Is asking the only way to fundraise?

Published by Richard Turner on

“But we need to ask!” That’s always been the assumption. The golden rule of fundraising. Ask more people, or ask people for more, is how to raise more money. So we need to ask. In the UK you could hear the outcry at the proposed Fundraising Preference Service where donors could opt out – “How will we ask people?”

But there is now a second option. And the reason? We are all now channels. This changes everything.

Asking will always be in the fundraising toolbox, but we now have another powerful option we need to understand and must not under estimate – INSPIRE. By asking me, I may give. By inspiring me, I may get many others to give, help open doors to other funding opportunities, and support steps toward achieving your mission.

inspireNot only are we all channels, we all have ‘social capital’ too. So telling your friends – even asking your friends, is so much better when it comes from you. And you just don’t know who people know in this increasingly connected world. So we need to leverage the social capital of people. You do this through inspiration.

Face to face asking on the street was useful in its day. I believe it started on the streets of Vienna as signing up for a regular gift was a painfully slow process to do via a bank or post office. It provided a service. Now I can sign up in a minute online at the time of my choosing. What’s more I can easily find you. So don’t fixate on this obsession with asking me, inspire me.

So the question of course is HOW to inspire ? A starting point is great donor care – providing a memorable giving experience so you are talked about in a good way. Remember we are all now channels. That’s why so many businesses, shops, and café chains aim to provide a great customer  experience – so you come back and, just as important, talk about them and recommend them to your family, friends and colleagues. It applies as much to the online experience as the physical one.  Of course, as the UK has found over the last year, the opposite applies too – if you give me a bad experience I could also share that with my network.

The next step up in the HOW is through genuine engagement. It’s no longer just about how to get money out of people, it’s how to involve them too. Old style charity is ‘we have a problem – give us a donation and we will solve it’. New style charity needs to be ‘we have a problem – want to be involved’?

It’s the Mission that Matters

So it’s about the mission. Before, perhaps mission didn’t matter as much. Now it’s essential because you need to involve people and attract them in the first place.

It’s not a question about how many we can target – in which case you would be worried about opt outs. The question is how many can we engage – hence your interest is in genuine opt ins. If you engage people they will want to hear from you – it’s why ‘opt in’ is actually a great strategy not a constraint. But we will need to change our tactics. We need to send relevant communications and not pound our donor base by over asking. We want people who want to hear from us.

And people will want to hear from you. After all we have the best stories to tell. Not only do you need to tell those stories – you need to equip and empower others to tell them on your behalf so you reach their networks and leverage that magic social capital. Through our missions we can provide people meaningful purpose that they will want to be part of.

hqdefaultAnd it works. We had a day which illustrates the benefits of this approach recently at SolarAid. It started with a £10,000 cheque arriving from a donor who had given £50 a year previously; we then had a call from a church minister in Scotland who had heard about our mission through some local schools and been inspired to raise over £13k by selling gift cards to buy solar lights in Malawi; and then a call from a new supporter keen to organise a fundraising gig after reading about us on the side of an energy bar through a corporate partnership we have with 9BAR; finally a call representing a new potential donor with the high likelihood of a major gift following a recommendation by a current major donor who this prospect climbs with! Not one direct ask by us. Days like this at SolarAid are becoming more and more frequent as our story ripples out through those we have engaged about our mission.

Return on Mission not Return on Investment

But to do this I realise we need new measures – straight away you can see it’s not about direct response – it’s about setting someone off along their journey. Inspiring them to act. Inspiration is after all is the compulsion to act. So old direct response measures of money out and money in don’t apply to the new ways. We need to measure engagement, and be sure we tell our story well and consistently so that others use it. Ultimately it’s about return on the mission. So now we need to measure our progress against delivery of our mission, because part of engaging others is showing them how they are helping achieve it. After all isn’t that what it’s all about?

The ‘ask’ will always be part of the fundraisers repertoire, but we need to use it wisely when it’s timely and relevant when we have something to say, not like a bludgeon, and recognise we now have another powerful means that can work as effectively alongside it. Inspire people by engaging them in our mission.


Richard Turner

Richard Turner

Richard is a “fundraising catalyst”, helping charities adapt their approach to fundraising in today’s fast changing world by leveraging the new rules of communication. He has 30 years fundraising experience including Director of Fundraising, at FARM-Africa, ActionAid UK, and most recently as Chief Fundraiser for SolarAid. He was awarded UK Fundraiser of the Year by the Institute of Fundraising in 2001. Richard is also a trustee of SOFII, the showcase of Fundraising Inspiration and Innovation, and on the advisory board of the International Fundraising Congress. Blogs and tweets as @ifundraiser.


Jonathan Bray · April 6, 2016 at 19:42

This quote from the article was a great nugget for me, “After all we have the best stories to tell.”

I believe you are correct. The act of communication… creating a contextual relationship with your community of donors, volunteers, and supporters is so important. Regardless of the content or call to action… whether you are asking, inspiring, or simply having a dialogue about the great work that your organization is doing, it’s the actual act communication with the individual hearts that support your cause that they’ll appreciate.

Stories are incredible ways to connect to the heart, mind, and soul of a donor. It helps them understand the impact of your organization on a real and relatable level. They can really put themselves into the shoes of the individuals that the organization supports and that triggers our innate empathy for individuals in need.

Love the article Richard!

Karl Howell · March 1, 2023 at 23:16

Amazing! It is via the telling of stories that one may most effectively connect with the mind, heart, and soul of a donor. This makes it easier for people to comprehend, on a concrete and understandable level, the influence that your business has.

plopblurt · March 1, 2023 at 23:20

The real act of contact with the individual people that support your cause is what they will value the most. This is true regardless of whether you are asking, motivating, or simply having a conversation about the fantastic job that your organization is doing.

Do people want to listen to you? And are you listening to them? | ifundraiser · May 12, 2016 at 08:29

[…] It will mean different measures. You wouldn’t throw a pebble in the water and expect part of it to come flying back. You need to observe it – and when it hits something the ripple returns. You need to create ripples by engaging people – the better the engagement the stronger the ripple. And in time it’s rebounding echo will return (remember those physics lessons all those years ago?). And you need to be ready to react when it does. That leads to what I call at SolarAid sticky moments, which we have every week – where people come to us, often having heard about our mission through one of our supporters advocating on our behalf. For some examples please read my recent post on 101 Fundraising Is asking the only way to fundraise?  […]

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