What’s So Scary About Asking For Money?
Interview with Susan Kahan
Fundraising is a necessary part of any nonprofit organization. There is an art and a science to it, and at the end of the day, it is about building relationships with your donors and giving them an opportunity to support the cause you all care so much about.
With more than a decade of working in the nonprofit sector, Susan Kahan is passionate about the power of philanthropy and helping organizations meet and exceed their goals to fulfill their missions. Based in Chicago, Susan has experience working with major gifts, mid-level donors, planned giving, capital campaigns, and creating and executing fundraising strategies and events.
Beyond Chicago, Susan has worked across the Midwest, New England, and the Mid-Atlantic, and she brings her knowledge and expertise from these special communities to each of her current projects and clients. A relationship builder and people connector, Susan was also involved in grassroots political mobilizations and encouraging citizens to get involved in the political process with their voice and their financial support.
Prior to founding Sapphire Fundraising Specialists, Susan held fundraising and management roles at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Susan graduated from the George Washington University in Washington, DC with a major in Communication and a double minor in Political Science and Business Administration.
More information at https://www.sapphirefundraisingspecialists.com/
Read the Interview Transcript
Hugh Ballou: Welcome back to The Nonprofit Exchange. This is Hugh Ballou, founder and president of SynerVision Leadership Foundation. It’s where we create synergy with a common vision. SynerVision is like ensemble in music or drama.
We have a great title today: “What’s So Scary About Asking for Money?” Our guest today is Susan Kahan. I’m going to ask Susan to share a little bit about her background, experience, and passion for doing this work. Susan, let us hear about you.
Susan Kahan: Hugh, thank you so much for inviting me. It’s really a pleasure and honor to be here. Congratulations on hitting almost 300 episodes; that’s very exciting.
I’m Susan Kahan. I’m the founder and principal of Sapphire Fundraising Specialists, which is a consulting firm for small- to medium-sized nonprofits on their fundraising.
My background is in fundraising. I worked in nonprofits across the country. I started in planned giving, which is a bit unique. Most people don’t start in planned giving. I swear the reason why I got the job was because I wrote a thesis called “Elderly Gossip in Retirement Communities.” My future boss, at the time, she saw that line on the resume, and said, “If this is her interest, she has to come in and join our team.” I owe her a lot.
I worked in fundraising for over a decade. I’ve had thousands of donor meetings. I’ve asked thousands of people for money over the years. I now work with nonprofits to train their staff on how to be better fundraisers, how to strategize to have more sustainable funding. It’s not just about getting a gift today. It’s about figuring out how can you make your organization function and not worry about having to get the gift day-to-day. I’m really excited to be here and hear from you.
Hugh: There is a lot of anxiety around raising money. People say to me, “I hate asking for money. I’d rather do anything than ask for money.” Consequently, they do everything else instead of ask for money, and then they complain they are broke. What is that about?
Susan: No one likes to be rejected, and no one likes not to know the answer. A lot of times, people go into a meeting with a donor, and I’m talking mainly with individual giving for today. They don’t even want to set the meeting because they are nervous because A) the person on the other side could say no to them, B) maybe they even offend the person, “How dare you ask me for this much money?” or C) the donor asks a question that the fundraiser or executive director isn’t prepared to answer or doesn’t know how to answer, and that’s really scary. What do you do instead?
If you reframe your mind a little bit, instead of you’re asking for money from someone else, and maybe it will go right or wrong, if you think about it as a way of talking with someone who also cares about what you do, and you’re giving them an opportunity to make a difference. Yes, it might be a yes, or yes, it might be a no, when you make an ask. You’re having a conversation, two like-minded individuals.
At the end of the day, your organization needs funding. Most organizations aren’t 100% funded and have surpluses. Maybe you have an endowment, but what’s the draw-down? You’re always going to need money. Finding a way to tell people about what you do and why it matters, that’s what fundraising is all about.
