Asking to ask in Socratic fundraising: Can I show you some options?

Before the ask, one step remains. Asking for permission to ask. The request is to present a challenge. This is the proposal for support.[1] Getting permission first is important. It puts the donor in control.[2] It sets the stage for the ask. 

           The phrasing should present this as the next natural step in the conversation. For example,

·      “I’d like to work with a few others at [the charity] to put together some options that match what we’ve been discussing. I think you’ll be interested. I’d love to get your thoughts on what we come up with. Would you be open to that?”

·      “I’ve been thinking about our past conversation, and I want to share with you in person some gift opportunities that are right in sync with what we have been discussing. How does next Tuesday work for you to meet?”[3] Or “Would you be open to that type of conversation?”[4]

·      “Can we sit down in a month so that I can present a formal proposal of support that aligns with your passions for the school and what we talked about today?”[5]

·      “I’d like to meet with you in the next week or so to continue our discussion on how you can make a real difference with the organization. I have a few ideas that I’d like to share with you in person.”[6]

Providing value

           This phrasing emphasizes value. These value words include,

·      “Ideas”

·      “Gift opportunities”

·      “Investment opportunities”

·      “Conversation,” and

·      “Proposal.”

           The request is to present a proposal. But these are meaningful, valuable options. This isn’t leading to just, “Can I have some money, please?” (That’s an experience people prefer to avoid.)[7] Sharing personalized, thoughtful, detailed opportunities is different. It can provide real value. 

           In the donor’s hero story, the proposal is the “call to adventure.” This “monomyth” proposal will

·      Review connections with the donor’s identity (people, history, and values)

·      Make a giving challenge that promises a visualizable victory, and

·      Demonstrate how this victory will deliver meaning and honor.

           This proposal is valuable. It presents a compelling option. It promises a meaningful victory. It advances the hero’s journey. Completing the hero’s journey delivers an enhanced identity. It delivers meaning and honor. 

           Using “value” words for the proposal isn’t just a trick. It can match the donor’s actual experience. It can match the donor’s story.

The power of delay

           Asking for permission to ask does something else. It creates a scheduled delay. This delay accomplishes several things. 

           First, it allows more time for donors to think. The identity and meaningful victory questions are deep issues. More time can help. Larger financial decisions aren’t just instant impulse choices. They can require more thought. More time can help. 

           In one experiment, people were asked to make either a small (<$1) or large ($100) donation.[8] Some were asked to first reflect on the decision during a 60-second delay. (Others could answer right away.) Adding the delay had no effect on the small gift decision. But it more than doubled willingness to make the large gift. Adding time for contemplation was critical for larger gift decisions. 

           Another experiment showed this in a different way. Donation options were $5, $100, and an open-ended blank. Some had to respond quickly. Others had to reflect during a 60-second delay. The delay had no effect on the likelihood of giving. But it dramatically increased the share of people who made larger gifts.[9] Adding time for contemplation was critical for larger gift decisions. 

           A delay accomplishes something else. It separates the conversational questions from the ask. The financial request doesn’t come right away. This preserves the social context of the initial conversations.

           Finally, a delay can increase perceived value. Options that take time and effort to construct feel more valuable.

Scheduled delay

           Introducing a delay can be powerful. But we don’t want to just indefinitely postpone a decision. We want to schedule it. Time is still critical. Deadlines are still motivational. For example,

·      “We’ve already received financial commitments from 100% of the board. But before launching our public campaign in three months, we need to work with our leading supporters like you. Your decision will be critical in convincing others to join the campaign after we go public.”

·      “I’d like to share some ideas that you could consider before the end of the tax year.”

The power of the preliminary “yes”

           Asking for permission with a delay triggers another behavioral reaction. People tend to predict they will help. This prediction is higher than the actual help they would have given if asked immediately. This is no surprise. A prediction doesn’t cost anything. And we all like to view ourselves positively.[10] 

           But here’s where it gets weird. Once people make this prediction, they then change their future behavior to match their prediction. Getting people to first predict their actions increases helping. This happens in experiments with

·      Blood donations[11]

·      Volunteering[12]

·      Voting[13]

·      Recycling,[14] and

·      Buying environmentally friendly products.[15]

           This also happens in fundraising. It helps explain the power of feasibility studies. These ask people to predict their future giving. The initial prediction is not a commitment. It doesn’t cost anything. It’s just a conversation to help with planning. But the future prediction can then influence actual giving.

           In one experiment,[16] some university alumni were called and asked questions, including

“If you were contacted by your high school or college and asked to donate money, would you do so?”

           Others were asked only unrelated questions or no questions at all. A few days later, the university’s fundraising phone campaign contacted everyone. Among those who were not asked to predict their giving, less than a third gave. Among those who were asked for a prediction, half gave. And, on average, they donated 70% more than those who weren’t asked for a prediction. 

           Getting permission to make the ask does the same thing. It makes the donor consider what they might do in the future. They consider this prior to an actual commitment. When they’re later asked to actually give, the gift becomes more likely. And it becomes larger. 

