Death, Taxes, and Solicitations

There are three things that are guaranteed:  Death, Taxes, and the fact that if you don’t Ask, you won’t receive.  And while most people have some fear of death and taxes, almost everyone seems terrified of asking others to make a charitable gift. It’s not something I understand;  I confess to enjoying giving someone the opportunity to support an amazing organization.  But then, too many just don’t think of it that way.

Being uncomfortable about “hitting on” someone, begging, going back to the well…all that I get.  But, really, that’s not what fundraising is about.  Which is why I find it just wrong-headed when board members want to “soften” the ask in an direct mail appeal; think it is “too soon” to approach someone about a potential gift, or ask an existing donor for a follow on gift.

Interestingly,  these are the same people who have absolutely no problem with you sending in a renewal grant request, asking a foundation or corporation for additional dollars, or request a grant amount that is totally out of line with your operating budget.

I also see a lot of development directors happy to spend their time writing grants, crafting elaborate gala invitations or glossy brochures when the truth is this is not the way to build a sustainable fund development program.

The best fundraising happens when one person talks with another person, and when that conversation is about how charitable gifts—and their gift in particular—will make a difference.

Note that the conversation is about fundraising.  Sure, sure, say hi, how are you but then put your fundraising hat squarely on and do plunge right in.  There is absolutely nothing wrong in being direct:  “I asked for this meeting so we could talk about how you could become involved with our organization.”  Or about your support for our project.

The fact that this person was willing to meet with you when she knew that you are the development director, the executive director, or a board member who was upfront about the purpose of the meeting (to talk about the organization I support), means that they are willing to open the door.  Walking through it is your job.

One of the things I love is that as a consultant I get to do feasibility studies—asking stakeholders if the organization could possibly raise the funds they want to raise.  In this process, I get to show them a gift chart, a chart of naming opportunities and tell them that while I am not asking them for a gift or a commitment today, if I did, where might they see themselves on this chart.  It’s amazing what great conversations get started.

When I was an on-the-ground fundraiser, I used exactly the same technique.  After thanking the prospect for meeting with me, I would tell them the purpose of our meeting:

  • To tell you about our new initiative or a specific program
  • To learn how you got involved with our organization, what is working for you and how we could get you even more involved
  • To tell you about the great work we do and see how you could become involved or increase your involvement
  • To thank you for all your past support and talk about the future.

Whatever, I was clear that my purpose was to get their support, either for a first gift or a follow on gift.

At some point in our conversation, I would get very specific.  Either,

  • I would tell them how much we were hoping to raise and ask them if they were to support this at some point, where did they see themselves—what level of support? Or
  •  I would tell them how much I hoped they would give and find out if they felt, at this point that might be something they would consider doing.

I wasn’t asking them to sign on the dotted line yet.  Just to think about where they felt comfortable today.  I knew—and often they knew—that this was likely to be the lowest gift number they would give.

Like death and taxes, you as a fundraiser should feel that asking is inevitable.  Unlike death and taxes, however, asking should be a terrific start to building a (stronger) relationship.  And it should also be fun.


Janet Levine works with nonprofits, helping them to increase fundraising capacity.  Learn how she can help you at or email her at