How I feel about asking for money to help people do good work in the world is not the same as how I feel about asking for money for myself. This is an important distinction.
When I go and talk to someone, I’m not asking them to pay my mortgage. I’m giving them an opportunity to invest in an idea that’s going to change the world for the better.
Why should I feel bad about that? The answer is that I shouldn’t. I wouldn’t feel bad about giving them the inside tip on a hot stock. And I am not going to feel bad about giving them the inside tip on empowering social change either.
If you want to be good at raising money, you have to be able to reframe the ask, both for yourself and for other people, as an opportunity.
Next, you have to get prepared to build some relationships. People give to people, they don’t just give to ideas. And if they don’t believe in the person running the place, you’re already dead in the water. This is true whether you’re in stocks or venture capital, politics or nonprofits.
Building a relationship with people takes work. You have to care about more than just what you want or need, you have to also value what someone else wants or needs. I know, it’s a shocking, terrible idea.
But oftentimes, closing gifts is understanding the person, more than it’s important to know the product. And if you think building a relationship with people takes work, building a relationship with someone you’re asking for money from takes work, and it takes homework.
Have you done any research? Do you have any idea what they care about? Do you know why they should invest in your work? Can you answer that question in less than 30 seconds? If you can’t, the meeting is going to be pretty rough. And the answer can’t be “Because they’re super rich and they live in your zip code.”
When you talk to people and understand what they care about, it has to be in person. Fundraising is relational, it’s not transactional. And you have to ask them questions.
When I sit down with a donor, it goes something like this. “Hi, thanks so much for seeing me. How have you been? Did you guys go anywhere fun over holiday? Nice, I love Mexico. Do you always go to the same place? Oh, that’s awesome! Are those your kids? They’re so cute. How old are they? Where are they in school? Oh, that’s a great school, are you guys very involved there? Your spouse in on the board? How’s that? How did you guys meet? Oh, at Santa Clara, that’s awesome. Are you super involved in the alumni network? So interesting. Where do you guys live, again? That’s great. Is that your boat?”
I literally go through all of these things, right. And you know why? Because guess what I know now. I know they’re out of 120 grand a year in schooling for the next 12 years. Right? Spouse is on the board of the kids’ school, I know they’re out of 100K probably. It’s a six-figure. They’re both involved in their school alumni, that’s probably 25K. They told me they live on the Upper East Side — I can look up their apartment online and find out what their mortgage is. And I know they own a second home in Mexico. Oh, and they own a boat. Which is like funny money, right?
So what I now understand — It’s true. What I now understand is that their 1,000-dollar gift is probably more of a starter gift. And I should be thinking about ways to help them partner with us and invest in a more meaningful way.
I know this sounds a tad mercenary. I’m not confused about how it sounds.
But here’s what I want to tell you, because this is the part that all my clients always want to skip, because they think it’s the fluff and it’s not important. If you don’t understand what they care about and what they value, how are you ever going to be able to tell them about your work, right? I want them to fund our work, I do. But I also want them to have a really meaningful experience as a donor, so that they feel like we’re partners and they’re not an ATM, right?
So it’s important to ask the questions, because the more you know about them and you know what they value, the more you can steer the conversation in a direction about your work that will resonate for them.
And once you get past the get-to-know-you part, you get into the fun stuff, like, “Why are you philanthropic at all?” Right? “Why do you invest in new ideas? Do you want giving back to be a value you pass on to your children? Can we help you do that?”
It’s really awesome, it’s meaningful, and remember, it’s a conversation, it’s not a cross examination, it’s not an interview. Don’t walk in there and tell them everything you already know about them, because you did your research. You don’t get extra points for knowing how to use Google. It’s 75% them talking, 25% you listening. It’s better to be a good listener than a good showman.
And once you understand what they care about, you can talk to them about what you care about. You can tell them about you.
Now, when you do this, don’t get too deep into the weeds, or you’ll lose them. It’s a lot like when I sit down with guys in finance, right, and I say, you know, “How’s work?” I’m looking for, like, a thumbs up, thumbs down. But what I get sometimes is a long description of how the markets are trending, and my brain leaves my body and starts to think about what time my dry cleaner closes.
Like, I don’t have capacity for that. And they don’t have capacity for that level detail of our work. If they want it, they’ll ask you the questions.
It’s this thing that happens over and over, because — here’s an example. I worked with this CEO once, and I was hired to teach him how to talk to human people, like a human person. It was a very difficult job.