How to Ask for Money

So many times have I heard colleagues complain: “I don’t know how you do it. I could never ask anyone for money.” After each similar expression of desperate longing (with a thinly veiled pathetic snort for the Oliver-like position of Development Manager), I reply with, “I’m not asking for money; I ask people to share our vision and make an investment. The resources are not for me personally; they are to achieve a greater good.” I know this sounds like a lot of Pollyanna nonsense, but aligning my professional compass in this way allows me and the teams I’ve worked with to be respectful, humble, ethical and fearless at the to be a backup of resources.

Over the years, I’ve seen a variety of approaches to soliciting money from donors. I’ve found that widespread press, manipulative sales tactics, and focusing on necessity rarely work to secure gifts. Sometimes these strategies have offended potential donors so deeply that the relationship has been irrevocably damaged. Asking people for money requires a mindset grounded in a thoughtful humanism, rather than the tropes of hucksterism, greed, and the quid pro quo approach that often accompany development efforts.

Through the guidance of mentors, working with successful fundraisers, and securing numerous gifts, I have developed a philosophy that anchors the process of asking for money. Here are a few concepts that I’ve found helpful.

Ask for money, get advice. Ask for advice, you get money.

There is one basic rule about asking for money: never ask anyone for money when you first meet them. Think of it like a date; Would you ask someone to marry you on your first date? Of course not; that would be weird because you don’t know each other. No trust was built, nor an understanding of common interests, values ​​and aspirations.

If you ask someone for money on a first date, they’re likely to say no and give you unsolicited advice. You will probably never be allowed to ask a second time. No one wants to be treated as if they were value for money and a means to an end.

While potential donors know that a request for a gift is imminent when a development officer visits, successful requests require cultivation. Cultivation provides time to understand the donor’s interest and ability and when is the best time to donate. This knowledge comes with time as a relationship is built.

People give to people they know and trust. Knowledge and trust are built over time through collaboration. One way to cultivate a potential donor is to involve them in the vision process, for example by inviting them to advise you on how to find the resources you need and how to increase the impact of the work (not how to do the work do or what the result should be). Advice often turns into money when people have a vested interest in the success of your institution and its people and goals. There is always value in hiring people for their expertise and beliefs rather than what they have financially.

People give to vision, not to need

Asking for money should never begin with an expression of desperation (unless you are dealing with a natural disaster and a real emergency). Yes, you may be in dire need of the resources you are seeking as without them you may not be able to achieve what you want. But necessity does not compel donors. Donors are inspired to donate by the what and why of the request—especially the why. “What are you trying to do?” and “Why is it important?” are the main questions to be answered. Answer these two questions clearly and passionately, with supporting evidence, and your potential for success increases. Why? Because people want to support what will be successful.

Nobody wants to help a sinking ship. Donors want reassurance that they are not “throwing good money after bad” with their donation, but that their investment will enable growth and prosperity. They want to know that you’ve effectively and responsibly taken care of the resources you already have—even if you have very little. The most compelling suggestions convey: “Look what we accomplished with little and imagine what we could do if we had X resources.”

The most effective way to secure the support of donors is to take them on a mental journey of “What if…” or “Imagine that…”. This provides an inspirational and hopeful journey as the donor envisions endless ways their money will do them good longer than they are alive.

Just because someone has money doesn’t mean they will give it to you

The news chronicles the lives of the rich and famous – the size and value of their homes and businesses, their designer wardrobes and jewelry, their fabulous vacations and how they wield power. The names are well known, and occasionally news outlets run a report on one such celebrity or business titan making a significant contribution to a worthy cause. While it sometimes happens, the odds that Warren Buffett, Oprah, or MacKenzie Scott will make a donation to your institution, program, or project are slim to zero. Seriously, maybe it’s better to buy a lottery ticket.

So the next time you are in a potential donor meeting, please refrain from mentioning names of celebrities or their ilk unless this is the case

  1. a close blood relative with whom you are in good standing,
  2. Your best friend since you were 3, right
  3. a famous film editor, and their mother bought them their first camera when they were 11.

The level of apparent wealth does not always correlate with generosity

The people who have money to give usually don’t get around to it because they spend a lot of money on material things. Often they have money to give because they have accumulated it by not spending it. Stories about people who seemed to have no fortune but gave away millions at the end of their lives are legendary. I have seen a few instances of such generosity.

Not long ago I knew a man who bought his clothes from Goodwill. Once he went to Goodwill and found the pants he wanted. Then he hid her in the store. We asked, “What on earth are you doing?” He said, “Tomorrow is senior discount day. I’ll come back and save 10 percent.” When we teased him about his frugality, he remarked, “The dollar I saved is another dollar to give away.” The next gift he made to our institution, was a $5 million donation. As the old saying goes, don’t judge a book by its cover.

People don’t owe you anything

You may be the most famous scholar of tardigrades (water bears or moss piglets), but your groundbreaking research doesn’t automatically merit funding. With potential donors, it’s time to exercise a little humility. Realize that what you do may be important to your field and perhaps to the world, but does not necessarily make it vital to an individual donor. And not because they are stupid or don’t understand. Because they have the right to choose how they spend their money. Not a bit of intimidation, bullying or guilt will change that fact; a contemptuous attitude will only provoke anger and rejection.

The one thing you never want is for a donor to say to the grants office and possibly your boss, “If you ever bring that person to me again, I’ll never give you another dime.” I’ve seen it, and those words one belongs to the donor. Don’t be so arrogant as to think that someone owes you just because you’re smart and have a great idea.

People don’t give (and give back) to get

If someone provides the resources to advance your work, it is in no small part due to the donor’s trust in the promise that you will do as you say and succeed in the end. What they get from the transaction (along with gratitude) is the satisfaction of knowing that through their work and dedication, they made something greater than themselves possible.

Unfortunately, some people believe that the only reason donors indicate is to receive something of external value in return – a seat on the board of directors, to appoint a president or influence decisions, to have their name on a building (or similar). have or received other tangible expressions of gratitude.

Most people donate to see what wonderful things can be done with the resources they provide. It’s not about a building being named after them, it’s what’s going to happen in that building that makes someone build a building. While some donors need a materialistic expression of recognition and perpetuation, most don’t.

(Side note: some donors will try to get you to do all sorts of things, including unethical or illegal things, in exchange for a gift. You always have the right and duty to say no. See other articles I have written in Within the Higher Ed“Why would an institution refuse a charitable gift?” and in trusteeship“What you don’t know can harm your institution.”)


Every college graduate owes a portion of their professional success to the generosity of others. This is not a tired platitude, but concrete reality. Everything we achieve comes down to the fact that we could not have achieved any of it without someone else’s material contribution – mainly financial. Whether they were scholarships; program and research support; a state-of-the-art building, equipment and supplies; or the opportunity to attend a conference, workshop or study abroad, many of us could not and would not achieve and thrive without the selflessness of others. Thinking about how we ask for these resources—with respect, humility, gratitude, and diligence—is critical to future prosperity.

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