The Power of Asking



I recently stopped at a busy intersection and saw someone asking for help. It was a middle-aged man wearing shoddy clothes with a desperate look on his face. He was holding a sign “Please Help Me! I Lost My Home!” Yet he didn’t look at any of the drivers; he just stared off somewhere beyond the busy traffic. The sign said it all. Or so he hoped.

But nobody cared. A young woman in a little blue Toyota Prius on the right side was busy talking on her cellphone. A truck driver enjoyed loud country music.

I sensed that the homeless man really needed help. Even though I didn’t have much, I thought I could spare some change I had left for the toll road. I pulled down my window and waved to the guy. He didn’t show any signs of seeing me. I was in the farthest lane from him, and the light was about to change.

Last try – but the guy still didn’t look. Alas, he didn’t get anything from this bunch of cars. The light changed, and I had to go.

Just holding the sign is not enough, especially in our busy lives. It’s sad, but it happens everywhere. Worthy causes, great non-profits, urgent needs are not covered just because there is one missing component.

The Ask.

Learn to Ask: How a Street Artist Ended Up with Over $1.2M

Have you heard the story of Amanda Palmer? Amanda worked as a street artist, a statue with a painted face, standing in front of crowds to get donations in her hat. She says that she loved the moment of intensive eye contact with strangers, which she says people are lacking these days. She had the ask in her eyes. Since then, Amanda has perfected her ask for her band when she’s on the road. Very often Amanda uses the moments after the gig to ask for help, when she’s trying to spread the word about her free online music.

Unexpectedly, when she simply asks, people hand over dollar bills. So finally she decided to use crowdfunding to help her band. And the unexpected happened. While she was trying to raise just $100,000, over 24,000 people contributed to support her band which led to astonishing $1.2M raised online! “How did you make them do it?” exclaimed media critics. “I didn’t make them do it, I just asked them,” says Amanda. “Through this very act of asking people, I connected with them.”

The ask works for fundraising, networking and business development…even dating!

As Deb Mills-Scofield, a strategy and innovation consultant at Glengary LLC, suggests in HBR, “when we don’t use the ‘Power of the Ask,’ we are in essence saying ‘no’ before the question has even been asked — saying no to opportunities that change our businesses, our organizations, ourselves…and actual lives. So even if it feels uncomfortable, look for even just a small way you can use the ‘Power of the Ask’ in your network — for someone you work for, with or manage.”

Learn to ask for what you want,” says Dr. Thomas T. Hills, a professor of psychology at University of Warwick. Dr. Hills cited a study by researchers at UC Santa Cruz in which a female student was asked to pose as a panhandler asking people on the street for money. The interesting thing was that when the student employed “the ‘just ask’ condition,” 22 percent of people offered money, with an average gift of about 50 cents. However, if the student was more specific requesting an odd amount of money like 17 cents, the results were even more impressive, with 36 percent people throwing coins into the hat. So ask often and ask for your specific project in an engaging way. You’ll get more.

And what’s in it for the giver? No less than happiness, affirms Arthur Brooks, President of American Enterprise Institute. As Brooks describes in his article, he encountered an interesting pattern in the data while working on his book on charitable giving. Brooks realized that donors benefited from their benevolence not only morally, but monetarily as well. Their income grew after they made their gifts! According to Harvard and the University of British Columbia research, “charitable giving improves what psychologists call “self-efficacy,” one’s belief that one is capable of handling a situation and bringing about a desired outcome. When people give their time or money to a cause they believe in, they become problem solvers. Problem solvers are happier than bystanders and victims of circumstance.

Preparing for Your Ask: Learning About Your Donor and Mastering Your Pitch

The next step will be defining how much you should ask for from each potential donor. Joan Garry, a fundraising consultant, always likes “to shoot for more.” As she notes in her blog, she usually uses what she calls her “white horse” strategy. “You, Mr. Donor, have the opportunity, thanks to your good fortune, to make a lead gift that could move our work from four cities to eight. That could allow us to move now so we don’t miss a full academic year.”

To accomplish a successful ask, however, Garry suggests that you need to be well prepared. Learn everything you can about the donor and his or her past interaction with your or similar non-profits. Most importantly, “regardless of whether you are asking someone for $1,000 or $250,000, you need a clear, compelling pitch. It needs to be inspirational, credible, and tangible, and you have to include a goosebump moment.

Your ask should always connect the dots and include a specific amount. One Street, an international non-profit organization, provides the following example of the direct ask:

“Well, I think we’ve found some exciting connections here today. It looks like our organization is addressing many of your needs through our current Safe Routes to Schools program. Could you contribute $5,000 to help us meet our goal this year of adding another school to the program?”

Marc Pitman, a successful fundraiser and fundraising coach, believes that the two most useful asks are:

1. “Would you consider a gift of $X?”

This is a down-to-earth, concrete approach that helps you and the donor resolve the matter swiftly.

2. “Honestly, I have NO idea how much to ask you for, but is a gift of $______ something you’d be able to consider?”

This is a request for help, explains Pitman, an honest way to show your willingness to hear the donor. It also helps volunteers who want to ask for a higher level than they are comfortable with.

Is that it? Not yet. In the final moment, you need to use one of the most important tools of fundraising: silence.

“He who speaks next, loses,” notes Gail Perry, one of the most effective fundraising consultants in the U.S. Like many other star fundraisers, Gail advises that you must leave the space to the donor after you’ve made your ask. This is a sacred moment of silence. Let the donor weigh options and give you an answer.

Also, beware of the 10 common errors when asking for a gift, warns Kristin Clarke, ASAE & The Center for Association Leadership. The donors can sense your lack of preparation and fear of the ask, and that might turn them away. However, if you don’t ask for a specific amount or “talk too much and don’t listen,” you will likely to hear a two-letter response. 

Glancing Into the Depth of the Human Soul

Fundraising is a humbling experience: every time you receive money, you glance into the depth of human capacity to give. A few years ago when I was making my first trip to South Korea to recruit students for DC-based internship programs, I had one of those breath-taking moments of witnessing humanity at its best. It started with a relaxing morning. While I was enjoying my breakfast at the hotel, I noticed an article about a prominent American lawyer highly regarded in the community for his knowledge and respect for Korean culture, as well as a number of philanthropic causes that he supported. I thought that this could be an opportunity for us to begin a new relationship.

After several calls and conversations with his secretary I made my way for a 30-minute audience with someone who I didn’t know existed the day before. This was also my last business day in Seoul. What do I have to lose if I meet someone passionate about education and share what our nonprofit does? After twenty minutes of pleasant conversation, there was only one thing left to do. Ask. I asked him to help two underprivileged Korean students experience a transformational internship program in DC.

My counterpart didn’t say much. I waited, holding my breath. Silence. Then he wrote out a check.

Make Your Ask Today

So when you’ve done your homework and learned all you can about a donor, make your ask. It matters less HOW you do it, than that you actually do it. Make your ask on LinkedIn. Make your ask in person. Make your ask in a handwritten card. Make your ask on the phone.

Every stranger may become your best funder. Every new contact you ask leads you to a next level. Every person you asked today may thank you for the life-changing experience of supporting your cause.

Make your ask today. You’ll be surprised.



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