As we cultivate donor relationships, we ask many questions. The “asks” you might make during meaningful engagement may include questions about skills and experiences, requests for time and attention, or suggestions for increased involvement. Every time you place a decision in a donor’s hands, you create an opportunity to build trust and commitment.

But when you are asking for a financial contribution, the stakes feel higher. It’s a sensitive moment that can induce some serious anxiety—regardless of your experience level.

Having some solid advice on the common mistakes to avoid can help your team members learn from the experiences of others and make the most of every opportunity. Let’s explore challenges from four common mistakes, as well as their probable causes, to find ways to make sure your team breaks out of the pattern.


Challenge #1: Asking for Too Little

One donor told us he would rather not be asked at all than be asked for too little. “I’ll tell you if the number needs to go down,” he explained. It’s a sentiment that many donors express, and one that comes up frequently in development work. Asking a donor with high financial capacity for too little can shock and insult him/her. Asking for a higher figure is far less likely to offend. As one development professional advised, “You can always come down from a high number, but you can’t come up from a low one. And when you leave money on the table, both the organization and the donor lose the opportunity for a more meaningful contribution.”


In the enthusiasm of the moment, it’s all too easy to jump the gun and make an ask before having sufficient information about the donor and the opportunity. If you don’t have confidence in the ask amount, then you probably aren’t ready to make the ask.


Take time to do the research, and leave no stone unturned. While having a sense of urgency is important, the best way to optimize the opportunity for both the donor and the organization is to prepare thoroughly before making the ask.


Challenge #2: Not Knowing When to Stop Asking

Newer development professionals, especially, are susceptible to making this all-too-common mistake. They’ve made a strong case, presented the opportunity, and asked for a contribution clearly. Then, in that vulnerable place, nervously waiting for a response … they keep talking. They bring up something they might not have mentioned, or they reiterate something they have. Meanwhile, the donor is thinking, “You just asked me a question. Don’t you want to hear the answer?”


There can be any number of reasons why someone might talk through the ask. The most common one is nerves—and donors tend to see right through that. They sense that lack of confidence. And, as one development professional pointed out, to continue talking is not proper etiquette. When it’s the donor’s turn to talk, it’s the development professional’s turn to listen.


Understanding the problem is half the battle. Make a conscious decision to be quiet after the ask. Wait for the potential donor to think about the proposed contribution. Listen carefully to any concerns or questions. Do your best to address or answer them—or make a note to find an answer and follow up. And most importantly, have confidence. Regardless of the outcome, you’re doing your part to facilitate something great.


Challenge #3: Accepting a Gift Too Easily

One of the easiest mistakes development professionals can make is to accept a loyalty gift offered by a first-time donor too quickly, without exploring the possibility of a passion-based contribution that will be both more meaningful for the donor and transformational for the organization. One development leader explained that he sometimes turns down (or delays) first-time donors when they offer a large contribution if he knows that it is below their capacity. He encourages donors to slow down and really evaluate the opportunity, knowing that the eventual payoff will be much larger for everybody involved.


From the donor’s perspective, a first-time loyalty gift that’s far below his or her financial capacity isn’t especially meaningful. Remember, if getting the contribution is easy and the donor is not emotionally touched, (1) you left significant money on the table, and (2) you deprived the donor of available joy.


Assess the opportunity and determine whether this donor might be better served if you have a longer conversation. If you think the situation warrants it, ask to slow things down. Encourage the donor to dream about what he or she could accomplish with this contribution that would be truly meaningful. Don’t be afraid to say, “I think it’s too early to decide. Let’s take more time to evaluate the opportunity.”


Challenge #4: Taking it Personally

There are many reasons why a donor might decline to make a contribution that has been solicited. It might not be the right time, or the right opportunity, or any number of reasons. In almost all cases, a “no” isn’t a personal slight against the development professional. One development professional offered this advice: Don’t get too high, and don’t get too low. In other words, don’t let yourself feel too happy after a success, or too unhappy after an unsuccessful ask, both of which put the focus on you, instead of on the organization and the donor, where it belongs.


Many problems can arise when you take ask conversations personally. The risk is that your concerns will get in the way of serving the donor and the organization. But another side effect is that taking it personally will only add unneeded pressure.


A good rule of thumb is to take a step back before, during, and after every ask, and remind yourself, “It’s not about me.”


Interested in learning more?

Attend The Art and Science of Donor Development to explore the ask, discover what truly motivates donors to significant contributions, and learn how to meet the needs of donors as well as those of your institution.

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