In the previous letter, we outlined some reasons why a donor development program should be a key element of a nonprofit’s long term sustainability plan, and described a donor development cycle that seems to work well for most nonprofits. This letter discusses how to ask for a donation.

Regardless of whether you are going to ask for a donation by mail, phone, at an event, or in person, the presentation planning process is very similar. Start by deciding on the donation that you are going to ask for, an amount that is a relatively easy step for a donor to take. For example, in a mailing to new prospects, your whole presentation might be targeted at getting a pledge of $25. That is a pretty easy first step for most people to take. The purpose of a mailing to non-donors is to try to find as many new donors to your cause as possible (rather than trying to find some large donors).

For a mailing to donors that gave $150 last year, you might ask for a $200 pledge this year. For donors that gave $1500 last year, you might want to develop a personal presentation to try to take them to the $2000 annual giving level. For maximum effectiveness, the presentation plan is different for each giving level. At the high end, the presentation plan might even be different for each individual at that giving level. But the first step is deciding what giving level the presentation should be designed to support.

Next decide what to tell the donor you are going to do with the additional money that you are asking them to donate. Try to be specific like “provide food for more needy families or seniors, tutor more children in the 3Rs, etc.” For maximum impact, tell them how much of that service their added donation will buy. For example, a $25 initial pledge or donation increase might provide a week of after school tutoring or five hot meals for a disabled senior. Obviously, nonprofits that make extensive use of volunteers and donated equipment, supplies and services will have a huge advantage in demonstrating how much value they can deliver per donor dollar invested. But try to address the issue of how much good the donor’s gift will enable you to do.

Third, decide what you are going to do for the donor if they make the requested donation. If they and their gifts are important to you, you might want to list their name on a donor wall at your nonprofit, send them newsletters about the good that their donations are doing, invite them to events, etc.. How will you show them that they and their gifts are important to you?

These three elements of the asking plan define the first or next easy step that you are asking the donor to take to help your nonprofit, how you will use their donation for what effect, and what you will do to show the donor how important they and their gifts are to your nonprofit. In effect, these elements provide the reasons why the donor should make the requested investment in your nonprofit.

TV advertisers are masters at creating a commercial that tap into the feelings of a viewer in just twenty seconds. I can recall an image of an exhausted athlete re-energizing himself with a cold Gatorade; the satisfaction of a couple turning down lenders who are standing in line to offer them a mortgage, the excitement of driving a sporty car is through mountain “S” curves while a young boy whispers “zum, zum”; and an SUV ad where the remote controlled hatchback, door locks and door step allows a woman to put her groceries in the back and get into her seat before a thunderstorm breaks. The viewer can imagine themselves being in those “slice of life” stories, and when they do, they feel what the people in those stories feel. These ads tap into the feelings of the viewer.

Most asking plans should talk about some of the tragic circumstances that your nonprofit sees. A friend of mine told me what it felt like to have to stick his infant granddaughter with a needle a dozen times a day to test her glucose level. My eyes are tearing right now as I write this paragraph, thinking of how hard that must be for that family. Not surprisingly, I have made some major gifts to juvenile diabetes at their fundraisers, not because of any good reasons why I should be giving to that particular charity, but because of my feelings about what it must be like for a family to have to cope with this illness.

It is easy to determine if you have a story that taps into people’s feelings. If, when you tell it, or write about it, or think about it, it gets an emotional response from you, you are probably on the right track. I was asked to give a short talk about legacies at an annual meeting of the Orange County Community Foundation. To prepare, I was reflecting on the legacy that my parents had given me, and found myself getting choked up. I knew I had I story that would tap into my emotions when I told it, and would, therefore, tap into the feelings of at least some of the people in the audience when I delivered it.

Obviously, it is much easier to tap into the feelings of a prospective donor when you make the presentation personally to an individual or at an event. When you make that presentation, people will tend to feel what you feel; making it much more likely that you will get the donation that you are asking for. But even if the presentation is made by mail, it is still a good idea to tell the reader about some tragic circumstances that your nonprofit helped alleviate. Follow this by asking for a specific donation to do more of that good work, and then close with how you will use that donation for what effect, and what you will do to show the donor how important they and their gifts are to your nonprofit.