Hugh: There is a stigma around money. I personally think it starts with a stupid word, “nonprofit.” Puts us in this scarcity thinking. How do we get out of, “It’s a taboo topic. I don’t want to talk about money. I certainly don’t want to ask for money?” How do we do a reset with that thinking?
Susan: It’s terrible branding to call a nonprofit a nonprofit organization. I’ve seen other people talk about this a lot. You’re defining it by what it’s not. That is something that we should all consider. Instead, it’s a mission-focused organization, or it’s an organization with a social impact focus. I often just call it an organization instead of a nonprofit because it’s an organization focused on literacy, homelessness, health care, whatever the cause is. But you put that name into it.
Yes, there is definitely a stigma around money. People who go into this sector often aren’t going into it for the money. When they need to ask for the money, it doesn’t feel good because they want to talk about the mission. They want to talk about what they’re doing. They want to go do it. They don’t necessarily want to ask others to fund it.
Hugh: That’s something we just have to deal with because we are the leader, and leaders make things happen. We had a guest a couple years ago who said, “A for-profit company is about the profit. What we’re running is a for-purpose company.” It’s a business.
You were talking about common-mindedness with the donor. Let’s back up from that. You have a donor meeting, but there is some due diligence, some preparation. How do we make sure we have the right message? How do we make sure we know what the donor is interested in? What are some of the prerequisites that need to happen before we have a face-to-face meeting?
Susan: Great question. In order to be successful with a donor meeting, you should come prepared. You may or may not have another opportunity to speak to this person, so you want to make sure you’re ready. There are a couple of things I think are really important when you’re talking about preparation.
One is you know what’s going on with the organization. That may seem obvious, but there are new things happening all the time. Are you prepared to talk about them? Is it a new leader in the organization? What are they bringing to the table? A new initiative, a new project. If you have been in the news recently. Try to think from the donor’s perspective. What are they going to ask you about? If they Google your organization, what’s the first news story about the issue that you’re working on? What’s going on? Be prepared with your organization’s story.
What are some success stories you want to share? We just accomplished this thing; let me tell you about it. This is a way to show impact when someone makes a gift. You want to be prepared to show this is what you’ve done, and this is what you’re going to do next.
That’s first. The second thing is know your story, which I don’t think people always think about. I’ll tell you in almost every donor meeting I’ve ever had, I’m asked, “Susan, why are you involved with this? What brings you here?” I’m going to guess that if you’re working for this organization, you care about the mission. You’re passionate about it. You’re there to make a difference. Be ready to talk about it and share that, so you can build that rapport with the donor who also hopefully cares about the mission. You have something in common.
The final thing of course is researching the donor. You want to know their giving history or any of their relationships with the organization you work for. Can you look at their LinkedIn, their Facebook? A straight Google of the person to understand who they are, to get a sense of their family, their business, their education. I can’t tell you how many times someone I met with happened to go to the same university as I did, so we were able to talk about that. Try to find ways of knowing who you’re talking to before you even step into the room.
One final thing I’ll say is to be ready with knowing what you’re going to talk about in the meeting. Let’s say you want to ask for a gift. Be ready to ask for that gift. Know that you’re not leaving that meeting until you ask that person for a gift. Of course, not every meeting is an ask. Sometimes you’re there just to get to know them. Sometimes you’re there because the person is upset about something. I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve had like that, where the donor calls, “I’m upset about something. I want to talk to you.” Be ready to listen in that meeting. Know that that’s the goal, to listen and hear their feedback. Try to make them feel better. Be prepared with the agenda and enact that.
Hugh: Your agenda is to walk out with a check. That’s one scenario where you’re working for the executive director, and you have to bone up on all of the details and what’s going on. There is the other extreme. I’m a founder of a nonprofit, so we founders know everything about it. We want to tell people everything about it, which reminds me of the story Zig Ziglar tells in his keynotes: A kid asked his mom a question, and Mom says, “Why don’t you ask your father?” The kid says, “I don’t want to know that much about it.” We tend to talk ourselves out of the results by sharing too much. How much is enough?
