One of the most common questions I get asked by non-profit fundraisers is this: how often should you be asking your donors for money? In this article, I’m going to give you some simple guidelines to help you answer that question.
The reason I’m going to give you guidelines, instead of just giving you an answer, is because there is no hard and fast rule. Every non-profit is different, and every donor list is different. If your organization primarily raises money through direct mail, you’re going to want to ask for money far more often than if your organization primarily raises money through one-on-one asks. Thus, while I can give you some guidelines, your mileage may vary.
What Is an “Ask?”
First, we need to define what we mean by an “ask.” When I talk about an ask, I’m talking about a “hard ask,” meaning that you are actually asking someone a question:
Would you be willing / able to make a gift of $X to our non-profit?
Would you be able to make a gift of $100, $50, $25, or your most generous gift to help us save more lives today?
Asks can be made in person, over the phone, through snail mail or e-mail, or through mailing / e-mailing someone an event invitation and asking them to sponsor the event or buy a ticket. For our purposes, simply putting a “Donate Now” link at the bottom of your e-mail newsletter or sending out asks on social media are not “asks.”
(For more information on why you should never include asks in your newsletters, read How to Harness the Power of E-Mail Newsletters for Your Non-Profit).
Follow the Rule of 3 to 1
When figuring out how times to ask each of your donors for money each year, you also need to make sure you understand and follow what I call “The Rule of 3 to 1.” This rule simply states that every time you ask your donor for money, you need to cultivate them at least 3 times before asking them for money again.
This cultivation could be personal (such as a phone call or a visit where you don’t ask for money) or it could be mass communication, such as sending an e-mail newsletter. The more you are cultivating your donors, the more times you will be able to ask them for gifts each year.
Of course, your cultivation and ask frequency must be reasonable. Thus, you shouldn’t be sending 300 e-mail newsletters per year just so you can make 100 asks per year.
That being said, while some non-profits are asking their donors for money too often, far more organizations are asking for money too infrequently. Your donors need to get used to being solicited by your non-profit through different mediums. Your donors need to know you are a fundraising organization and need their donations in order to carry out your work. Part of building a culture of philanthropy at your non-profit is making sure that you are asking your donors for money on a regular basis.
Your Fundraising Strategy Determines Your Ask Frequency
In part, your non-profit’s fundraising strategy determines how often you ask each donor for money. While many organizations that rely on direct mail fundraising ask each of their donors for money every month, it would be inappropriate to ask your major donors for a gift each month as part of a meeting or phone call. The more impersonal the fundraising channel, the more often you can ask, provided you are following the Rule of 3 to 1 that I explained above.
It's also important to remember that you can and should segment your donor list so that some donors receive asks more frequently than others. As a general rule of thumb, the larger the donor, the less frequently you will ask them for money each year. Thus, while your low-dollar donors may get 5-6 solicitations each year through the mail and e-mail, your major donors may only get 1 in-person ask, plus 1 snail mail annual appeal asks each year.
When dealing with major donors, I don’t recommend completely taking them off of your mass solicitation mailing list. Many non-profits think that when someone gives a $50,00 gift in response to a personal ask, that donor shouldn’t receive any further asks for the year. I think this is a mistake, and many major donors I have talked to have specifically said they want to be included in other fundraising campaigns each year for the organizations they support.
My rule of thumb is that no matter how large the donor, you should always include ALL of your donors in your solicitations for your year-end fundraising campaign and your largest gala event of the year. Beyond that, it’s a judgement call, but I would definitely recommend trimming down the number of solicitations your major donors get after they give a large gift during the year.
Your Baseline Ask Guideline: 5 Times Per Year
Now that we’ve looked at most of the considerations that go into choosing how many times to ask your donors for gifts each year, I’ll give you my rule of thumb on where to start. Generally, I start by assuming each of my donors will be asked for money 5 times per year. This means 5 honest-to-goodness “hard asks” each year.
What types of asks will be used differs depending on the non-profit’s fundraising strategy, but often it will include 1-2 snail mail or e-mail asks, an invitation to our annual gala event, a year-end fundraising campaign, and 1-2 other asks, such as a crowdfunding campaign, a golf tournament, or some other solicitation. These asks should not be made willy-nilly, and instead should be part of a comprehensive fundraising strategy that is laid out in your non-profit’s fundraising plan.
This baseline number of asks can be increased or decreased based on your non-profit’s unique resources, strategies, and donor networks. Also, as noted above, for major donors I will normally reduce the number of asks each year to just 2 or 3, since one of those asks will be a personal ask made in person or over the phone.
The Fundraising Ask Calendar
When developing your asking strategy, it is important that you build an ask cadence that spreads out your asks over the course of the entire year. If you are aiming to ask each of your mid-level donors for gifts 5 times per year, don’t make 4 asks between October and December and then 1 ask in May. You want your donors to get used to giving to your non-profit lots of times over the course of the year.
We’ve developed what I call “The Fundraising Ask Calendar” to use when working with non-profits to figure out the right cadence for making asks. This calendar breaks the fundraising year down into four distinct fundraising periods:
Early Spring Fundraising: February – Mid-April
Late Spring Fundraising: Mid-April – Mid-June
Fall Fundraising: Mid-September – Early November
Year-End Fundraising: Mid-November – December
We generally recommend that non-profits start off by assuming they will send one fundraising ask in each of those fundraising periods. Those asks can be e-mails, snail mail campaigns, a crowdfunding effort, an event sponsorship request, a fundraising event invitation, etc. If sending 5 asks per year, they will then add the 5th fundraising ask into one of those 4 periods, so that one period will have 2 asks and the other periods will have 1 ask each.
Note that when we say, “one ask,” that ask may include multiple communications. Thus, for example, a non-profit may send out three separate ask e-mails as part of its year-end fundraising campaign (what I call a “flight of e-mails,”) but that would only count as one ask for the 5-asks per year rule of thumb.
The reason we use those four fundraising periods is because they are the most fruitful fundraising times of the year for most non-profits. In the Northern Hemisphere, mid-June through mid-September is the summertime, when kids are out of school and people are thinking about vacations and travelling, etc. It doesn’t mean you can’t send a fundraising solicitation during that period, but we generally recommend focusing on the 4 above. Likewise, because you should be sending lots of fundraising solicitations during the year-end fundraising period, we recommend not sending further solicitations during the month of January.
Err on the Side of Too Many Asks
Every fundraising consultant, author, and trainer will give you different rules of thumb on how many asks to send your donors each year. I’ve heard estimates as high as 15 and as low as 2. In my experience, you should start with the idea that you will ask each donor 5 times per year, then modify from there based on your unique circumstances.
That being said, because most non-profits are not asking frequently enough, I want to encourage you to err on the side of asking too many times, rather than too few. If you’re deciding whether to ask 4 times or 5 times per year… go with 5. If you’re wondering whether to ask 8 times per year or 9… go with 9. It’s always better to ask too many times rather than too few- and if you end up overdoing it, you can always reduce the number of asks you make next year.
Photo Credits: Pixabay
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