Major gifts require time

           We don’t have to ask for permission. We could just ask for the gift. If the request is minor, there’s no need to wait. People will make these small “social compliance” gifts if asked. But they also tend to avoid these requests.[17] The donor might disappear.  If we’re asking small, we should do it now. We might not get another chance! 

           But that’s not how major gifts work. Major gifts are not an impulse purchase.[18] Major gifts require thought. They require planning. They require time. One fundraiser shares,

“If someone doesn’t need to stop and think, it’s not REALLY a major gift.”[19]

Jerold Panas adds,

“The chances are almost certain you won’t receive a meaningful answer or a consequential gift on the first visit. If you do, odds are you could have gotten more!”[20]

Naomi Levine shares,

“The quicker you ask, the less money you will receive.”[21]

           How long is the process for a major gift? Experienced fundraisers typically say about one to three years.[22] This will include four to six meetings or “moves.” 

Time for story

           But just waiting for time to pass won’t lead to a major gift. Meetings and donor experiences can help. But they must advance the story. These “moves” must lead to a compelling fundraising challenge. 

           They can connect the organization, cause, or project with the donor’s history, people, or values. They can demonstrate the organization’s ability to deliver impact, meaning, and recognition. They can support the full donor-hero story process.

           Fundraisers often describe the process in terms of building “trust” or “relationship.”[23] A compelling challenge does require trust. Many organizations promise a victory. But few actually deliver that experience to the donor. Fewer still deliver a donor experience that enhances meaning or reputation. 

           A guiding sage can help in the donor’s journey. But there is always a risk that the guide is a counterfeit. She may abandon the donor before the hero’s journey is complete. She may simply be a jester who quits at the punchline. Relationship can increase trust against such donor abandonment.

Next step

           Trust, relationship, and permission are valuable. But these alone won’t create a major gift. They simply support the “ask.” 

           In a narrative arc, the ask is the “inciting incident.” In the hero’s journey, it’s the “call to adventure.” This is the critical story point where the main character must choose. It’s the point in the donor’s hero story that we’ll look at next.

Next up: Socratic fundraising’s “call to adventure” – Making a compelling ask

Audio/Slides at https://youtu.be/WqlQkhEX8HU


[1] An Nguyen calls this the “Pre-Request.” It is “setting the stage for the request, i.e., asking permission to present a proposal for support.” Nguyen, A. (2020, February 20). Five steps to the big ask: How to prepare donors to receive a big gift request [Website]. https://ccsfundraising.com/five-steps-to-the-big-ask-how-to-prepare-donors-to-receive-a-big-gift-request/

[2] Amy Eisenstein explains, “By skiing for permission, you give them control over the topic.” Quoted in Verma, N. (2020, June 26). Virtual solicitation: Best ways to make a fundraising ask to get a YES! [Website]. https://callhub.io/fundraising-ask/

[3] Fredricks, L. (2006). The ask: How to ask anyone for any amount for any purpose. John Wiley & Sons. p. 103.

[4] Eisenstein, A. (2014). Major gift fundraising for small shops: How to leverage your annual fund in only five hours per week. CharityChannel Press. p. 69.

[5] Nguyen, A. (2020, February 20). Five steps to the big ask: How to prepare donors to receive a big gift request. https://ccsfundraising.com/five-steps-to-the-big-ask-how-to-prepare-donors-to-receive-a-big-gift-request/

[6] Fredricks, L. (2006). The ask: How to ask anyone for any amount for any purpose. John Wiley & Sons. p. 103.

[7] See, Trachtman, H., Steinkruger, A., Wood, M., Wooster, A., Andreoni, J., Murphy, J. J., & Rao, J. M. (2015). Fair weather avoidance: unpacking the costs and benefits of “avoiding the ask”. Journal of the Economic Science Association, 1(1), 8-14.; DellaVigna, S., List, J. A., & Malmendier, U. (2012). Testing for altruism and social pressure in charitable giving. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 127(1), 1-56; Dana, J., Cain, D. M., & Dawes, R. M. (2006). What you don’t know won’t hurt me: Costly (but quiet) exit in dictator games. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 100(2), 193-201.

[8] Mrkva, K. (2017). Giving, fast and slow: Reflection increases costly (but not uncostly) charitable giving. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 30(5), 1052-1065.

[9] Ekström, M. (2021). The (un) compromise effect: How suggested alternatives can promote active choice. Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics, 90, 101639. [Experiment 2].

[10]“… people are generally more accurate in their predictions of what others will do than in their (morally rosier) predictions about what they themselves will do.” Haidt, J. (2007). The new synthesis in moral psychology. Science, 316 (5827), 998-1002.

“Researchers have repeatedly demonstrated that people on average tend to think they are more charitable, cooperative, considerate, fair, kind, loyal, and sincere than the typical person but less belligerent, deceitful, gullible, lazy, impolite, mean, and unethical—just to name a few.” Epley, N., & Dunning, D. (2000). Feeling” holier than thou”: are self-serving assessments produced by errors in self-or social prediction? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(6), 861-875.

