sing-songey-send-him-out-in-style-all-night wake.
With this list, forget about capacity. Who will take your call? Think about family, friends, neighbors, professional colleagues, service organizations, religious groups, book clubs, and parent-teacher organizations.
At this point, our list will be substantial. The next question is prioritization.
Since we know 1. people give to people, and 2. in-person asks are vastly more effective than any other method of fundraising, I like to point out that our capacity to get in front of people is at least as important as their estimated capacity. Since we also know that people are more likely to give to causes or projects to which they have some connection, or reason to have a connection, that should factor into our prioritization as well.
For these reasons, the highest priority prospects on our list should be those who have
1. A connection to someone who can make an introduction and/or an ask,
2. Proximity to the project (geographically, spiritually, through their personal experience or whatever), and
1. Capacity to give (in our estimation).
Prospects who rank high in each of these areas, are “low hanging fruit.” Prospects who rank high in only one of these areas may not rank as well as someone who ranks high in two or more. After ranking each prospect with equal weight given to each area, it may be that our neighbor will rank higher than Oprah. This is a process through which campaign committees can weed out the most far-fetched names that have been included solely based upon capacity.
So it’s settled. We call our buddies on the list who would seem to have some connection to our project over those with known capacity to give, but whom none of us knows.
But what to ask for? This is the best argument for peer-to-peer solicitation. If, through our brainstorming process, I’ve identified and ranked people who will take my call in order of capacity and connection, the question of what to ask for becomes easier to answer. Is my prospect someone who, like me, has children at home, orthodontia and college to save for? Maybe asking them to join me in making what for me is a significant gift might be appropriate, but I’m still not sure.
To find out more about what’s appropriate, I’ll call the prospect and ask for time to share my project with them. If my plan is ultimately to ask for a donation to an auction, or a pledge for my fun run, this might be overkill. However, if I plan to ask for something significant, it’s only fair to let my friend think about the project by introducing it and letting the idea percolate. I encourage volunteers to call on their friends (who rate high on the prospect list) and ask them to act as test subjects. This is a legitimate way to practice delivering your case for support for a project or cause and get feedback on the presentation and the project, it’s an easy way to introduce the idea of a future gift and see how the prospect responds. Is she engaged and interested, asking questions and giving feedback? Does he say “I can’t imagine why you’re getting so excited about this, I don’t understand what’s the big deal?” What does each situation tell you about their propensity for a gift?
If these types of cues aren’t enough feedback, ask directly: “is this a project you can imagine putting your name on?” while sharing a list of named giving opportunities at various levels. This is hypothetical, remember. No pressure. Once you’ve made the case, ask one or two probing questions and then STOP TALKING. Listen carefully and observe. Even negative responses give you important information.
Okay, confession time: in the end, sometimes knowing what to ask boils down to a gut decision. But a gut decision based upon what you know about lifestyle and proclivities, and a willingness to leverage your own credibility and friendship as well as your personal, philanthropic decision-making journey is as valid as it gets.
Not surprisingly, it’s also easier than trying to get a lunch date with Oprah.