Susan: That’s a good point. When you’re meeting with a donor, as interesting as you and I are, as interesting as the people listening to this are, it’s not about us. It’s not about us! Most of the time should be spent listening, asking those open-ended questions, getting to know them, hearing what they’re saying and being responsive of course. If they ask, “Tell me what’s going on at XYZ nonprofit,” of course you tell them your story. But you then want to say, “What do you think about that? What’s your take on this?” Try to bring them in. You’re right. When you founded something, you’re so passionate and excited about it, all you want to do is talk about it. No one is going into a meeting waiting for a lecture. They’re looking for a conversation. That’s what these fundraising meetings should be about, a conversation.
Hugh: Here’s a sound bite: It’s not about you. It’s about the donor, right?
Susan: About the donor, absolutely.
Hugh: We want to tell them everything before we have learned about them or demonstrated that we care about them or what they care about. What is the worst thing you could do when asking a donor for a gift?
Susan: The worst thing is not asking. That’s the worst thing. It’s assuming that they know you need the funds. Not asking someone for a gift when you are intending to, that is the biggest mistake you can make. You just can’t assume that a donor knows you need the money. You may come off and say, “We’re doing great, and we’re doing all this stuff. We just got this big gift from MacKenzie Scott, and we’re doing this, this, and this.” At the same time, you may still be under budget, and you may still be struggling. The donor doesn’t know unless you tell them. This is an opportunity for them to help you.
I’ll also say that I’ve seen donors over the years be offended when they aren’t asked for a gift. They see other people being asked, and they are a leader in the community. They’re like, “Why didn’t you ask me?” If you’re doing a capital campaign, let’s say, or a planned giving program, and some leader in the community isn’t asked to make those big gifts, they can be offended. The worst thing, again, is not asking.
Also, being nervous about the amount. People often ask me, “How much should I ask for?” What I try to say to my clients is if you’re asking for too much money- Let’s say someone were to ask me, “Susan, will you donate $1 million?” The first thing I would do is laugh. I can’t afford to give $1 million. It’s nowhere in the realm of possibility for me to give. That’s what most donors are going to do if you’re completely out of the realm. Obviously, $1 million is a very high level. Hopefully you have done some research before you got to that ask. Let’s say you’re asking for $10,000 or $5,000. The person says, “I can’t do that right now.” Say, “I totally understand. Is that something maybe in the future you would consider doing?” It’s about turning it back on them and listening to what they have to say.
Hugh: If she came to $1 a million right now, how about $1 a day for a million days?
Susan: Sure, sounds great.
Hugh: The worst thing you can do is not ask. We hem and haw around, and we hit at it, but we don’t get to the ask. How do we formulate the ask? Do we always ask in a yes or no? Do we put it in a range? How do we make that ask, so it has some traction?
Susan: Sure. The first thing I would say is you need to do what sounds natural and authentic to you. I have a certain speech pattern; you, Hugh, have a certain speech pattern; the listeners each have their own speech pattern. Often, gender can have differences. Age, race. There are different things about how we speak. That impacts how you should therefore ask someone for support. You want to sound like you.
The key though is you’re asking the donor a direct question. You shouldn’t be apologizing. If you say something like, “I’m so sorry. I know we’ve asked you before, but it’s that time of year. Would you make a gift?” No one will say yes to that. You have to be direct. You have to be confident. Your organization needs the money, and this person hopefully has the capacity and willingness to give and interest in giving. You want to be direct; you want to be confident. It could be a yes or no.
Some people really like the “Would you consider” or “Would you invest in?” I often say give a specific amount. “Will you invest $10,000 in our organization?” Sometimes you want to give a range. You’re not really sure of their capacity, but you want to see what they’ll do. You’ll say, “Would you give a gift in the range of $1,000-$10,000, which is where a lot of our leadership level donors give?” and see what they say. Again, it’s a conversation. It’s not just about you making your case and seeing how they answer. It’s about that conversation and dialogue.
