Socratic fundraising permission: Can I ask you a question?

The missing piece in the story

           A novel can have a perfect story. But it will still fail without one thing. The reader must turn the page. It’s easy to miss this small act of permission. But without it, the story stops. 

           Traditional “interruption marketing” overlooks this step. Instead, the view is,

“We’ve got a great story. All we need is to get it out there!” 

           In this approach, advancing a story is measured in “impressions,” “ad buys,” or “reach.” That can work. But even more powerful is “permission marketing.”[1]

Permission in Socratic fundraising

           Suppose we’re at a social event. We start talking about our great charity. How long can we do that? Pretty much forever. We can just keep talking and talking. 

           What if instead, we ask a question? How long can we do that? That’s up to the other person. After we ask a question, we stop talking. The next step is theirs.

           Socratic fundraising requires permission. The donor must participate. He must agree to answer our questions. This is true in all types of long-term relationship sales. The classic text on these sales, SPIN Selling, explains,

“there are many ways to open a call, but the common factor of most good openings is that they lead the customer to agree that you should ask questions … you want to establish your role as the seeker of information and the buyer’s role as the giver.” [2] 

Permission before Socratic fundraising

           Often, we need permission even before this. Asking questions works great if we’re already having conversations with donors. (Events, meetings, and tours can be great openings to talk.) But what if we aren’t having those meetings? In that case, we’ve got to get permission for a meeting.

           This isn’t a proposal meeting. We aren’t asking for a gift. (And make sure the donor knows that!) This is a discovery meeting. We want to ask questions. 

           We want donors to say “yes” to a meeting. We want them to say “yes” to answering our questions. How do we get there?

Monomyth motives

           The one big thing in fundraising is always the same: Advance the donor’s hero story. In the donor’s hero story, the fundraiser is the guiding sage. She helps the donor complete the hero’s journey. 

·      She connects the donor’s original identity with the cause, organization, or project. [Original Identity → Challenge]  

·      She presents a challenge that promises a victory. [Challenge → Victory] 

·      The victory results in an enhanced identity. This is external (reputation) or internal (meaning). [Victory → Enhanced Identity]

           The motives can be different for each of the three steps. The first uses a social motive. The donor’s life story, people, and values link to the cause.  [Original Identity → Challenge]. 

           The second uses an impact motive. The challenge promises a victory.  [Challenge → Victory]. 

           The third uses an honor motive. The victory brings the hero external and internal honor.  [Victory → Enhanced Identity].  

           At each step, the fundraiser helps the donor. She helps the donor complete the journey. She provides value as a guiding sage. This uses a value motive.

           How can we justify asking questions? How can we get the meeting? Using these same motives can work. For example, 

1.      I’m interested in your story.

·      This uncovers original identity. It uses a social motive.

2.     I need your help or advice.

·      This reflects a prestige identity. It uses an honor motive.

·      This also promises a victory.  It uses an impact motive.

3.     I can help or advise you.

·      The fundraiser acts as the helpful guiding sage. This uses a value motive.

Let’s look at each of these approaches in detail.

Approach 1: I’m interested in your story

           “So, tell me about yourself!” This is natural for a social setting. I share a bit about my story. I ask about their story. This approach says, “I’m interested in you. Tell me more.” This “appreciative inquiry” makes conversations fun. It’s what friends do. 

           But this can also focus on fundraising topics. It can ask how their story connects with the charity or cause.[3] But it doesn’t have to start there. General questions about a person’s life can help, too.[4] Such rapport-building questions can help show interest. They can help build relationship. This opens the door for later fundraising questions. 

           This can also be a reason to meet. It might be general. For example,

·      “I’m in your area and want to get better acquainted.” [5]

Or it can be fundraising specific. For example,

·      “Every donor has a story to tell about how they got connected with [this organization]. I want to hear yours.”[6]

·      “I’d love to sit down with you to learn more about you and how helping our furry friends became a priority for you.”[7]

·      “Our ___ anniversary is coming up. We’re putting together a collection of stories from donors about how [this charity] has been important in their lives. We’ve found these stories often inspire others to support the cause. I’d love meet with you and hear about your experiences.”

