How to ask

Asking someone for a donation, to attend an event or to serve on your county extension council need not be a harrowing affair. Asking can even be a pleasant and enjoyable experience. The three important areas to consider in making a request are relationships, planning and process.

Relationships matter

The most important thing you can do as a fundraiser is build deeper relationships between your prospect and your extension center. Sure, bringing in a $100 check is nice, but building a strong relationship that results in 100 volunteer hours, $1,000 in donations and several new contacts, all over three or four years, would be much more valuable.

Because relationships matter, don’t rush your fundraising requests (unless your council’s situation is dire). Harvey Mackay wrote a renowned business-networking book called Dig Your Well Before You’re Thirsty. That’s good advice in nonprofit fundraising as well. Raising money is hard enough; it’s doubly hard when your first contact with someone is a request for money.

A better strategy is to, as often as possible, make your first contact a nonmonetary request. Build relationships with your prospects — dig your well — by asking them to come to a Century Farm event, read your annual report and provide feedback, sign up for a workshop, volunteer at your office, run for extension council, be a 4-H project leader. Get them involved, or have at least one introductory conversation about University of Missouri Extension that is not based on seeking a donation, then ask them to give. Whenever possible, build relationships that last.

Plan the request

Before you make any request, whether it be for money, for time, or for the prospect to attend an event, be sure you’re ready:

Decide who you are asking. Are you asking an individual? A company? An organization? What person in the company would be best to ask? Make sure you are asking the best possible person.

Decide what you are asking for. Are you asking for money? How much? Are you asking someone to come to an event or to volunteer? When? In what capacity?

Understand that some people will say no. And that’s okay. Fundraising is like baseball — even the best, most experienced practitioners receive lots of noes. Don’t let them get you down. They’re part of the game. Remember, in baseball if you bat .400 (get on base safely 40 percent of your times at bat), you’ll be wildly successful and famous.

But expect a yes. Attitude matters in fundraising. If you go into a fundraising request assuming you will get a no, you probably will. Remember, extension’s mission matters. Go into every fundraising situation expecting a yes, and asking for a yes.

Show people how they can make a concrete difference or help reach a concrete goal. People like to know that their donation is doing something specific and concrete. If at all possible, ask them to contribute to help do something specific, even if it is only to help you reach your own personal fundraising goal. For example, “Would you contribute $100 to pay for one 4-H’er to go to camp who can’t afford to go otherwise?” or “I’m raising $1,000 for the county extension endowment fund. Will you donate $250 to help me reach that goal?”

Michael Neill says, “One of the simplest ways to overcome the fear of asking for what you want is to notice whether your attention is on you or the person you’re asking. If it’s on you — your self-image, self-worth, or what it might mean to you for them to say yes or no to your request — you’ll inevitably feel fear or discomfort. But the moment you turn the full light of your attention onto the other person and how what you’re asking will benefit and serve that individual, the discomfort disappears and you’ll find it surprisingly easy to ask for what you want.”

The process: Anatomy of a request

After you’ve built relationships and planned your request, it’s time to ask. But like may people, you may be uncomfortable asking. The best way to ask (whether for money, time, volunteer hours or anything else) is by following these simple steps:

  1. Start with the pleasantries. Talk about the kids, the family, work, the last time you saw the other person. The small talk helps build rapport and solidify the relationship, so take care of it first.
  2. Make the transition. Once the small talk is done, make a transition so that the person you’re talking with knows the topic has changed to something more serious. Good transitions include “Listen, I’d like to talk about something important,” “I have a serious question for you, Bob,” or “Jane, you are the best person I know who…”
  3. Make the connection. Once you’ve moved into more serious conversation through your transition, remind the prospect of the connection that you personally have with extension, and that he or she has with extension, if the prospect has one. For instance, “Robin, as you know, I’ve been on the extension council for three years now” or “Pat, you’ve been to the Women in Ag Conference three years in a row and have been a master gardener volunteer for two.”
  4. Tug at the prospect’s heart. Make sure that the person you are talking with understands the impact of your mission. Remind the prospect what extension does and why it is important. Good examples are “Sam, University of Missouri Extension improves people’s lives in _____ County through programs such as ______” or “Janet, I’m heartbroken when I see how extension is struggling to keep the doors open in ______ County. I see how economically challenging life is for rural families here, and I can’t believe we aren’t doubling funding for extension to make a difference. Instead, because of the current economic state, funding was cut 20 percent at the county level.”
  5. Make the prospect understand why you need what you are asking for. Provide the background for your specific request. Why are you asking the person to attend an event? (“We’re trying to raise our public profile.”) Why are you asking the prospect to give $500? (“We need to keep Extension strong in ______ County in 2013” or “We want to provide more scholarships to financial education classes.”)
  6. Make the request. Remember to make the request a question and to ask for something concrete and specific.

This may seem like a complicated formula, but once you practice it a few times, you’ll see that it is actually quite natural and makes for a pleasant experience. Using this outline, your request may sound like this:

Hi, Ruth. How are you? How are the kids? (Pleasantries)

Listen, I’ve got something important to ask you. (Transition)

As you know, I’ve been on the board of the extension council for almost three years now, and it’s something that is very near and dear to my heart. (Connection)

Every time I visit the office, I see how extension makes a difference in people’s lives in ______ County. They work with families struggling financially. They work with families with young children going through divorce. They reach out to young people and teach life skills. It’s very inspiring! (Heart)

Ruth, right now, we should be doubling the funding for Extension, as they help people with crucial information at critical times. Instead county funding has been reduced 20 percent. We are working to get that funding reestablished. Our goal is to keep extension strong in this county to serve 4-H’ers, to serve agricultural producers, to improve our rural communities and to serve families. We need to raise $10,000 each of the next three years to fill the funding gap. (Why)

Would you be willing to contribute $250 each of the next three years to help us reach that goal? (Ask)

Consider writing a script for yourself, as part of your planning process, so that you’ll feel more comfortable once you’re talking with your prospects. And remember to always profusely thank everyone who responds positively to your request and to also thank those who say no for their time and consideration.


Adapted with permission from:
Garacht, Joe. “How to ask anyone for anything.” The Fundraising Authority Newsletter, January 2013.

Other sources:
Pittman, Marc A. Ask Without fear: A Simple Guide to Connecting Donors With What Matters to Them Most. Executive Books, 2007.

Neill, Michael. Supercoach. Hay House, 2010.

Director of Donor Education Cynthia Crawford in collaboration with Director of Development Cat Comley, 2013