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How a major ask happens

(Image: Christina Morillo, WOCinTech)

Major gifts require major work: It’s something we all know intuitively, even if we don’t have any experience going after them. In fact, those contemplating major gifts solicitation for the first time might find themselves at a loss for where to start, how to cultivate prospects, and what form the ask should take.

A panel discussion on major gifts at a GCN member-exclusive event tackled a number of these aspects from the perspective of three development vets: nonprofit consultant Amisha Harding, formerly of Communities in Schools of Georgia; Bobby Dodd Institute Chief Advancement Officer Lisa Kennedy; and Steven Libman, formerly of the Atlanta Ballet. Among other insights, their discussion resulted in the following five-point action list for making the big ask.

Of course, there are many gaps to fill before you reach the ask – from defining what “major” means for your organization to finding prospects, building relationships with them, designing the infrastructure to track your progress, and more.

► For expert training in the complete process, sign up for the Certificate of Major Giving, starting March 20, 2020.

In the meantime, you can use this framework for making any considerable ask of a donor, partner, or prospect.

1. Prepare by role-playing.

Libman: We role-play in advance of the ask. The CEO, any board member accompanying us, and myself will get together and decide on the things that are very important to say, and when to toss the ball to the CEO. But we don’t over-script it – you want to speak as you would in a normal conversation – and we make sure to bring props, like brochures, that we can pass out and refer to in the conversation. We also like to conduct the ask over a meal, so it’s relatively calm and comfortable, and we can all enjoy ourselves.

2. Choose a leader.

Kennedy: It is important to clarify who is going to make the ask during role-playing, because otherwise you’re just waiting for the other person to do it. Typically, I’ll script out the key talking points for everyone, so people feel comfortable about what’s expected of them. It’s also important to let people know that things won’t always go as planned, and what the options are for various scenarios. Whatever the outcome, everyone should feel good knowing that there is a next step.

3. Bring a friend from the board.

Libman: We often bring a board member to help, but the close is always done by the CEO or myself – we never ask board members to close. [Board members can] speak from the heart about the organization’s importance to them and their families, and about how much they give.

Kennedy: We bring a board member when they have a strong relationship with the donor, and can play a key role in sharing their own experience. But unless they have really enjoyed asking people for philanthropy – and some are great at it – we make the ask ourselves. People have a difficult time participating in asks if they’ve never been asked for a gift like this. It can be overwhelming! 

Harding: Thanking can be a great opportunity for those who aren’t [yet] comfortable interacting with donors. I’ve put together “thank-a-thon” events, where we brought all the board members into an office with staff, food, and a little bit of wine. We gave them each a script and had them make thank-you calls. They became comfortable because they weren’t on their own, and were able to engage with donors and begin building relationships.

4. Exert confidence.

Libman: The key is to be comfortable and confident. You’re not getting to the ask until you’ve known them for a long time, so they usually know why you’re meeting. You’ve been talking about the importance of philanthropy at the major gift level, and they know the point of these calls is to deepen their relationship with the organization. They are savvy individuals: With very few exceptions, this is not their first rodeo.

5. Make a specific ask.

Libman: During the course of the conversation – I’d say about three-quarters of the way through – we will refer to documents we brought and our past conversations, and make an ask for a specific gift: “I would like you to think about giving a gift of $25,000.” Donors are expecting you to make a very clear ask – they are often disappointed if you don’t – but rarely does someone say, “Give me the pen, I’m going to sign right now.” We want to create a sense of urgency, but not emergency – so we wouldn’t ask for someone to give “today.” And you always want to say it’s up to the donor to decide, because they’ve got to do what’s right for them.

6. Stop talking!

Harding: People usually get nervous after they ask for a big gift and don’t get an immediate response. They start talking without saying anything.

Libman: Once the ask is made, one of most important things you can do is shut up.

Marc Schultz is communications editor at GCN.

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