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Why fundraising asks are so hard

Fundraising is said to top the lists of things people find most scary. Right up there with fear of public speaking and fear of untimely death. Nonprofit fundraisers and volunteers refer to that fear when they explain why they don’t make the fundraising solicitations they know they need to make.

They know they need to make the calls to pay their staff and fulfill their mission. But they can’t get over the fear. Worse, they don’t even know what that fear is about. Some say it’s fear of rejection. Others say it’s personal issues with money.

But after 25 years of fundraising and coaching nonprofit leaders, I think I finally know what the fear is about.

And it makes me love nonprofit leaders even more.

What the fear of fundraising is really rooted in

I’m convinced that one of the biggest reasons we don’t make fundraising phone calls, is that it feels like the focus is entirely on us.

And most of us leading in the nonprofit sector feel awkward about that self-centered focus. We got into nonprofit work to help others. We see needs and we fill them. And we get stuff done. Once we see the need, we can’t not fix it. With or without others.

But we also have to pay the bills. And needing to pay the bills, meet payroll, and run programs means we have to focus on our costs and on our team. Then we translate those expenses into a “fundraising need.” So the entire fundraising goal is centered around us. Our goals. Our needs. Our debt obligations. Our payroll.

Presented that way, fundraising feels really selfish. Self-centered.

And for people naturally focused on others, this self-centeredness is incredibly jarring.

And, presented that way, our donors feel our unease, our lack of confidence. And they get confused. And put off. Why are we wasting their time on a project we’re not confident about? Our embarrassment gets translated to their irritation. They don’t realize it’s just that we feel like we’re taking from our donors to pay our bills.

We pick up on their irritation and it reinforces our discomfort with our self-centeredness, creating a negative story about fundraising, donors, and society in general.

Here’s the good news: fundraising isn’t about you. Or, more correctly: fundraising isn’t just about you.

You are helping those you ask

It’s true. You need to focus on your needs. Nonprofits still need to run fiscally well. Your staff deserves payment. And you deserve having enough in the bank that you don’t have to lose sleep about each payroll. But don’t let the “need” alone become the message for your fundraising. That sets up a toxic power arrangement with the ones paying the bills having the power over the ones getting the bills paid.

We need to bring equity to philanthropy. One way to do that is by boldly inviting donors to give.

When you ask someone for money, you’re doing them a service. You truly are helping them.

You’re allowing a donor’s hard earned money to make an amazing impact in the world. An impact they could never make in their daily life no matter how hard they tried.

That’s a huge gift. 

Get back into the “serving others” mindset

So before your fundraising calls, remind yourself that you are giving to them, not just “taking from” them.

This is not about hustle culture or a weird, gross bragging posture. This is about approaching these calls with a humble confidence.

An assertive and calm mindset.

Ask your donors

You are giving people an opportunity. A gift. The odd thing about fundraising though? You don’t know what the gift is. (Here’s a hint: it’s typically not what you think it is.)

What if you don’t know the gift you’re giving to your donors? Ask them. Call donors and ask,

“What surprised you the most about giving to [our nonprofit]?”

Or

“What inspired you to become a monthly supporter to [our nonprofit]?”

And then have the courage to be curious. Take their first answer at least one more step.

“Wow. That’s great. Lots of other organizations do that too. Why this one?”

Don’t worry. If you keep your tone of voice as friendly and curious, they won’t wonder, “What was I thinking giving to them? I should probably stop.” They’ll typically love that you’re interested enough in them to ask.

If this kind of call freaks you out, then I’d recommend you do them until is starts feeling natural. 

Then get to the fundraising you know your nonprofit needs. It may still be bumpy. But now you’ve addressed the root of the fear of asking you’ll have confidence that you are serving others by asking them.

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