Hugh: The author and writer Simon Sinek has a book about starting with why. We tend to go about what we do instead of why it matters. Where do we cover that? How important is the why?
Susan: When you’re meeting with a donor, you’re getting to know them, you’re building rapport. Then at a certain point, a person is likely going to say, “What do you want?” That’s your opportunity to start talking about it. Say, “Hugh, I’m so glad we had this opportunity to meet and to talk. I’m so glad I got to know more about you. I now want to tell you about what we’re up to and why we need you as a leader in our work.” You start to tell them what you’re doing. You say the impact. You go through it. Say, “Hugh, I really need your help in this. Would you consider a gift?” Make it to the point.
You want to be clear in your ask. Oftentimes, people say, “Will you give a gift of $10,000 because blah blah blah?” They will talk on for another five minutes. You’re not allowing the person to answer. It’s important to talk about the why and the mission, absolutely, but then you ask, and you stop talking. You are confident in the silence because no one likes silence, and you wait for them to answer. Give them a chance to think.
Hugh: You heard it right here. Another sound bite. You ask the question, and you stop talking. You wait.
Susan: I’ve done trainings with different organizations, and I make them ask me for money. Then I put on my phone a timer for 10 seconds. I make them not speak for 10 seconds while I stare at them. I know I don’t look really intimidating for those of you who can see me, but I can be. I really try to make them be quiet for 10 seconds, which is a long time. You have to be confident that the other person is going to answer yes, no, or maybe. You don’t know unless you give them a chance to do it.
Hugh: What if they say no? What do you do then?
Susan: If you are hearing a no, that’s a good thing. You’re asking. You in your career as an executive in a nonprofit or a fundraiser working in a nonprofit, you better be hearing no’s. If you’re not, that means you’re not asking enough people. Use those no’s as an opportunity for a further conversation. “Is this not a priority for you? Is this not right now?” People who have three kids in college, and they’re moving, and they have this other business, they may say, “Right now, I can’t take on any more responsibilities.” Of course, you say, “I completely understand. Can I follow up in six months, a year, or four years?”
Figure out why is it a no. Is it because they don’t care about what you do? Great. Check, move on to the next person. This person doesn’t care about what you do. Why waste your time with them?
But if it’s a “Not right now,” or “I’m doing this other stuff. I’m still new to you guys. I want to see what you do. Here’s a gift of this size.” There is a lot you can learn from someone saying no if you ask the right questions.
Hugh: If they say no to the specific amount, which is a large amount, do you fall back and ask them, “What could you do?”
Susan: Absolutely. You say, “What could you do?” You could say something like, “I understand that might not be possible right now. What would be a meaningful gift for you?” I love the word “meaningful” because it’s something that people can decide on their own what that is. You’re showing that you’re investing in them, and hopefully they’re investing in you. Ask, “What would be a meaningful gift for you at this time?”
Hugh: I want to go back and contrast the worst things and the best things you can do. You talked about some of the best things. The worst thing is not asking for the money. The worst thing is not knowing about the donor. The worst thing is talking too much about you and not learning about them. Did I learn something there?
Susan: All of those things are true. The other thing I’ll say that I would call a no-no is you should not be talking negatively about another donor or a member of the staff or another organization because you never know who this person knows. You may think you know all they know, but things that you say may be repeated and often are repeated. You want to make sure that you’re coming across in the best light, and your organization is coming across in the best light.
