The Power of a Positive Suggestion for a Fundraising Gift

Posted by David G Phillips on Aug 9, 2018 9:12:35 AM

Asking for money is, for many people, one of the most difficult things to do. For those of us involved with not-for-profit organizations, however, it is a critical task. We have to continually work to identify and assess new prospects. We must also hone our skills as solicitors. Even the most experienced fundraiser needs to continually review their tactics and strategy. Thankfully, the “science” of fundraising has been refined over generations and several universal truths are clear. We do not have to reinvent the wheel to know what approaches are most likely to yield a positive result to a solicitation.

One of the necessary steps to a successful solicitation is to plan, and even script, the meeting. Applying our objective knowledge, well before the actual request, allows us to make objective decisions about how to best proceed. Everyone involved must be firmly committed to setting the components of the request, and then sticking to them when our natural anxieties start to pull us in different directions. We call this “planning the work and working the plan.” This objective checklist is our defense against the encroachment of the nervousness and anxiety that so often accompanies a solicitation.

One thing that must be decided prior to the meeting, with the benefit of calm objectivity, is the amount to be requested. One of the simplest ways to make a tough job easier is to conduct a solicitation and simply ask the prospect to contribute “whatever amount feels comfortable to them.” This is a mistake for a couple of reasons.

First of all, we do not necessarily want the prospect to give a “comfortable” gift. We want the campaign to achieve “extraordinary” results and extraordinary means “other than ordinary.” We want the donors to stretch themselves. We want them to step out on faith and make a gift that is difficult but that generates some excitement in the minds of those involved. We sell our mission short when we ask people for anything less than the fullest measure of sacrifice that they are capable of making.

Furthermore, it is not fair to the prospect to make such a vague request. We need to suggest an amount so that they know what we need from them. They have no idea what we might be considering, or where they fit into our overall plans. We need to show them exactly which critical position they hold in the puzzle.

The analogy I like to use is that of the power company. Suppose the power company sent out their bills each month, and instead of having an amount due at the bottom it simply read, “Please pay whatever you feel comfortable with.” What would happen? The power company would go out of business! The truth of the matter is the power company needs a certain amount of money from its customers. The power company has determined what each person’s share of that total is, and they put that number on the bill. Charities need a certain amount of money as well, whether for a capital project or an annual appeal. The only way to reach that goal is to divide it into pieces and ask each prospect to assume responsibility for part of the whole.

Deciding how much to ask each prospect for is a function of two things: a general sense of their capability and a specific knowledge of what their peers have contributed. This again underscores the importance of asking for a specific amount. A person’s gift is going to influence other gifts, and so deciding what amount to seek from one person has a direct relation to the amount you might be able to request of later prospects. Receiving a positive response to a specific request suggests that other prospects in that donor’s peer group could be asked to consider similar gifts.

The power of suggesting a specific gift amount was demonstrated to me early in my fundraising career. As director of a major annual appeal, I was responsible for sending tens of thousands of direct mail appeals to households across the state. When I arrived, the solicitation letter asked them simply to give “what they could.” With no benchmark to aim for, people were “self-motivating” themselves to give $25 or $50. Eventually, we were able to augment our mailings so that they quoted the person’s previous gift and had a specific request that was the result of a formulaic increase of what they had done in the past. For my first year, though, we needed something simple that could be implemented quickly.

We decided to mention the appeal’s average gift in the letters sent to people who traditionally gave less than that average. At the time, the average gift was $105, a rather specific number. So, the letter read, “We appreciate the support you have shown to the appeal over the years. Thanks to you and others like you, our average gift is $105. For the coming year, we ask you to consider contributing at that level, or higher if your circumstances allow.” Of course, we had picked out the prospects with much greater capability, and sent them a separate mailing.

The result to this tactic was both comical and tremendously informative. We started receiving one check after another made out for $105. By the time we were done, over 1,000 people had made a contribution of exactly $105. That was all the evidence I needed to convince me of the benefits of specific, targeted requests. People had taken our suggestion. This was not the result of a “herd mentality,” since each of these people had arrived at a decision on their own. It was simply a matter of telling them what we needed, of placing an expectation before them. Anyone with leadership ability is like a well-coiled spring: if pushed, they will return a proportionate level of energy.

Every successful solicitation, whether for $105 toward an annual appeal or $100,000 for a capital campaign, will incorporate a specific suggestion of an amount for the prospect to consider. Doing so is the only approach that truly is fair to both the mission of your organization and the prospect. The people who share your mission and your passion will respond.

Custom Development Solutions, Inc. (CDS) is one of the most sought after fundraising consulting firms specializing in the strategic planning and tactical execution of capital campaigns for non-profits throughout the United States and Canada.  If you have a fundraising question, please call CDS at 800-761-3833 or send an email to

Topics: Capital Campaigns, Fundraising Principles, fundraising tips, gift solicitation, Major Gifts, major gifts tips, non profit gift solicitation

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