           In each case, the motive is social. (That’s why it’s a visit, not an appointment!)[8] The purpose is, “I’m interested in your story!”

Barriers to appreciative inquiry

           This approach isn’t just a trick. To work, our interest must be real. There’s a reason why successful fundraisers are called “curious chameleons.”[9] For questions to work, they must reflect real curiosity. The must express genuine interest. 

           That means a question isn’t simply,

·      A launching point for a sales pitch

·      A way to force agreement, or

·      An excuse to immediately ask for money.

The “sales pitch” problem

           We’ve all had conversations like this. The other person asks a question. But he isn’t really interested in the answer. He just wants to talk about … what he wants to talk about. The question is just a pretext. It’s an excuse. 

           That’s bad. What’s worse is when the question is a launching point for a long sales pitch. It’s like the cliché Amway sales guy. He might ask a question. But he’s not actually being social. He doesn’t care about your answer. He just wants an excuse to launch into a block of “interruption marketing.”

The “forced agreement” problem

           Sometimes ignoring the answer starts even before the sales pitch. It starts with a question that forces agreement. For example,

·      “Do you want a peaceful and prosperous town?”

·      “Should people care about the destruction of our natural environment?”

·      “Do you want to make $300 a day online by clicking a button?”

           These are “questions.” But they aren’t legitimate. There’s no sense of actually being interested in the other person or their response. This is like giving a prepared line, then saying, “Right?” 

The “fast money” problem

           Even a good question feels bogus if it’s immediately followed by a financial ask. This timing ruins the question. It feels like a “setup,” not an expression of authentic interest. 

           This is why charities should never ask for money in a donor survey. Some charities struggle with the idea of any mailing that doesn’t ask for cash. But in this case, it’s a bad idea. The immediate ask de-legitimizes the questions.[10] It creates the feeling, “You didn’t actually care what I thought. You just wanted money.”

           Conversations can eventually lead to a challenge. But it’s important not to jump to the end of the journey. The goal of each step is only to get to the next step. 

Approach 2: I need your help or advice

I need your advice (student version)

           Over the years, I’ve taught thousands of university students. For most, the scariest challenge is getting their first real job. I encourage students to go to professional conferences and “network.” But how do they turn “networking” into a J-O-B? I start with the adage,

“If you want advice, ask for a job. If you want a job, ask for advice.” 

           Why does this work? Because when a student asks for advice about entering a field,

·      It gives honor. (It says, “You know something important.”)

·      It promises impact. (It says, “You can change my life.”) 

·      It shows what’s important to the employer. (It asks, “How do I become your ideal candidate?”)

I need your advice (fundraiser version)

           This approach can also work for fundraising. Asking for advice can be powerful. It gives honor. It promises impact. It gets the donor to define what they think is important.

           Asking for advice gives honor. It says,

·      “You are important.”

·      “I care about your opinion.”

·      “You know important things that I don’t.” 

           Asking for advice also promises impact. The question implies a need – a gap in knowledge. By filling this gap with wisdom, the donor can make a difference.

           Finally, asking for advice shows what’s important to the donor. He will happily describe how his ideal charity ought to behave. Following up later with a challenge that matches this vision can be powerful.

Why do you need my help or advice? 

           Asking for advice can be powerful. But the desire for advice must be real. It’s important to answer the question, “Why?” “Why do you need my advice?” Some reasons are

·      I’m new here.

·      We have a problem.

·      We have an idea.

·      You’re in charge.

I need your advice… because I’m new here

           One of the easiest ways to get donors to answer questions is when the person asking is new. Got a new dean? A new executive director? A new development director? A new fundraiser? It’s time for a “listening tour.” 

           Go see donors. Ask for advice. The “new guy” justification is obvious. It’s compelling. It provides honor. It promises impact. And it allows the donor to explain what’s important to him.