Let’s say there is a competitor for your organization. You’re similar, but you do something different. They ask you, “What’s the difference between your organization and that organization?” I’ve gotten that question. I know that question. You have to say, “That organization is wonderful. We work together on things.” Hopefully that’s true. “I know people who work there. We’re good friends and colleagues. If you want to know what they do, go talk to them. Let me tell you what we’re doing right now.” Bring it back to your organization. Very different than if you were to say, “That other organization is terrible. They are totally dysfunctional and unorganized.” I guarantee that person that asked you probably is on the board of that other organization. They are asking for a reason oftentimes.
Hugh: Even if they aren’t, you’re putting negative energy into the discussion. That is rarely good. You’re defining yourself as a person who needs to be critical. Maybe they’re not getting that you’re criticizing that organization, or they don’t buy in, but they have identified you. We don’t need to create any negative emotions in this. What you suggested, that’s a good organization.
What we require for organizations at SynerVision is help them define their mission, vision, and tangible outcomes. People donate to impact. They’re fond of their money, and they want to be fond of the impact their money is going to have. ROI is the return on impact, not a return on investment. We also have created this unique value proposition. What is distinctively different? Hopefully you have done a competitive analysis, so you know what the options are. Then you can speak brilliantly to what you do differently.
Is there another best practice that we want to highlight? We are contrasting the bad and the good.
Susan: The only other thing that I’ll also say in terms of the bad is I hear often, “This person really should be giving more. This person should have given last year, but they didn’t.” That word “should.” I want to pause people in our sector and say, “Why should they? This is a voluntary act. They don’t need to give to your organization. That is something you are asking of them.” Maybe they didn’t give the amount that you thought that they would have, but the ‘should’ is a really- I don’t like using that word.
If you thought they should have given a major gift, or a capital gift, or whatever it is, by now, then think, “What have we done, or what do we know about this person? What else is going on in their world? Do we know enough? Have we asked them?” Try to find out. When you are making your plan for the year about who is going to give, how much, how much you want to ask, and how you will get to your revenue goals, you want to be careful of, “They should give at least this much” because they might not.
Hugh: At the same time, you don’t want to have a negative script in your brain as they’re not going to do it because that comes across somehow.
Let’s talk about structuring the meeting with a donor. People sometimes hit me up after a Rotary meeting, or people want to hit someone they know from church or synagogue up. It’s not the right place to do business. We need to set apart a time.
One of my pet peeves is people say, “Let’s meet at 2pm.” They never say, “I need 20 minutes of your time.” People will do a start time, but they don’t think about the duration. Talk about structuring that meeting. What are some of the things we need to be doing?
Susan: On that one point about someone seeing you, I used to work for an organization where I would speak at synagogues often on Shabbat on Saturday mornings. I was doing that one time. Afterwards, as there often is, there is a lunch. I was eating a bagel at a table, talking with people. Someone came up to me and was like, “I owe you money, don’t I?” I’m mid-bite in bagel. My presence reminded them that I was supposed to give, and I haven’t yet. This is a reminder.
When I’m in a group of people, that moment would not have been the time, “I can take your check right now. Let’s have a conversation about your gift for this year.” That would not have been the right time. I think I said something like, “Oh, thank you so much. I’m honored just seeing my face reminds you. I’ll follow up with an email on Monday. We can talk then.”
Within the community, if you see people, and they know you, and they know you’re the representative for the organization, they will start to talk to you about it at all times. You can be in a grocery store even. Do you want to have a real conversation with someone then? Probably not. You might be able to talk quickly, but hopefully you can follow up.
Back to your question about how to structure that meeting. I once had a colleague who always did this, and she taught me this. When you start a meeting with a donor, whether it’s a phone call, a Zoom meeting, in person, you want to clarify how much time you have together. Like you said, if you only have 15 minutes with the person, and sometimes that will happen, even if you’re in person, they may have another meeting, you then need to adjust and only focus on what you can accomplish in 15 minutes. You can’t develop a long-term relationship in just a 15-minute chunk.