For the problems this causes in survey research, see Nederhof, A. J. (1985). Methods of coping with social desirability bias: A review. European Journal of Social Psychology, 15(3), 263-280.

[11] Godin, G., Germain, M., Conner, M., Delage, G., & Sheeran, P. (2014). Promoting the return of lapsed blood donors: A seven-arm randomized controlled trial of the question–behavior effect. Health Psychology, 33(7), 646-655; Godin, G., Sheeran, P., Conner, M., & Germain, M. (2008). Asking questions changes behavior: Mere measurement effects on frequency of blood donation. Health Psychology, 27(2), 179-184.

[12] Sherman, S. J. (1980). On the self-erasing nature of errors of prediction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39(2), 211-221; Spangenberg, E. R., Sprott, D. E., Grohmann, B., & Smith, R. J. (2003). Mass-communicated prediction requests: Practical application and a cognitive dissonance explanation for self-prophecy. Journal of Marketing, 67(3), 47-62.

[13] Greenwald, A. G., Carnot, C. G., Beach, R., & Young, B. (1987). Increasing voting behavior by asking people if they expect to vote. Journal of Applied Psychology, 72(2), 315-318.

[14] Sprott, D. E., Spangenberg, E. R., & Perkins, A. W. (1999). Two more self-prophecy experiments. In E. J. Arnould & L. M. Scott (Eds.), NA – Advances in Consumer Research: Vol. 26 (pp. 621-626). Association for Consumer Research.

[15] Bodur, H. O., Duval, K. M., & Grohmann, B. (2015). Will you purchase environmentally friendly products? Using prediction requests to increase choice of sustainable products. Journal of Business Ethics, 129(1), 59-75.

[16] Obermiller, C., & Spangenberg, E. (2000). Improving telephone fundraising by use of self-prophecy. International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing, 5(4), 365-372.

[17] See, Dana, J., Cain, D. M., & Dawes, R. M. (2006). What you don’t know won’t hurt me: Costly (but quiet) exit in dictator games. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 100(2), 193-201; DellaVigna, S., List, J. A., & Malmendier, U. (2012). Testing for altruism and social pressure in charitable giving. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 127(1), 1-56; Trachtman, H., Steinkruger, A., Wood, M., Wooster, A., Andreoni, J., Murphy, J. J., & Rao, J. M. (2015). Fair weather avoidance: unpacking the costs and benefits of “avoiding the ask”. Journal of the Economic Science Association, 1(1), 8-14

[18] Axelrad, C. (2019, April 23). How not to ask for a major gift [Blog]. NonprofitPRO. https://www.nonprofitpro.com/post/how-not-to-ask-for-a-major-gift/

[19] Philanthropy works (N.D.) How long for a major gift? [Website]. https://www.philanthropyworks.org/how-long-major-gift

[20] Panas, J. (2014). Megagifts: Who gives them, Who gets them? (2nd ed.). p. 91.

[21] Levine, N. B. (2019). From bankruptcy to billions: Fundraising the Naomi Levine way. Independently published. p. 47.

[22] Philanthropy works (N.D.) How long for a major gift? [Website]. https://www.philanthropyworks.org/how-long-major-gift

[23] Id.

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About the author

Russell James, J.D., Ph.D., CFP

After more than a quarter century spent as a planned giving fundraiser, an estate planning attorney in private practice, a major gifts fundraiser/college president, and now as a university professor researching charitable giving and fundraising, my focus is to make and share words, pictures, and discoveries that help others to encourage generosity.

My research has been cited in outlets such as The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, U.S. News & World Reports, CNN, NBC News, Bloomberg News, ABC News, USA Today, and The Chronicle of Philanthropy. My research methodologies include econometric analysis of large datasets, functional magnetic resonance imaging (neuroimaging), skin conductance response, and online and in-person experiments.

My teaching includes classroom and online graduate instruction, webinars, seminars, educational videos, and keynote presentations at national conferences for fundraisers, financial planners, and estate planners.

My publications have appeared in more than forty different academic journals including Cognitive Neuroscience, Environment & Behavior, Applied Economics, Applied Economics Letters, American Journal of Economics & Sociology, Social Indicators Research, American Review of Public Administration, Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, Nonprofit Management and Leadership, International Journal of Nonprofit & Voluntary Sector Management, Voluntas-International Journal of Voluntary & Nonprofit Organizations, Journal of Financial Counseling & Planning, Financial Services Review, Journal of Personal Finance, Journal for Financial Planning, Journal of Financial Therapy, Ageing & Society, Educational Gerontology, International Journal of Consumer Studies, Journal of Consumer Affairs, Review of Religious Research, The Geneva Papers on Risk & Insurance, Estate Planning & Community Property Law Journal, and UC-Davis Law Review.