Yes No Maybe,” John Graham

Editors’ note: The Grassroots Fundraising Journal (GFJ), in publication from 1984 through 2020, is now being archived on the Nonprofit Quarterly’s website. The 600+ articles that comprise The Grassroots Fundraising Journal are used widely by fundraising professionals and volunteers, professors in university courses on nonprofit management, seasoned practitioners, and people brand new to the ideas and concepts presented there. This article as it appears here is from the winter 2020 issue of the Nonprofit Quarterly magazine, with edits. (It was first published in print in December 2000, was published online by the Nonprofit Quarterly on May 5, 2020, with some updates.)

Three True Stories Told to Me by Recent Clients

  1. Last year, the board member of a large social services agency serving teens decided to ask all her neighbors for a donation. She wrote a letter in which she made an eloquent case for the agency, already well known in the community, and asked each family to give $10. She had hand-delivered 200 of these letters, with a return envelope. The letter raised $1,200 from eighteen households. Two neighbors gave $250 each, and two others gave $100. Only one person gave $10. The rest gave $35 or $50. Five people replied that they were not giving because they gave elsewhere or were unable to give right now. This board member plans to do exactly the same thing this year—hand deliver two hundred letters asking for $10.
  2. A program advocating for the rights of prisoners held an open house, at which the development director met a woman who said she would like to make a “significant donation” to the work of this group. This woman had not contributed before and said she had only recently learned of this group and was very impressed with their work. The development director arranged to meet her for coffee the following week. In the meantime, the development director found out that this woman gives thousands of dollars to a variety of social justice groups and is the “biggest donor” to a large public interest law firm. The development director decides to ask her for $500.
  3. A dentist learned that one of his patients had donated $10,000 to a land conservation effort in his state. Although the patient has been using this dentist for a long time, the two know very little about each other. The dentist is on the board of a struggling repertory theater and decides to ask his patient for $10,000 for the theater. He assumes the patient gives to the land conservancy because he is community minded, and that he would therefore also be interested in the theater.

Good Idea, Wrong Request

All three stories describe good fundraisers. They are thinking about their group and who might give. They are willing to do the work required to get the gift. Many organizations would rightly be thrilled to have any of these people as board members.

However, without seeming unduly harsh, I would say that in each of these cases, the decision made by the solicitor was wrong, wrong, wrong. Their problems are not unusual; determining exactly who is a prospect and how much to ask them for has waylaid many a solicitation. Fortunately, there are some simple guidelines that can make the process a lot easier. By discussing what approach each solicitor in the stories should have taken, we can illustrate these guidelines.

In the first story, the board member’s first effort—hand delivering 200 letters to her neighbors—is a great idea, and one that almost anyone could do. It is especially a good idea when the organization being solicited for is not very controversial and is fairly well known in the community. The board member’s decision to ask for $10 the first time is fine, although the response shows that if she uses this method again, she can start with a higher amount, such as $25, without losing anyone. She gets an almost 10 percent response from her letter—which is excellent, compared to direct mail, for example, where we would expect a one percent response, and almost as good as a door-to-door canvass, from which we would expect a 12 to 15 percent response. The neighbors who respond demonstrate that they like her, and they seem to like this organization—particularly those who give $100 and $250.

The board member tells me that her decision to go back to the same group with the same request is predicated on not wanting to make people feel like they have to give a big gift again, and to see if some of the neighbors who didn’t give might change their minds and give this year. I explain to her that the people who gave larger gifts will be surprised to receive such a letter again, and some may even be hurt if she does not acknowledge their previous gift and ask them to repeat it. If she asks for $10 from a $250 donor, without meaning to she is telling that person, “I want $10, try to get that straight this year.”

After speaking with me, she decides to write personal letters to her eighteen donors, asking for renewals. She will follow up with phone calls or visits, depending on her relationships with these people. She will again take a letter around to the rest of the neighborhood, this time requesting $15 to $35. She is prepared for a much lower response this time but wants to keep the organization in her neighbors’ minds. All eighteen of her donors renew. One person who had given $100 gives $200, and the rest give what they had given previously. Ten neighbors who had not given last year give a total of $300, including gifts from two who had not been able to give the year before.

In the second story, a donor who gives gifts in the $1,000 to $10,000 range says she wishes to make a “significant gift” to an organization. The development director does not want to alienate this person by asking for too much. I explain that having said “significant gift,” the prospect cannot really be shocked by being asked for a large amount, even an amount that may be more than she had in mind. The development director knows that this prospect is comfortable with giving large gifts. Of course, we don’t know what she means by “significant,” but she probably means more than $500. The development director decides to show her the organization’s gift range chart, which calls for a lead gift of $15,000, three gifts at $10,000, four gifts at $5,000, and so on. The purpose of sharing this information will be to establish a giving range for this donor to this group. I suggest asking the prospect if she can give in the “$2,500 to $5,000 range.” Skeptical but willing, the development director does just that, and receives a pledge of $5,000.

The third story is about an enthusiastic but not terribly sensible board member. I ask him if he knows anything about this patient besides his dental history and his gift to the land conservancy. He knows he has two children and is a partner in a small business, but he does not know the nature of the business. To his knowledge, this prospect has never come to his theater. “You can’t start by asking him for a gift that is the same size as his biggest gift to his favorite charity,” I explain. “You have no evidence that he believes in supporting the arts or has interest in theater.”

I suggest starting with a conversation about theater and the dentist’s role in the theater. If the patient shows interest, the