Maybe you want to talk about a gift. Maybe that feels right. Maybe you just want to say, “I wanted to check in. I wanted to tell you about this one thing. I wanted to talk to you about your gift. If you want to talk about that today, I know we don’t have a lot of time, but we can. Or we can schedule another time.” Starting off with the amount of time you have is a great way to- Then talk about, “This is what I wanted to talk about today.”
This shouldn’t be a surprise that you’re going to talk to them about giving. We’re organizations that need funding. How do we get funding? From donors. It shouldn’t be a surprise. I will often even say in asking someone to meet, “I want to talk to you about your gift for this year.” That’s in the email before I even meet with them so they have a moment to think about, “This year, I may increase. I was thinking about increasing, but this year, I’m going to do it.” Giving people the heads up is actually very well-received.
Structuring that meeting, you want to rapport-build as much as you can. Talk about them. Talk about the organization. Talk about the mission. Talk about that impact. Get into the ask. Talk about that.
At the very end, most important, forget everything else. Repeat back anything that was said or any next steps. If they said, “I really want to see that video you produced on the new housing center,” you say, “I will send that to you by the end of the day tomorrow.” Tell them when you will send it, and you better do it. If they said, “I’m going to increase my gift by 10%. I will send you a check next week,” you say, “Great. Just to repeat back to make sure I heard, you said you will increase your gift by 10%, and the check will be coming next week.” Just make sure that you don’t leave a meeting with any confusion about what was said because that can then lead to a lot of problems later.
Hugh: We’re at the end of our time, but I have one last question. We have a lot of people who don’t want to learn how to do fundraising, and they are wearing the executive director hat. Pretty much everyone in this space of the nonprofit work (bad word, but it’s what we know) is a part of it. We represent the brand, and we carry that forward for our donors. We get the check and say, “Thank you.” We wait a year and go back for the next check. What is wrong with that picture?
Susan: I’m so glad you brought this up because we didn’t really talk about donor stewardship. First of all, no one wants to be thought of as a pocketbook. You don’t just want to be the piggy bank that people go back to and say, “Can I have my gift for this year now?” It’s really important that after a person makes a gift, they feel really good about making the gift. Who is following up with them to thank them? How many times are they being thanked? Through what medium are they being thanked? Is it a phone call, in person, an email, a letter? Is it all of the above? There are a lot of different ways we can be creative to thank someone. Make them feel thanked. It shouldn’t just be a day or two right after they make the gift.
I’ll tell you, so many times, people forget, “Did I make a gift to that organization or not last year?” They won’t remember if you never talk to them about what happened with their gift. If you three, four, six months after the gift is made, follow up and say, “Thank you so much for your gift of XYZ in June of last year. I want to let you know what we have done so far this year. Thanks so much for helping make it happen.”
Shouldn’t be asking all the time, but you should be telling them, “This is what we’re doing,” even if their money didn’t directly relate to this. We all know how budgets are set up, and things are restricted. Tell them what your organization is doing. Even if they didn’t go to some restricted area of work, that restricted area of work wouldn’t have happened without the general operating budget, if the rent wasn’t paid. Maybe that is where their money went. You don’t need to talk about that. What is the overall impact of the work of your organization? You’re talking to them about it all the time.
Hugh: You should smile just like you’re seeing Susan do. She is enthusiastic about it. Susan’s website is SapphireFundraisingSpecialists.com. You can contact her there with more questions. This is something everybody needs that’s in the social benefit sector and for-purpose enterprises. Susan, what do you want to leave people with, a thought or tip or concept?
Susan: At the end of the day, this is really hard. The reason why people are scared to do it is because it’s hard. No one ever said it wasn’t. It’s just really important that you’re clear on why your organization exists and why you personally are involved in this work. Maybe you’re the one who founded the organization. Why do you need the money now? If you can answer those questions, you’re going to be just fine.
Hugh: Susan Kahan, thank you for being our guest today on The Nonprofit exchange.
Susan: My pleasure. Thanks!
Thank you so very much, Susan and Hugh. Very helpful!