By Rob Meiksins, CEO
Your palms are sweaty and your knees feel a little wobbly. You squirm in your seat, which feels about three feet lower than the person you're facing. Trying to get your tongue unstuck from the roof of your mouth, you start to talk.
This isn’t the opening scene of an interrogation, or asking your mother to borrow the car. It’s the moment before you make your first ask for a donation for the nonprofit you love so much.
Boy, do I remember the first time: it was for the Milwaukee Kickers, an organization I had just joined as the Director of Development. We were working on ways to get members to give to the new facility and outreach programs to youths in the central city. The person we went to ask for a donation was a longtime board director, coach, and leader of the organization – a guy who knew the organization, had a habit of giving to it, and had some capacity to give.
Why Was I So Nervous?
The good news is that I’m not the only one. Just about everyone I talk to says the first few times they made a face to face ask were really hard, and made them feel awkward. No. Wait. That’s the bad news.
Why are we so afraid of asking? Sure, public speaking is the number 1 or 2 fear among people – but asking for a donation isn't really public speaking. It’s in a comfortable room with maybe one or two other people. Usually you know the other people in the room.
I'm starting to think we're afraid because of another aspect of the nonprofit inferiority complex: we see requesting funding from a donor as begging, not offering an opportunity. We’re afraid because we’re asking for charity, and so we’re putting ourselves in a weaker place. We’re giving that other person the right to say “no” to us. In the for-profit world, when a business leader goes to the bank and asks for a loan for a new project, it’s considered an exciting moment – verily, it’s an opportunity! Why don’t we see it that way?
A speaker on such matters, Andy Robinson, came to Milwaukee a few years back to teach a weekend course on fundraising for the Center for Progressive Leadership, and I had the good fortune to be there. He asked us to think about the last time we made a donation. How did we feel when we made that gift? All of us said that, you know, it felt pretty darn good. In fact, we were proud of ourselves. If that’s true, Andy argues, why are we afraid of offering people a chance to feel good about themselves? We could be doing them a favor.
There Are No Favors in Fund Development
Aye, there’s the rub. Maybe the fear many of us feel comes from the fact that we believe deep down that the donor would be doing us a favor, so the relationship is a one-way street. Asking for an investment offers return, so it's a two way street.
Andy says we can only define a real prospect as someone who has the capacity to give, the habit of giving, and interest in your organization. If they have the habit of giving, it means that philanthropy is something they want to have in their lives.
To me, philanthropy means the various acts of generosity towards the broader community. A philanthropist is someone who wants to make a difference, and help to improve the community in which they move, however they choose to define that community. The Oxford Dictionary says the root of the word “philanthropy” is from the Greek word that means “man-loving.” Gender-specific language aside, it's about the love of humanity.
But philanthropists don’t actually do the work that's required to help improve the quality of life – they have day jobs, investments, or inheritance that they use to make the donation. Actually doing the work to improve things is up to us and our organizations. So what we have here is an equation, or a partnership. The philanthropist, the donor, wants to see something done to solve a problem. We, the community-serving organization, are doing work to solve that problem. The only question is, can philanthropists see a clear connection between the two? Do they see that we're solving the problem – creating the impact they want to see as a result of their donation? Our job is to show them.
So, if you are involved in a nonprofit – go out and ask a real prospect to team up with you today. And think of it not as asking a favor, but as inviting them into the beginning of a beautiful friendship – one that benefits them and you.