If you want more money, stop asking for it!

You can’t do that.


 Last week, Olive Cooke killed herself by jumping off the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol UK. The Coroner has not yet established the cause of death, but her family has suggested that she simply couldn’t afford to give to the hundreds of appeals that she received. The blog which follows was written before the tragic death of Olive Cooke. I have not altered it. But I hope it will be a useful contribution to the debate the fundraising sector needs to have over the coming weeks.


There are a number of discussions going on at the moment about whether we should ask more, ask less, or adjust the frequency based on an ‘ask tolerance‘.

I want to go one step further. I want to posit that we should ask in a completely different way from anything done before.

Obviously, we want to convert prospects into donors, which requires a compelling ask for money.

Warm donors are different. They have made a donation/monthly giving pledge. They have crossed the Rubicon. They have made a decision to support our charity. They should be treated as donors. By that I mean that perhaps we need to change our approach to them completely.

A completely different way sounds quite drastic. How?

We should communicate with donors often enough that we are a welcome part of their lives. There is an assumption that people don’t want our communications. Another assumption some make is that you are doing donors a favour by going silent on them. This is to misunderstand them.

Our aspiration should be that donors look forward to their next letter, telephone call or e-mail from us. Every contact should move the relationship on. Every communication should reinforce the donor’s decision to be a donor and increase satisfaction, loyalty and LTV. This requires that fundraisers, in addition to their other skills, need to be consummate communicators, consummate storytellers.

We should be reporting back, by telling stories about what we are doing with their money. Every communication should make the donor feel better about their support than before the communication.

So how do you get the donor to give, or to upgrade their giving?

Simple. At the appropriate point in each communication, you ask donors if they would like to give/upgrade. You give donors a choice. You let the donor decide when to give/upgrade.

Think about it. If you ask them to give, and they say no, they feel bad that they couldn’t accede to your request. If you ask them too often to give/upgrade, they will start to feel bad about the relationship, feel harassed, and possibly transfer their support to a charity that is less demanding.

If you ask them if they would like to give/upgrade, and do it every time you communicate with them, they won’t feel bad about saying: “no, thank you, I don’t want to give/upgrade at this time”. They will feel good that their current contributions are valued, and completely neutral about when they say: “no, thank you“. You let the donor dictate the frequency of communication, and the frequency of their giving/upgrading. You put the donor in charge. No one is unaware of the fact that you need money.

This sounds like complete pie in the sky.

I didn’t make up this idea. In face-to-face fundraising academic research has demonstrated that when a fundraiser asks for a major donation in a person’s home or office, if he or she adds the words “…but you are free…” to whatever is being presented as the “compelling proposition”, the fundraiser will significantly increase response. This technique doubled the success rate of persuasive face-to-face attempts.

Words such as “…but obviously do not feel obliged…” are just as effective, so long as they emphasise the donor’s freedom to say no. According to the researchers, the idea of implying a donor’s freedom to choose was far more important than the actual words used. The subjects felt less threatened about making a choice. The report concluded that “It remains to be seen how effective it is when…the decision is made without the requester present.

Could this transform fundraising?

I think so. But there is a lot of work to be done first. The theory may not apply when the requester is not present. There is not the social pressure. There is a different dynamic. But it may still work. It needs testing, but if the theory is correct, just doing a straight A/B test should begin to indicate whether this idea has legs. (So I would recommend that fundraisers need to test telephone fundraising as well, because the dynamic there is half way between face-to-face and mail / e-mail)

Fundraisers need to test this, as follows:

  • A standard warm mailing asking for money. With all the bells and whistles. (Some charities already use a soft ask. This test is still valid.)
  • A stewardship communication, mail, e-mail or telephone, which focuses on what Roger Craver showed in his book ‘Retention Fundraising‘ are the key drivers of donor satisfaction:
    • Donor perceives your organisation to be effective in trying to achieve its mission
    • Donor knows what to expect from your organisation with each interaction.
    • Donor receives timely “thank you’s“
    • Donor receives opportunities to make his or her views known
    • Donor is given the feeling that he or she is part of an important cause
    • Donor feels his or her involvement is appreciated
    • Donor receives information showing who is being helped
  • And finally, a request whether the donor would like to make an additional gift/upgrade, alongside a statement that clearly indicates that the donor has the freedom to choose.
Elderly Woman

This may sound dry; it isn’t meant to. The seven key drivers should be presented through emotional and passionate storytelling around all the vital needs that must be met by improving donor retention as well as response rates and donor satisfaction/loyalty. The need for donors to feel good about themselves; the warm glow that comes from supporting a cause or helping another person. Giving donors a good ‘donor experience’. Communications need to be compelling, moving, involving, inspiring. And they need, over time, to tick all the boxes of the key drivers above.

How do you judge success?

If this test doesn’t reduce response, then you are on to a winner. Telephone 100 donors in each cell and ask them how they felt after reading the letter. Again, if the approach doesn’t reduce satisfaction, you are on to a winner.
Why? Because you have permission to change your approach to fundraising from donors. Many donors feel they are on a conveyor belt. Asks for gifts/asks to upgrade /asks to leave a legacy, all with the occasional stewardship communication. What I am suggesting is truly a donor journey. A complete donor experience.
If this works, it could change the paradigm for fundraising.

(My thanks to Charlie Hulme for the title to this article.)

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