The most effective way to make asks, particularly major donor asks, is in person. But sometimes, making an ask in person just isn’t practical or feasible.
It could be that an in person visit just isn’t possible (e.g. during the Coronavirus shutdowns, or because the donor you want to talk with is located across the country, and your non-profit doesn’t have the budget to fly you out for the meeting).
Or, it could be that an in person visit isn’t a wise use of your time (e.g. if you’re dealing with a mid-level donor, instead of a major donor, and you don’t have the staff bandwidth to do in person visits with your mid-level donors).
No matter the reason, your non-profit can make successful asks over the phone – asks that make donors say “yes!” In this article, I’m going to show you how to make a successful phone ask. I'll show you the three different types of phone calls that result in an ask… and how to craft your phone conversation to make sure your donors want to give.
Remember to Cultivate First!
One of the cardinal rules of fundraising is this: always cultivate before you ask. This means that, unless you are running a low-dollar telemarketing effort, you should never just pick up the phone and ask for a gift on the first call. If you’re looking for a major or mid-level gift from a donor, you need to build a relationship with them first.
Building a relationship with a donor can be done from a distance, if need be. You can send your prospects and donors snail mail and e-mail, including welcome packets, newsletters, and updates. You can also pick up the phone or use video conferences to have conversations with your donors to update them on your work, ask for their advice, and see what programs they are most interested in. All of this should be done before you make you first ask.
The Three Types of Phone Asks
In my experience, there are three different types of donor phone asks:
The Pre-Planned Ask
The first type of phone ask is when your donor knows you will be calling to ask for money. This type of ask should represent the majority of the asks that you make over the phone.
Generally, for this type of ask, you will have been cultivating the donor for a certain period and they will have already indicated their support for your work. They may have also shown particular interest in one or more of your programs.
For example, let’s say you are working with a homeless shelter and your donor has indicated enthusiastic support for the health meals you serve. You can e-mail the donor to set up a time for a call, and say something like, “We’re launching a new program to double the meals we serve each day, and I’d love to talk with you about helping us with this effort. Would you have time to talk on Tuesday? If you have 20 minutes to spare, I can give you an update and answer any questions you may have.” Then, you can use the ask conversation that is detailed below.
When it comes to actually making the ask, I have found that a simple, 6-step ask conversation works best (this conversation also works great for in-person asks!):
Step #1: The Pleasantries
When the person picks up the phone, the first step is to get the pleasantries out of the way. Ask about their family, their work, talk about their favorite sports or hobbies, etc. Use what you know about their interests to make the conversation warm and inviting.
Step #2: The Transition
After you get through the pleasantries, you’ll want to use a transition to make it clear that you are “getting down to business.” You can say something like, “Jen, I wanted to talk to you about something important…” or, “Nora, as I mentioned in my e-mail, we’ve got a great new program launching and I want to tell you about it…”
Step #3: The Connection
The next step is to remind the donor or prospect of the connection that they have with the non-profit. You can use this opportunity to remind and thank the donor for their previous gifts, to talk about how you first met them, or to remind them about your past conversations.
For example, you can say something like, “Maria, you’ve been such a strong supporter of our school. Over the past three years, we wouldn’t have been able to open our doors without your support.” Or you could say, “Mike, I remember the first time I met you at our Annual Gala. I was inspired by your passion for the people we serve. I’ve really enjoyed talking with you over the past few months. Thanks again for that great idea about our website, I’m so glad we were able to implement it!”
Step #4: The Emotions
After reminding the donor of their connection with your non-profit, it’s time to get emotional. People make the decision to donate with their hearts, and then back up that decision with their heads (meaning you need to lead with emotions, and only then follow-up with facts and figures). This is the part of the conversation where you tug on heartstrings and tell stories about your non-profit’s work.
Thus, you could say, “Jim, I’m heartbroken every time I come into the shelter to find yet another puppy that was abused by its owners. These animals deserve so much more. Just last week, we started caring for a 6-month-old golden retriever that we named Dempsey…” or you could say, “Janet, it’s unbelievable that 10,000 people per year still die from this disease! The pain and anguish is unimaginable…”
Step #5: The Need
Now, it’s time to prepare the donor for the ask. To do so, you need to cast a vision and explain the need. Why do you need the money you are going to ask for? You might say, “This year, we want to ensure that no family in San Diego goes hungry. In order to accomplish that, we need to build three new food pantries. It will cost over $4 million but will mean the world to those families who don’t have enough food to eat.”
Step #6: The Ask
Finally, it’s time to make your ask. In order to be effective, your ask needs to be phrased as a question, and it needs to include a specific amount. For example, you can say, “Bob, would you be willing to make a $10,000 gift to help us achieve this goal?”
Once you ask the question, be quiet… give the donor time to think. The silence might seem awkward or uncomfortable, but it’s important that you let the donor be the next one to talk. Most donors want to say yes, and the silence is often the donor thinking about where they can get the money from, or whether they need to talk with their spouse, etc. before saying yes.
*Note that while I gave short examples for each step, each of those conversation sections could be much longer. For example, when making the connection, you could talk for 10 minutes about the programs the person has been involved with. Likewise, it might take you 5 or 10 minutes to talk about the need in Step #5.
The Surprise Phone Ask
The second type of phone ask is when you don’t prepare the donor ahead of time that you are calling to make an ask, but you end up making an ask during the call anyway. Generally, I do not recommend this type of phone ask… instead, I suggest that when you’re calling to make an ask, you let the donor know the reason for your call ahead of time.
Sometimes, though, as you go through your phone conversation, your donor will indicate that they are ready to give – either to your organization as a whole, or to a specific program. In that case, it’s ok to make an ask, because the donor is essentially inviting you to do so by indicating that they want to help (sometimes they will even say something like, “I love your work. How can I help?”)
In this type of ask, you can either make your ask directly, using Steps #5 & 6 of the ask conversation that I laid out above, or you can ask to send a proposal, as laid out in The Proposal Ask, below.
The Proposal Ask
The third type of phone ask is when, instead of asking your donors for a gift during your phone call, you ask them to review a proposal that contains the ask. This type of ask is something you see more often when you are making major donor asks over the phone. You can use it whether or not your donor knows that you are calling to make an ask, because you aren’t asking the donor for a yes or no answer on the gift, and are instead asking them to simply say yes to receiving your gift proposal.
During this type of ask, you’ll want to spend time going over your program details and casting a vision for your work so that the person gets excited about being involved with your non-profit. Then, you can mention the particular program or area you are hoping they will invest in and cast a vision for that as well. Then, ask the donor, “Would you be willing to take a look at a short proposal for helping fund our work? I could send to you by e-mail today.”
Be sure to set a firm day and time for a follow-up call to discuss the proposal, once the donor has a chance to review it. When you do hold the follow-up call, be sure to make the ask… just because you sent the proposal to the donor, your work isn’t done. You need to actually make the ask, using Step #6 of the ask conversation that I laid out above.
Don’t Be Shy!
Remember, there’s no reason to be shy or sheepish when making an ask over the phone. Your non-profit does amazing work. By making an ask, you are giving your donor a chance to be part of that work.
Your donors will sometimes say no… but if you are cultivating them right and using the strategies above, you’ve got a great chance that your donors will say yes and help you raise the money your non-profit needs to thrive!