Does fundraising training focus too much on the ask?

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Greg Warner is CEO and Founder of MarketSmart, a revolutionary marketing software and services firm that helps nonprofits raise more for less. In 2012 Greg coined the phrase “Engagement Fundraising” to encapsulate his breakthrough fundraising formula for achieving extraordinary results. Using their own innovative strategies and technologies, MarketSmart helps fundraisers around the world zero in on the donors most ready to support their organizations and institutions with major and legacy gifts.

Often, I find that major gift (and legacy gift) fundraising education, training, and advice places too much emphasis on ‘the ask’.
Yet, in many ways, the ask is the smallest part of most fundraiser’s jobs. For instance, I bet most of your time is probably spent doing so much besides asking. And, frankly, I think most of the decision has already been made by your donors well before you pop the question. So shouldn’t most education, training and advice focus on the rest of the process instead?

Think of it this way.
When you first met your significant other, were you thinking mostly about how you’d ask them to get married? Of course not. Real relationships don’t work that way.

Instead, you probably focused heavily on building a relationship. I bet you first focused on inviting them to engage with you so both of you could determine if there was a fit. Then, as the relationship grew and both of you realized you had things in common (and could exchange value with one another in ways that benefited both of you), you began to feel good and satisfied. Then, only later did you decide to think about how you were going to pop the question, right?

Wouldn’t you have felt silly focusing on how you were going to pop the question all the while?

Of course, that was because you knew that the real hard work had to happen before that point. Then, popping the question became the next natural stage in the organic nature of the relationship. Right?

Fundraising works the same way.
Therefore, I think most of your time (and training) should be focused on the relationship-building parts of the process.  It should focus on exploration and discovery, questions and answers… not asking. But how much time have you invested in testing which questions to ask, why, how and when?

If you’ve spent more time training on the ask, I think you might want to reconsider.

What do you think?

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14 responses to “Does fundraising training focus too much on the ask?”

  1. Andrew Olsen says:

    You’re right. The ask is a necessary and critical element of success, but if done right, it should be a very small part of the overall relationship and process.

  2. This is one reason why Penn State’s online courses in our Certificate Program in Fundraising Leadership focus on everything from what donors want to how they think to how to build relationships to stewardship. Students learn about the cycle of giving, of which the ask is only one portion.
    I would concur that if a relationship is properly cultivated and gifts appropriately stewarded that donors are often ready for an ask. In fact I have had some donors ask us before we asked them. Why? Because they became so excited and invested in the success of students who might receive scholarship or in providing relief to a person who would benefit from the healing waters of a therapy pool.

  3. Claire Axelrad says:

    Yes! When I work with boards around “how to” I focus on inspiring them and reframing the ask as storytelling. It’s much easier to tell a story and share our passion than to do something everyone considers a “necessary evil.” 🙂

  4. Jenny says:

    I agree that the ask is only a small portion of a major donor relationship. However I think this idea leads most people to believe that they have to spend months/years cultivating a relationship with someone BEFORE they can ask, which goes directly against what I’ve personally experienced. When an ask is done right, it can happen without a relationship, but from there it’s important to cultivate the relationship if you want longevity in the giving relationship.

    • Greg Warner says:

      Thanks for commenting Jenny.
      I’m not sure why you felt this concept leads people to believe they have to spend months/years cultivating relationships. That’s not what the article is about. Rather, it’s about the fact that lots of training focusses too much on the ask (in my opinion) and not enough on cultivation.
      If you’ve had a lot of success asking first before building a relationship and you believe that focusing more training on cultivation is not worthwhile, I’d be interested to know why. I have to admit, I’m surprised that’s how you raise money most of the time. I’d be interested in hearing how you do ‘an ask done right’ ….without a relationship. And, how successful is that kind of ask compared to ones made after a relationship has been built. I’d also be interested in seeing any metrics or studies you’ve seen on this.

  5. Myrick Ronald Cowart says:

    I’ve always been a relational person and strongly believe we should take a look at our titles, which changes the focus of our relationship.
    Instead of a Major Gift Officer, what if that person was a Story Connector. Isn’t the primary role to connect the donor’s story to the organization’s story?
    Instead of a Planned Gift Officer, let’s use Legacy Advisor. Every individual or couple I speak with is concerned about their legacy.
    COVID has changed everything in my role as a Legacy Advisor, regarding legacy gifts. I have no relationship with the donor. I simply inform individuals and couples of the hidden tax in their retirement assets and the opportunity to redirect the liability to their favorite charities. 100% include the hosting nonprofit as one of their favorite charities.
    I appreciate your great work!

  6. Jim says:

    I totally agree with your perspective on fundraising trainings. I believe the focus on the “ask” is really propelled by management that needs to hit annual revenue goals to keep an organization going. The challenge is your source of revenue (aka donors) need a real, authentic relationship with you and your organization before making a major gift. Many times the timing of the donor journey to a major gift and the annual revenue needs don’t match up which causes this focus on transactional fundraising. Thus a manager is under pressure to get their fundraising team to produce immediately rather than build long term relationships. So you get trainings that look a scene from “Glengarry Glenross” or “Boiler Room” or “Wolf of Wall Street” to address this need to make fundraisers into “producers”.

  7. John Saunders says:

    I was once asked to seek a gift from the President of a fairly large investment house for a major campaign with which I was associated. My preliminary investigation suggested that the President was a gun enthusiast. While I am ex-military I spent several months learning all I could about guns. One of my volunteers set up a meeting for me with the President. When I was ushered in to his office I noticed an award for marksmanship. While I introduced myself and identified the organization I represented I asked what the award represented. For some three months we met occasionally over lunch or coffee and we talked almost exclusively about guns and the history of guns. While I can’t say we became good friends we certainly ended up on a first name basis. I ended up in the fourth month receiving a very substantial gift payable over three years. We stayed in touch for a number of years. I am under no illusion that he didn’t understand exactly why I was there but I suspect he was interested that I had done my homework. And, he loved to talk about his hobby. This happened some 35 years ago.

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