I need your advice… because we have a problem

           Nothing motivates advice-giving better than a good problem. There are many problems donors can give advice about. 

           Maybe budget constraints mean only one of three projects can be funded this year. That’s a good reason to ask donors about the importance to them of each project. 

           Maybe the number of new people joining the legacy society has dropped. That’s a reason to ask for donor opinions about helping in this way.[11] 

           One of my favorite stories from planned giving marketing illustrates this. A charity’s attempts at planned giving seminars had all failed. Finally, in frustration, they decided to … ask their donors for advice. 

           They held a donor focus group about the problem. “Why won’t anyone come to our seminars?” The donors gave advice. But along the way,

“The participants, in order to give advice about workshops on planned giving, had to ask questions about CRTs and CGAs, and, as they listened to our explanations, they learned what these acronyms stood for and how they could, indeed, benefit the charity as well as themselves and their families.”[12]

           What happened? The charity got planned gifts the next day from donors in the focus group. The fundraisers explained,

“Thus, like a scientist who discovers a cure unexpectedly, we had inadvertently found our answer where we least expected it: the best venue to teach people about planned giving was not a workshop or a seminar but a focus group… [on] why no one seems willing to learn about planned giving by attending the workshops …”[13]

           Success came when they stopped lecturing and started asking. Asking was justified by a real problem. 

I need your advice… because we have an idea

           Instead of a problem, the justification might be an opportunity. We have an idea. We need your advice. For example,

“We’ve been exploring the possibility of opening a new center near you. A few questions have come up. Would you be willing to share your thoughts on this?”

This also justifies questions in a campaign “feasibility study.”[14] This says,

“We have a plan. But it depends on donors like you. So, we need to know your thoughts about the plan and your interest in supporting it.”

I need your advice… because you’re in charge

           Some donors might be able to fund an entire project. But every donor is part of the group that controls the charity’s donations. That makes their voice important.[15]

           Beyond this, donors might have formal authority. They might be trustees. They might be in advisory groups. In any case, treating them as if they’re in charge permits questions. It justifies asking for advice.

           As before, these also work as reasons to ask for a meeting. For example,

·      We need “to get your take on something.”[16]

·      We need “to get feedback on an upcoming project.”[17]

·      We need “to tell you about the project and get your good counsel and advice as to what steps might be taken next to move the project forward.”[18]

·      We need “to get your feedback on a recent study related to (this organization).”[19]

Approach 3: I can help or advise you

           The third approach leads with value. One definition of permission marketing is when

“Customers agree (opt-in) to be involved in an organization’s marketing activities … in return for value offered.”[20]

           Why should they meet with us? Why should they answer our questions? Because we provide benefit. We can help them. In the donor’s hero story, this is the role of the guiding sage. The guiding sage

·      Provides wisdom and advice 

·      Delivers magical instruments to help in the hero’s journey

·      Introduces the hero to friends and allies who can also help.

           Leading with value is powerful. One study asked nearly 3,000 people what they most wanted to read about on their favorite charity’s website.[21] The share “definitely interested in reading more” was

·      3% for “Gift planning,” but

·      20% for “Other ways to give smarter.”

           What did they expect to see when clicking on each phrase? The answers were nearly identical for both. The expected information was the same

           So, why was interest six times greater for the second phrase? Because it led with value. It was about helping the donor. 

           Who at a charity would people ask for help with donating stocks?[22] One study asked over 3,000 people this question. Job titles indicating, “I help donors” were attractive. People were three times more likely to say they would “definitely contact” a

·      “Director of Donor Advising,” or

·      “Director of Donor Guidance”

than a

·      “Director of Advancement.” 

           Helping donors isn’t limited to technical advice. Maybe it’s,

·      “I help people plan out their gifts and the impact they want to make.”[23] Or,

·      “I help donors give smarter.” 

           A job description can provide yet another reason to meet. If my job is to meet with donors, this also implies, “I need your help.” If donors won’t agree to meet with me, I can’t do my job![24] 

           Leading with value works. “I can help” works. It justifies the fundraiser asking questions. It justifies the donor answering those questions. 

