Nothing splits a room like asking this question: should you ask for a gift from a prospective donor on the first meeting?
At one end, you have the fundraisers who feel that you should: it shows the prospect why you are there, and starts them on the giving track. It avoids embarrassment later after months of building a relationship and not asking, and allows you to talk about transformational philanthropy.
At the other, you have the fundraisers who feel that is the height of rudeness. How can you ask when you have only just met them? You need to establish a relationship of trust first before you can ask for anything.
While I understand both extremes, and there are strong aspects of the truth to both approaches, I am squarely in the first group. But what I always stress is that I don’t advocate asking for the gift in the first meeting. I.e. The one that you hope will transform the institution. The really big gift. I advocate strongly to ask for “a” gift, the starting gift, the one that allows you to start treating them like a donor so that they can see how good you are at it. They can taste your organisation and see if they like the flavour.
Asking on the first meeting also shows how well you have been listening – can you ask them for a low-level gift that is in an area they have indicated an interest in? If you can, then the answer for them should be obvious. Don’t be tempted to over-ask on that first meeting either, the amount is not the point. It’s the participation.
If you ask well, politely, with enthusiasm and genuine belief, and in an area they have indicated they are interested in, there should be no way that you can cause offence. You will have set up the meeting in the first place (I hope) by saying that you would like to talk about them, update them on your institution, and talk about their support. If so, not to ask will seem very odd to them. And if you haven’t set up the meeting that way, why are you trying to hide the fact that you would like them to support your organisation financially?
Fundraising is nothing to be ashamed of. It is crucial. It helped to start the majority of our universities. It is the life-blood of the vast majority of our greatest charities. Asking somebody to make a gift is one of the greatest opportunities you can give, and it can transform the life of the givers just as much as the receivers. If you don’t believe it’s right to ask someone on the first meeting, what is holding you back, and why?
Asking more often also gives you much more practice in developing a style you are comfortable with, and asking well. Fundraising is many things: inspirational, motivating – but it is also a numbers game – the more people you ask, the more money you will raise.
None of this precludes you from building an excellent long-term relationship with a donor. Indeed, I would say it is the best way to start, allowing you to have entirely honest and often inspiring conversations. Building long-term relationships is hard work, it needs attention, listening, patience, kindness and thoughtfulness. None of that is short-circuited by asking at your first encounter, but it does mean that you are building on an honest base.
If the idea of doing this fills you with fear then that’s good – it’s not easy, it takes skill and time to learn the approach that works best for you. You can use that fear to sharpen your senses, and use your language and body appropriately. You should be tired after such a meeting – you’re not just there for a friendly chat.
If you want to get better at making the ask, or to train your senior leadership to do so, we would love to talk to you. Asking is really important in life generally, not just in fundraising.
People do things because they are asked. Work with us and we’ll prove it to you.
Shaun Horan is Joint CEO at Halpin.