• Just Explain It to Me!

    Breaking down notoriously confusing, perplexing and annoying systems and practices in higher education

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How to Ask for Money

Some key tips: seek donors’ advice before asking for money, don’t show desperation and remember that nobody owes you anything.

September 13, 2022

So many times, I’ve heard the lament from colleagues “I don’t know how you do it. I could never ask anyone for money.” After every similar expression of exasperated longing (with a thinly veiled piteous sniff for the Oliver-esque position of a development executive), I return with, “I don’t ask for money; I ask people to share our vision and make an investment. The resources aren’t for me personally; they are to achieve a greater good.” I know that sounds like a lot of Pollyanna nonsense, but orienting my professional compass in such a way allows me and the teams I’ve worked with to be respectful, humble, ethical and fearless in securing resources.

Over the years, I’ve observed a variety of approaches to asking donors for money. I’ve found full-court presses, manipulative sales tactics and focusing on need rarely work to secure gifts. Sometimes these strategies have offended prospective donors so profoundly that the relationship was irrevocably damaged. Asking people for money requires a mind-set anchored in thoughtful humanism rather than the tropes relative to the hucksterism, greed and quid pro quo approach often associated with development efforts.

Through the guidance of mentors, working with successful fundraisers and securing numerous gifts, I’ve developed a philosophy that anchors the process of asking for money. Here are a few concepts I’ve found helpful.

Ask for Money, You’ll Get Advice. Ask for Advice, You’ll Get Money.

There is one fundamental rule about asking for money: never ask someone for money the first time you meet them. Think of it like dating; would you ask someone to marry you on your first date? Of course not; that would be weird, because you don’t know each other. Trust hasn’t been built, nor has an understanding of shared interests, values and aspirations.

If you ask someone for money at a first meeting, they’ll likely say no and give you some unsolicited advice. You’ll probably never be allowed to ask a second time. No one wants to be treated like they are only of value for their money and a means to an end.

While potential donors know that when a development officer visits them a solicitation for a gift is imminent, successful asks require cultivation. Cultivation provides time to understand the donor’s interest, capacity and when is the best time to give. This knowledge comes in time as a relationship is built.

People give to people they know and trust. Knowledge and confidence are built over time through working together. One way to cultivate a potential donor is to involve them in the visioning process, such as inviting them to advise about how you could find the resources you need and how to propel the impact of the work (not how to do the job or what the outcome should be). Advice often turns into money when people have a vested interest in the success of your institution and its people and objectives. There is always value in engaging people for their expertise and beliefs rather than what they have monetarily.

People Give to Vision, Not Need

Asking for money should never begin with an expression of desperation (unless you’re dealing with a natural disaster and true emergency). Yes, you may urgently need the resources you seek because, without them, you may not be able to accomplish what you want. But the need doesn’t compel donors. Donors are inspired to give by the what and the why of the ask—especially the why. “What are you trying to do?” and “Why is it important?” are the most important questions to answer. Answer those two questions clearly and passionately, with evidentiary support, and your potential for success increases. Why? Because people want to support that which will be successful.

No one wants to help a sinking ship. Donors want assurances that the act of contributing isn’t “throwing good money after bad,” but their investment will enable growth and prosperity. They want to know that you’ve tended to the resources you already have effectively and responsibly—even if you have very little. The most compelling proposals convey, “Look what we’ve done with little, and imagine what we could do if we had X amount of resources.”

The most effective way to secure donor support is by taking them on a mental journey of “what if …” or “imagine this …” Doing so provides an inspirational and hopeful journey where the donor imagines endless possibilities of their money doing good for longer than they are alive.