Blending reasons to meet

           Meeting just to “update” the donor might not promise value. But the right phrasing can build this impression. For example,

·      “I want to update you on the many exciting things happening at the [organization]. I think you’ll be amazed and impressed at the impact”[25] of your gifts.

·      “The truth is, I couldn’t do it justice on the phone. I have a feeling this is something you’re going to be interested in, and I have some photographs and material I want to share with you. You’re going to find this important.”[26]

           Or the update might be just one of many reasons to meet. For example,

·      “You’ve already been generous to [this charity], and I want to thank you and learn more about your connection to our … services. We have some long-term plans for the [new project], and I’m thinking you might appreciate a preview.”[27]

·      “I want to thank you in person for your past support and better understand your experience working with our organization … and I’d like to share some aspects of our work that you might not be aware of.”[28]

·      “I’m calling to thank you for your recent gift. You’ve been a long-time supporter of our organization, and we’re reaching out to women like you to ask your opinion of some of our future plans. I’d like to take the opportunity to say “thank you” in person and to fill you in on what’s happening here. Would you be available to meet with me for lunch next week?”[29]

           Of course, many reasons to meet can be blended even without an “update.” These next approaches by Katherine Swank stack reasons together. 

·      “I am calling to introduce myself. My role here is to get to know our donors and personally thank them for their support of our work. You have been very generous to us and our work; I would like to have the opportunity to find out more about why you give and get your opinion on how we are doing in your eyes. Would it be possible for me to set up a time to meet with you for 30 minutes or so?”[30]

·      “I am new to the organization and to the area and hope to meet as many loyal donors as is possible in the next few weeks. The president has suggested that you would be a very important person for me to meet. I’m hopeful that you might have 30 minutes in the next two weeks to meet me for breakfast, lunch, or another convenient time.”[31]


           Sometimes, we still get a “no.” When this happens, we want to know why. Uncovering the objection then allows for a response. The response should

1.      Affirm the concern and the person, then

2.     Cite others’ solutions. 

           Examples might sound like this.

·      OBJECTION: I don’t like people coming to my house. 

·      RESPONSE: I understand. Many people I meet with feel just like you do. They like to meet at a coffee shop. Or I could just pick you up and take you to brunch. Would your calendar allow us to meet Thursday at 10:30 in the morning?[32]

·      OBJECTION: I’m very busy right now.

·      RESPONSE: I understand. This is often the case with our most important donors like you. Many prefer a quick meeting of just 15-20 minutes. “I don’t know when I’ll be in your area again, and I bet your schedule stays pretty busy most of the time. Shall we try for 15-20 minutes on Tuesday morning at 10:15? I’ll bring two cups of fresh coffee, listen fast, then let you get back to your day.”[33]

·      OBJECTION: I can’t give more, so it would be a waste of time.

·      RESPONSE: I understand. Many friends who’ve been with us as many years as you have are in the same situation. That’s not a concern. This meeting isn’t about a gift, I just want to …

           But even our best responses will sometimes get a “no.” And that’s OK. There are many ways to continue to build connections. 

           We can invite them to an event or a tour. We can call to thank them for their third or fifth or tenth year of giving. We can make a personal video with a phone reporting the impact of their gift. We can call to ask for opinions and advice. 

           These lead to conversations. Conversations lead to relationships. Relationships change yesterday’s “no” into tomorrow’s “yes.” 


           When it reflects authentic interest, Socratic fundraising is powerful. It can connect the donor’s identity with the cause or charity. It can uncover a personally meaningful victory. Ultimately, it can deliver value to the donor. But it starts with permission. It starts with, “Can I ask you a question?”

Next up: Socratic fundraising backstory: Questions that connect with the donor’s identity

Audio/Slides at https://youtu.be/7H6JLkSUH88


[1] Godin, S. (1999). Permission marketing: Turning strangers into friends and friends into customers. Simon and Schuster.

