Dr. Cliff Harris

Strategic Partner and Facilitator

About Cliff

Words matter, especially in development work. And timing matters, too. A carefully phrased, carefully planned invitation to contribute packs more power than a blunt, too-soon solicitation—which generally ends up only packing a wallop to the chin of the unsuspecting potential donor.

Springing a big “ask” on the donor is uncomfortable for everyone involved. The potential donor can be embarrassed that the time or the amount is not right for them and disappointed that an organization they love didn’t take the time to find out about them. Your institutional partner is likely unhappy because the individual they referred to you is unhappy. Not to mention the awkwardness the development officer will have to endure or the trust that will have to be repaired.

No Surprises

In the Victorian era—known for its emphasis on manners and propriety—courtship consisted of asking for permission to take each step. (“Lady Gwendolyn, may I walk with you in the garden?” or “Lady Gwendolyn, may I hold your hand?”) Asking and granting permission created a level playing field for both parties involved. The suitor made their intentions known. The potential partner had the power to accept or reject the offer and to control the pace of the developing relationship. The key to a successful courtship lay in the suitor’s ability to listen to the potential partner’s responses and respond accordingly—much like effective development work.

How do you know the time is right to invite a potential donor to join the important work of your organization? The length of time you’ve been engaging the individual is less important than making sure the invitation doesn’t feel like an ambush. We might think of Victorian courtship as staid and sedate—and sometimes it was—but such courtship could also move rapidly if both parties were amenable.

The pace leading up to your invitation can be dictated by a variety of factors. The personality type of the donor, the culture of your organization, even the geographical area—folks on the East Coast of the US tend to be more assertive than their laid-back West Coast counterparts—can all play a role in the timing of an invitation. However, the language you can use to establish readiness to contribute remains constant and is a vital part of creating a positive experience for the potential donor. Your institutional partners will also appreciate and feel more comfortable participating in the philanthropic process when there are no surprises.

“Would you consider…”

Phrasing a question this way plants the idea in the donor’s mind and makes it easier for them to say, “Yes.” They aren’t committing to anything yet—only considering. If they respond in the affirmative, you have permission to further explore where their passions lie and what levels of commitment are comfortable for them. Asking potential donors to “consider” allows them to wade gently into the pool, gradually adjusting to the temperature of the water and deciding how deep they would like to go.

If they say, “No,” use this opportunity to gently find out what’s holding them back. Perhaps it’s not the right time for them because of other commitments, or they are still looking for their philanthropic passion. Most importantly, if it is not the right time for the donor, phrasing the question using, “Would you consider…” offers them a graceful way out.

“It would be remiss of me if I didn’t…”

In conversations with donors revolving around subject matter—perhaps your institutional partner is sharing their Opportunity Story—this phrase is a way to smoothly pivot to philanthropy. A simple, “I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that this research is only possible through the support of our benefactors,” invites potential donors into the work. They may have immediate questions about how they can become involved. At the very least, the seed of philanthropy has been planted.

When working with institutional partners to invite potential donors to partner in your organization’s work, the development professional should handle the “consider” and “remiss” portions of the conversation. The institutional partner’s role is to share their Opportunity Story or subject matter in a compelling way; the development professional’s role, to handle the portions of the conversation that deal with money.

When should I ask?

Using the question, “Is supporting this something you would consider?” can help uncover the potential donor’s feelings about the appropriate timing for providing support. Whether they answer, “Yes,” or “No, not right now,” you can gain a sense of the timing a potential donor would prefer by asking, “If you were to include this in your charitable giving, what would the timeline look like?” Based on their response, you can ask if it would be appropriate for you to contact them at their preferred time with a range of giving options.

But what about the amount?

Determining an appropriate amount can be a delicate balancing act. Too little, and the donors may feel their funds could have a greater impact elsewhere. Too much, and donors may feel embarrassed that the amount is out of their reach. Employ your old friend “consider” by asking if they are considering an endowed or expendable contribution. Many organizations have a threshold for endowed gifts, so you can comfortably set the floor there.

If they prefer an expendable contribution—one that is intended to be spent entirely on a funding priority that matches the donor’s philanthropic passion—the door is open for further conversation about how they would like to see their contribution at work. Based on their response, you can determine a range that is comfortable for the donor. But don’t forget to use your other old friend “remiss” in asking potential donors to dream big: “I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the leadership gift…” Employing this strategy gently focuses the potential donor on the possibilities of how their contribution will feed their philanthropic passion.

Mirroring those Victorian courtships of yore, a truly donor-centric approach is not a matter of timing, but a matter of asking permission and then taking the time to listen carefully and respond thoughtfully. Employing deliberate language choices will pay dividends in helping you create a truly donor-centric experience.


Check out Advancement Resources’ Advancement Professional Education Series, training that is designed to enhance and refine your own model for strategic engagement with donors and drive philanthropy at your organization.

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