Monday, September 5, 2016

The Limited Power of the Ask

I've been thinking a lot about fundraising this week. Like some trade associations, ours has an affiliated 501(c)(3) foundation, through which we raise money to support research and education initiatives related to our industry. And we're in the thick of our fundraising season, with an aggressive goal set for the year, and some fairly serious economic headwinds causing some of our most reliable donors to lower their commitments.

A few years back, we hired a fundraising consultant--not to raise money for us, but to help develop an overall fundraising strategy for the organization and to teach key members of our staff (me, primarily) how to do the fundraising. I learned a lot from that experience. Arguably, the most significant thing I learned was one of fundraising's fundamental maxims. If you want someone to give you money for your cause, the most important thing for you to do is to ask them.

The "ask." That's what our consultant called it, and he's probably not the only one. Inexperienced fundraisers often make this key mistake, developing strategies and promotional materials, all devoid of this most critical and devilishly simple tactic. The ask.

Given this year's circumstances, I've recruited a number of my staff and we're all making phone calls--calling members with the express purpose of asking them to support our Foundation with their monetary gift. Especially those that attended our recent conference and heard me talk about the work of our Foundation from the podium. You've heard what we're trying to accomplish and how much your support is needed. Can you please make a donation this year? 

And it's working--to a degree. Checks have certainly been sent in that otherwise wouldn't have. But as we've gone through the process--carving up the calling list among us, regrouping every few days to check progress and adjust, making follow-up calls and contacts--something even more challenging is starting to become clear.

There is more besides donating that we want our members to do, and there are only so many things they are going to do for us.

Here's what I mean. The same people we're calling with the fundraising "ask" are also getting calls of different kinds with different kinds of "asks." Please sponsor our upcoming conference. Please send someone to our latest strategy session. Please appoint someone to this committee. Please remember to pay your dues. In some cases, the same member is getting called three or four times with three or four different "asks." Do we really expect them to do them all? And, if they have to choose, which one or two would we deem most important?

It has revealed a whole new level of challenge when it comes to keeping our members engaged in the activities of our association. The power of the "ask" is undeniable. But asking indiscriminately reveals how limited that power may actually be.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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