[2] Rackham, N., Kalomeer, R., & Rapkin, D. (1988). SPIN selling. McGraw-Hill.

[3] See Chapter 4 “Socratic fundraising backstory: Questions that connect with the donor’s identity”

[4] This can start with easy questions about family, pets, hobbies, or entertainment. It might be simple like,

So, what do you do when you’re not eating lunch at this restaurant (or whatever activity you’re both doing at the time)? 

Can you tell me more about your work/your career?

It might involve deeper questions such as

Who has had a deep impact on you personally or professionally?

Is there a question you wish people would ask you?

What are some of your hopes for our world right now?

When you’re not working, what do you spend time doing?

What’s the most important thing to you?

What has been your life’s passion?

What mistake or failure in your life taught you the most?

If you could pick one – would you have more time or money? What would you do with it if you got it?

What makes you happy despite anything else happening around you?

What do you love about what you do?

What keeps you up at night?

It might involve questions that subtly point to connections with the charity

“Have you lived here a long time?” can be preceded by “Many of our donors come from this area,” or “I really like working for this charity because I grew up in this area. Over the years, I’ve seen what a tremendous difference it has made for [cause] in the area.” See Fredricks, L. (2001). Developing major gifts: turning small donors into big contributors. Aspen Publishers, Inc. p. 60.

Examples above from,

Lydenberg, J. (2007, October 13). Identifying planned gift donors. [Paper presentation]. The National Conference on Planned Giving, Grapevine, Texas.

Muir, R. (2018, January 30). 3 secrets of great fundraisers. [Blog]. https://www.rachelmuir.com/blog

Sheffield, C. (2020, October 6). Discovery: How to learn about a donor’s assets. [Powerpoint slides]. Emerging Philanthropy Conference, Western Pennsylvania Chapter Association of Fundraising Professionals and the Pittsburgh Planned Giving Council. Pittsburgh, PA [online]

Pitman, M. A. (2008). Ask without fear! A simple guide to connecting donors with what matters to them most. Tremendous Life Books. p 29.

[5] Muir, R. (2017, April 10). Secrets to think like a donor & boost revenue. [Powerpoint slides]. https://www.rachelmuir.com/

[6] Id.

[7] Muir, R. (2018). Get the visit, nail the ask! 10 ways to get the visit. [Blog]. https://www.rachelmuir.com/ask

[8] Panas, J. (2020). Asking: A 59-minute guide to everything board members, volunteers, and staff must know to secure the gift. Emerson & Church. pp. 24-25. (“I don’t call this an appointment…. An appointment has a negative connotation. If you need to have a root canal, you call your dentist for an appointment…. But a visit, that’s quite different, quite pleasant.”)

[9] O’Neil, M. (2014, September 24). ‘Curious chameleons’ make the best major-gift officers, new study says. The Chronicle of Philanthropy, https://www.philanthropy.com/article/Curious-Chameleons-Make/152575

Education Advancement Board. (2014) Inside the mind of a curious chameleon. https://eab.com/insights/infographic/advancement/inside-the-mind-of-a-curious-chameleon/

[10] It’s fine to ask for opinions or preferences about different forms of giving, but it’s not OK to ask for a check.

[11] Concept from Sargeant, A. & Stergiou, C. (2019, January 10). Personal communication. Message from Christiana Stergiou, Co-Founder of Moceanic, referencing text copy originating from Adrian Sargeant, Co-Founder of Institute for Sustainable Philanthropy.

[12] Bigelow, Bruce E. & Kolmerten, Carol A. (2008, April) Focusing on planned giving: Using focus groups to find new donors. Journal of Gift Planning, 12(2), 18-21, 44-45. http://charitabledevelopmentconsulting.com/s/Focusing-on-Planned-Giving-Using-Focus-Groups-to-Find-New-Donors.pdf

[13] Id.

