Asking for Advice

Recently, a reader sent me a very good question that prompted me to send out a call to my colleagues for their responses. While I was at it, I also emailed a whole lot of people who I felt would have good thoughts on the subject. To be honest, many of these were people I’ve been meaning to get in touch with, trying to connect with, waiting for a response for some time.

The response rate has been phenomenal. More than 60% of the people I reached out to have responded—and this after only 3 days. Since I sent the emails out at the end of the week, I suspect more will respond next week.

No, I ‘m not going to tell you what the question was or give you any of the answers…yet. I need get that all together. What I want to write about is the power of asking someone to share their expertise or opinion.

We know that donors get really irritated if the only time you reach out to them is when you are asking for money. Unless your organization has a lot of interesting events or programs that you can bring donors to, it can be quite daunting to figure out just how to reach out. After all, we’re not their friends, so just going out for a lunch or meeting for coffee too often turns into a chore—for both parties.

Asking for advice, or their thoughts on something you are considering, on the other hand, can really involve a donor or prospect in your organization. My one caveat is that it has to be something you really want their input on and—here’s the hard part—will use.

That doesn’t, of course, mean you have implement whatever it is your donor or prospect says. You don’t even have to agree with it. But you do have to respect it and give it credence. I was once part of a strategic planning process that was so infuriating that a large part of the board resigned as a result. We would meet, discuss an issue, come up with recommendations. The facilitator would then draft his findings. Which never meshed with our recommendations. Yes, I was one of the many who resigned from the Board.

Years ago, I was the Executive Director of a nonprofit and our donor database was in sorry shape. Since most of the people on the database had not been contacted for years, I really didn’t want to simply send out some information and I absolutely wasn’t about to ask them for money.

What we decided on was to send out a letter, telling them that we were cleaning up our database, wanted to ensure we only contacted them about things they wanted to know about, and asked them to fill out the attached form. This form asked them to correct any contact information and give us a clue of what they might be interested in hearing from us and why they thought we were important (or not).

The response rate was incredible. Just by asking for their help and their advice, we discovered a number of potential major donors. Best of all, we involved a whole lot of people in our organization.

We didn’t stop there, however, we sent a report to those who had responded, telling them the results of our mailing and what they told us was of interest and why they cared about our organization. When we started calling these people to ask for appointments, many told us that they agreed to meet because we had shown that we wanted to be connected with them.

That taught me what my informal survey solidified. Our donors can give us so much more than charitable gifts, and they are so much likely to want to give us gifts if we reach out in genuine ways and give them a chance to interact with us.

Janet Levine is a fundraising consultant. She can be reached at Her online grant writing class is available at