Just Because Someone Has Money, That Doesn’t Mean They Will Give It to You

The news chronicles the lives of the rich and famous—the size and value of their properties and business holdings, their designer wardrobes and jewelry, the fabulous vacations taken, and how they wield power. The names are familiar, and occasionally, news outlets will issue a report about one such celebrity or titan of business making a sizable contribution to some charitable effort. While it does sometimes happen, the likelihood of Warren Buffett, Oprah or MacKenzie Scott giving to your institution, program or project is slim to none. Seriously, you may be better off buying a lottery ticket.

So, the next time you’re in a meeting about prospective donors, please refrain from mentioning celebrity names or anyone of their ilk unless they are

  1. a close blood relative with whom you’re in good standing,
  2. your best friend since you were 3, or
  3. a famous film editor, and your mother bought them their first camera when they were 11.

Amount of Visible Wealth Doesn’t Always Correlate to Generosity

The people who have money to give to others don’t usually come by it because they spend a lot of money on tangible things. Often, they have money to give because they’ve accumulated it by not spending it. Stories about people who didn’t appear to have wealth but gave away millions at the end of their life are legendary. I’ve witnessed quite a few instances of such generosity.

Not long ago, I knew a man who bought his clothes at Goodwill. Once he went to Goodwill, and he found the pants he wanted. Then he proceeded to hide them in the store. We asked, “What in the world are you doing?” He said, “Tomorrow is senior discount day. I’ll come back and save 10 percent.” When we teased him about his frugality, he’d remark, “The dollar I saved is another dollar I can give away.” The next gift he gave to our institution was a $5 million contribution. As the old saying goes, don’t judge a book by its cover.

People Don’t Owe You Anything

You might be the most celebrated scholar of tardigrades (water bears or moss piglets), but your ground-breaking research doesn’t automatically deserve funding. With potential donors, it’s time to exercise a bit of humility. Realize that what you do may be important to your field and perhaps to the world, but it doesn’t make it necessarily vital to an individual donor. And it’s not because they are stupid or don’t understand. It’s because they have the right to decide how to spend their money. No bit of browbeating, bullying or guilt-tripping will change that fact; a contemptuous attitude will only breed anger and rejection.

The one thing you never want to happen is for a donor to say to the advancement office and potentially your boss, “If you ever bring that person to see me again, I’ll never give you another penny.” I’ve seen it happen and heard those words uttered by a donor. Don’t be so arrogant as to think anyone owes you anything just because you’re smart and have a great idea.

People Don’t Give (and Give Again) to Get

When someone does provide the resources to enable the furtherance of your work, it is due in no small measure to the donor’s faith in the promise that you will do as you say and succeed in the end. What they receive in the transaction (along with gratitude) is the satisfaction of knowing they enabled something greater than themselves through your work and commitment.

Unfortunately, some people believe the only reason donors give is to receive something in return of equal extrinsically valuable—a seat on the board to appoint a president or to influence decisions, to have their name on a building (or the like), or to receive other tangible expressions of gratitude.

Most people give to see what wonderful things can be done with the resources they provide. It’s not about having a building named for them, but what will happen in that building is the reason someone gives to construct a building. While some donors need some materialistic expression of recognition and immortalization, most do not.

(Side note: Some donors will try to get you to do all kinds of things, including unethical or illegal things, in exchange for a gift. You always have the right and duty to say no. Also, see other articles I’ve written in Inside Higher Ed, “Why Would an Institution Refuse a Charitable Gift?” and in Trusteeship, “What You Don’t Know Can Hurt Your Institution.”)

Conclusion

Everyone in higher education owes some part of their professional success to the generosity of others. That isn’t a tired platitude but a concrete reality. Anything we achieve boils down to the fact that we couldn’t have done any of it without someone else’s material contribution—primarily financial. Whether it was scholarships; programmatic and research support; a state-of-the-art building, equipment and supplies; or an opportunity to attend a conference, workshop or study abroad, if not for others’ selflessness, many of us could not and would not achieve and thrive. Considering how we ask for those resources—with respect, humility, gratitude and diligence—is vital to future prosperity.

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Kathy Johnson Bowles

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