[14] A great example is provide on page 63 of Kihlstedt, A. (2009). Capital campaigns: Strategies that work. Jones & Bartlett Publishers. (In preparing the preliminary case for support, the consultant asked, “Where is your DRAFT stamp?” She explained, “so we can stamp the copies of the case document we’re preparing. If we don’t leave opportunities for the members of the committee to add their ideas, they’ll feel they’ve been presented with a fait accompli, and we will have lost a great chance to build ownership in this project.”)

[15] Of course, asking for advice may not fit the administrator-hero story. In that view, the administrators are the experts and the heroes. Donors are supposed to give and get out of the way. Beyond their wallet, they have nothing useful to add.

[16] Muir, R. (2018). Get the visit, nail the ask! 10 ways to get the visit. [Blog]. https://www.rachelmuir.com/ask

[17] Miree, K. (2009, October). Critical donor messages in a difficult environment. [Paper presentation]. National Conference on Philanthropic Planning. p. 18.

[18] Panas, J. (2020). Asking: A 59-minute guide to everything board members, volunteers, and staff must know to secure the gift. Emerson & Church. p. 96.

[19] Gillespie, J. E. (2005, September 29). Hello… are you there? Good phone Karma. [Paper presentation]. National Conference on Planned Giving.

[20] Chaffey, D. & Bosomworth, D. (2012). Digital marketing strategy guide.


[21] James, R. N., III. (2018). Creating understanding and interest in charitable financial and estate planning: An experimental test of introductory phrases. Journal of Personal Finance, 17(2), 9-21. (The experiment asked, “Suppose you are viewing the website of a charity representing a cause that is important in your life. In addition to a “Donate Now” button, the following buttons appear on the website. Please rate your level of interest in clicking on the button to read the corresponding information. Note: after answering this set of questions, you will be asked to read information about one of these topics. Please rate the ones you are actually interested in more highly than those you are less interested in.”)

[22] James, R. N., III. (2016). Testing the effectiveness of fundraiser job titles in charitable bequest and complex gift planning. Nonprofit Management and Leadership, 27(2), 165-179.

[23] See also, “What I do for [organization] is help people uncover their philanthropic goals and help structure their gifts to meet those goals. I’m not going to ask you for a gift today, but I do want to ask if it is alright if I start working with you?” from De Luca, C. C. (2020, May 4). Personal communication. Carolina Camargo De Luca, Discovery Officer, Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center – El Paso

[24] Or, for a volunteer, “I promised I’d call on all of those I was assigned to. I made that commitment. And you’re one of the important ones I feel I really must see.” Panas, J. (2020). Asking: A 59-minute guide to everything board members, volunteers, and staff must know to secure the gift. Emerson & Church. p. 35.

Or, in another example, “Our bylaws require us to report personally to at least 20% of our top donors. You’ve been such a loyal friend to the organization. I would love to update you about the latest happenings at [the charity]. Would it a problem for us to have a brief visit sometime next week?”

[25] Makous, B. B. (2009, October 16). The art of the ask. [Paper presentation]. National Conference on Philanthropic Planning, National Harbor, Maryland. p.8

[26] Panas, J. (2020). Asking: A 59-minute guide to everything board members, volunteers, and staff must know to secure the gift. Emerson & Church. p. 33.

[27] Pittman-Schulz, K. (2012, October). In the door and then what? [Paper presentation]. National Conference on Philanthropic Planning, New Orleans, LA. p. 22.

[28] Id. at 10-11.

[29] Swank, K. (2009, October). What women want: Understanding the needs and objectives of women’s philanthropic giving, including planned gifts. [Paper presentation]. National Conference on Philanthropic Planning, National Harbor, MD. p. 8.

[30] Id.

[31] Id.

[32] Pitman, M. A. (2008). Ask without fear! A simple guide to connecting donors with what matters to them most. Tremendous Life Books. p. 35. (“When setting up appointments, I like asking if their “calendar would allow” us to meet at such-and-such a time… I find that wording makes the process of setting up an appointment less confrontational.”)

[33] Pittman-Schulz, K. (2012, October). In the door and then what? [Paper presentation]. National Conference on Philanthropic Planning, New Orleans, LA. p. 22.

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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.