Key Steps to building a robust individual giving program, part III – solicitation: Ask and you shall receive by Carl Sylvestre

After setting the groundwork with a prospect comes that critical part that is often the measure of your hard work – securing financial support. Solicitation of gifts is often seen as the single most difficult part of the fundraising process.  You often arrive at this stage having identified some individuals interested in your organization and who have the capability to make a financial commitment.  In some cases someone in the organization has spent time with the prospects, probably more with some, less with others. 

How the solicitation process takes place varies.   Should it be done by mail, phone or in person?  How formal should this request be?  When is the proper time to make the request?  In some cases the size of the gift dictates the format, for example a major gift should be asked in person.  In general, the bigger the ‘ask’ the more formal the setting.  The timing is often dictated by critical needs and as such the luxury of the perfect timing can be a myth.  The funding has to be secured now, but you must be careful not to make the ‘ask’ too early especially when it comes to new prospects.  There are variations for the different approaches but they share common traits to succeed, which is proper planning.

Direct Mail Solicitations

Most donors are solicited for financial support by mail through an annual appeal.  The hope is that by the time they get an appeal, the prospects are fairly up to date on your activities and is more than willing to show support with a tax-deductible gift.  In a mail appeal, it is always better to personalize as much as possible.  This can be accomplished by segmenting the donor list into the following groupings: 1) regular annual donors 2) individuals who give occasionally and 3) non-donors.  Based on which category that they fall, it is also preferable to ask for a specific amount.

To encourage increase annual support, consider establishing “giving donor categories” with set donation amounts that have corresponding recognitions and benefits.  Giving categories are often grouped in ranges like $10-24, $25-$49, $50-$99, $100-$249, $250-$499, $500-$999 and so on.  For non-donors, invite them to give at the lowest giving level or a set minimum amount rather than just asking for “support.”  For the occasional donors, ask them to give at or near their previous highest giving level, or nearest giving level.  For regular donors, ask them to give at the next highest giving level.  Always make the case for increased support.  The goal is to encourage sporadic donors to become regular donors, and for regular donors to consider giving at a higher level.

Event Solicitations

For many organizations, the annual request is part of a special event requiring attendance to celebrate some aspect of the organization’s work.  The challenge is whether that individual is available to attend the event on the day it has been scheduled.  To lessen that barrier, send a ‘save the date’ as soon as the event is definite.  The actual invitation is usually sent six to eight weeks in advance with regular reminders by phone or e-mail from a volunteer, as you get closer to the date of the event.  If the individual cannot attend the event make a point to ask for a contribution instead.

Major Gifts Solicitations

Major gifts are best asked in person.  This is where those special individuals who have been cultivated can be asked for a significant gift.  Start by asking the individual for a date and time to visit them at their home or their place of business.  By the time you reach this stage, it is important to know the purpose of the gift, the dollar amount and how this gift will make a difference.

The best prospects for major gifts are donors to your organization’s annual appeals.  Start by reviewing the list of your regular donors. Anyone who has given regularly for at least five to ten years, and at a consistent level, is a prospect for a major gift.  A major gift for these supporters would be a gift approximately ten times their average annual gift.  For example, if a donor has given $100 every year for the last ten years, a request for a $1,000 contribution may be appropriate. To encourage a gift that is significantly higher than their usual donation amount, explain to the donor:

  • Why you are asking?
  • Why now?
  • How the increased gift will help the organization.

As you prepare for this face-to-face solicitation, it is helpful to remember: 

  • People give because they want to. 
  • People don’t give unless they are asked. 
  • People give money to people. 
  • People give money to opportunities.

A personal solicitation is much better than an impersonal ask through the mail because people find it hard to resist.  Thus to increase the overall effectiveness of any campaign, increase the face-to-face opportunities.  Early in the meeting try to talk about what interest them about the organization.  Keep seeking the prospects’ opinion and work to make a connection with your mission.

It is also critical that you know your story, as it is the fundamental unit of your interaction.  As you build your case, think comprehensively about various aspects of your organization because what will motivate different people is infinite.  Stay sensitive to what your prospect is thinking.  During the meeting, be prepared for any number of negative responses but always be prepared to leave on a positive note.

A common error during the solicitation phase is that although the meeting takes place, the request for a specific gift is not made.  The most difficult moment is remaining silent after asking for the gift.  You have to let the donor process the information.  In some cases, the first meeting may end up just that and don’t expect to walk away with a gift.  A “no” is not always a definite “no,” it may be “not now.”  Often if the prospects turn you down at this stage there is a specific reason and they will share their reasoning with you.  You need to pay attention to the reasons to either correct them if some information was not clearly conveyed or to begin a new dialogue if a common ground was not established.

Whenever possible during a face-to-face solicitation meeting have two or more people present, one should be the person that made the introduction.  In those cases, prior to the meeting, spent time coordinating your flow of the conversation, as this must be orchestrated well to succeed.

When people think of fundraising, the solicitation phase is the first stage that comes to mind.  It is critical but it does not operate in a vacuum.  There is preparatory work to be done and strategies to consider and refine to increase your success rate.