Not Begging

Years ago, I worked with a man who insisted on telling prospects that we were “equal opportunity beggars.” For some reason, some people thought that was so cute and terribly clever.  I was enraged.  I was a fundraiser, not a beggar, and my organization did really good things. We didn’t need to beg. But time moves on, and so did I, and I forgot about my colleague’s comments.  Until last night.

There I was, reading the January 14th issue of the Chronicle of Philanthropy and my rage came flooding back.

The article was about how laid-off charity workers are facing a tough market.  That wasn’t what got my goat.  That, alas, is true.  But there, in the second paragraph.  Another beggar.

“For some years, she recalls, ” the author wrote about one of the hard-hit charity workers, “she had been ‘begging’ on behalf of causes she cared about…”  And then the author went on to say that the person was begging still, this time for a job.

All I could think was that if she thinks of fundraising as begging, she deserves to be jobless.  Well, maybe “deserves” is too strong, but I do have a righteous anger.

Fundraising is a lot of things and takes a lot of skills.  Begging is not one of them.  As my clients and students probably get tired of hearing me say, we offer an opportunity for people to become involved with organizations that are doing important work.  If you don’t believe that, you are in the wrong job or, at the very least, doing it at the wrong place.

Begging isn’t the worst description I ever heard in relation to fundraising.  That honor goes to the comment by an able and otherwise intelligent executive director.  “I find it humiliating,” she said, talking about, what else?, fundraising.

“Do you think that your organization is shameful?” I asked.  “That it does disgraceful or dishonorable things?”

She looked at me as if I were mad.  “Of course not,” she said angrily.  “The work we do is excellent.  It helps our clients have meaningful lives.  It’s-it’s important,” she sputtered.

“Well then,” I retorted, “how could giving others a chance to be part of this important, excellent organization be anything less than admirable?”

It’s not, I think, the idea of asking for money that brings out the worst in some people.  It is the fear of being rejected.  That you will somehow not have been able to explain why what you are so passionate about is something that someone else should support.  It’s why, I think, so many Board members claim that they can’t possibly fundraise if they don’t have that elevator speech that magically makes the listener impatient to hand over a contribution.

And yet, the truth is, more people will say no than will say yes.  Sometimes even people who agree with the importance of what you are doing will reject you.

No is, however, just that.  It means I can’t, I won’t, not now, sometimes it even means not ever.  What it doesn’t mean is that you, specifically, are bad, wrong, stupid, or any other negative thing you can think of.  Your job when someone says no is to find out which kind of no it is.  And then to move on.

You can, of course, minimize those no’s.  Not by asking fewer people but, rather, by carefully cultivating and stewarding those you will be asking.  The more involved someone is with your organization, the more likely they are to say yes.  And the more personal the ask, the less likely the person will say no.

Here’s where all those fundraising skills come into play.  How do you involve someone?  What are the ways you make them feel that their support has, truly, made a difference?

The other night, my husband and I watched “The Cove,” a documentary about the slaughter of dolphins in Japan.  Among other things, I wanted to whip out my checkbook and support those who oppose killing dolphins.

Earlier in the week, Haiti was devastated by a 7.0 earthquake.  Surely I should increase my support to Doctors Without Borders.  On Saturday, a friend and I went to MoCA (the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles).  They have an amazing collection, bring important art to the city.  I must become a member and supporter.

I could go on.  Every time I listen to a podcast, read an article, turn on my radio for pity’s sake, there is another cause, another group, another thing whose future I want to help ensure.  And then there is reality.

How much can I really give?  How many organizations, causes, catastrophes can I support?  Not enough, apparently.  Not nearly enough.  And so my choices become limited to those organizations that make me feel that my gift—even my very small gift—is important.  And that I am helping to solve a problem, answer a need, change the world in ways that are meaningful to me.

Bringing your donors and prospects inside your organization is the best way to let them see the importance of their support.  You can do that in many ways.  Regular newsletters that truly show what is going on, personal letters that tie support to specific actions, and of course, bringing donors and prospects to the place(s) where your work gets done.

But remember, it’s not just your actions, it’s how you do it.

I’ve been on more tours of facilities where I am simply shown me the real estate and not given a clue as to what happens there than, I care to recall.  Truth be told, the only real estate I really care about is mine and I’m not about to open my pocketbook for empty rooms.  Make sure I “see” at least in words, what amazing things take place there.

Connect your prospects with the work that you do.  Show them how charitable support ensures that your mission—the mission that they care so much about—is alive and well and creating a better world.

And most of all, invite them to be a part of that world and give them the opportunity to support your good works.

Janet Levine is a consultant and trainer who works with nonprofit and education organizations helping them to increase their abilities to fundraise.  Learn more at