What You Ask Before "the Ask"

Very frequently - in fact, in most situations - the pre-ask discussion is the most important step in the entire gift cycle process. When this step is accomplished successfully, the actual proposal presentation has a very high success ratio as well. Perhaps success is predictable because the act of asking for permission to present a proposal signals to your donor that you are approaching your relationship as a partnership (and not as a "you give - I take" transaction).

It's unlikely that you haven't yet observed a situation in which someone in your organization approached the development staff to raise money for a particular project - perhaps even a project that is a priority for the institution. Your supervisor suggests you approach donor prospect M to "ask" them to support the project, as the donor's profile indicates that this is an area of interest, and the ask amount is within the gift range estimated by the service you use to rank your prospects. This is the place in the process where you shout, "STOP!"

Three Questions To Consider Before Any Ask:

Before proceeding with the ask, pause and determine how certain you are that this is:

  • The right project,
  • The right amount, and
  • The right time for this particular donor prospect?

In "No Surprise Philanthropy" Troy Lindloff recommends you have a conversation with your donor prospect before making a big ask. Take the time to inquire whether a particular project is something that appeals to your donor, and if you may bring them a proposal to consider. Trust your gut; if you are not comfortable having the pre-ask conversation, take this as a telling sign about the readiness level of this donor prospect - the time is not right.  

Let’s assume you are at least semiconfident that this is the right project, amount, and time for this donor prospect. Now you need to set up a meeting to discuss the potential of the gift. Don’t allow your contact to make the appointment become an "ask".  

Make the appointment by saying:

  • I want to see you to explore an idea I have that I am quite certain will be of interest to you.
  • You have mentioned an interest in __________; there may be an exciting project that I think will appeal to you, and I’d like to explore it with you.

You want them to appreciate that this meeting will be different from past sessions you have had, and to understand that the topic is important enough that you want to discuss it in person.

At the meeting:

  1. Make certain you have all necessary members of the donor prospect (if the prospect is a group) in the room.
  2. Give an overview of the project you want them to consider.
  3. Ask the prospect(s) if you may schedule a future meeting to bring a proposal for their consideration. You must not accept a request to "Just send it to me/us." The proposal needs to be made in person, with the right institutional people in attendance.
  4. One excellent way to avoid having to supply too much detail (or to preempt the suggestion that you simply send the proposal to your prospect) is to advise the donor(s) that it is important to have the key person from your institution related to the project meet with them in person. "This project is very important to us and __________ would like to talk it through with you."

The above is a best-case scenario. There may be times when you have determined that the amount you want to request isn’t so large in the eyes of the donor, and that you can make the request without anyone else present. However, any time the request is at least at the level of a major gift for your organization, the pre-ask is an important tool that - if used well - will better engage donors and increase the success of your ask.