Season 2, Episode 55

Campaign experts Amy Eisenstein and Andrea Kihlstedt will show you why depending on a pre-written script for asking for a gift isn’t the best strategy. And they’ll give you strategy for script-free asking!

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Amy Eisenstein:
Not sure how to ask a donor for a gift? You might be hoping for some magical script, but there’s no magic script. The good news is there are strategies for asking for a gift, and we are going to share them with you.

Hi, I’m Amy Eisenstein, CEO and co-founder of the Capital Campaign Toolkit, and I’m joined today by my friend, colleague, and co-pilot of this podcast, Andrea Kihlstedt.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Hi there. Nice to be with you today. Hi, Amy.

Should You Use a Script When Asking for a Gift?

Amy Eisenstein:
Hi. Alright. So if you’re wondering if you can use a script, when you ask a donor for a gift, the answer is no. Unless you are a highly trained actor, using a script is going to make you sound robotic, and you probably are not going to remember your lines anyways. So we’ve got some suggestions, some advice, some guidance on how to have a meaningful, important solicitation conversation with a donor without using a script. Andrea, why don’t you get us started?

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Sure, I’m happy to do that. Solicitation is really improvisation. It’s not acting, it’s improv, because you have to be so attuned to what the person you’re talking to is saying. You have to be able to pivot to go where that person is going. But it’s your job to create the shape of your conversation. So we don’t want you to have a script.

It’s a bad idea to have a script, but you do need to start with the big ideas. You need to know what you want to get out of the conversation. You need to know what your goal is. This is what we think of as an intentional conversation. You’re having the conversation with a donor, with the intent of asking them for a gift. And I mean, you go in with that. Don’t plan a script, but do plan some questions.

Keep in mind that you’re not going to talk anybody into giving to your project. Your job is to get them to talk themselves into giving to your project. So the way to do that is to start with questions. Why do questions matter, Amy?

Amy Eisenstein:
Yeah, so questions are so important, because first of all, it’ll help you learn things about your donor. Right? That’s important. It’ll also engage your donor in the conversation and prevent you from having a monologue.

I will tell you, Andrea, that when I first got into fundraising, I thought my job was to tell the donor everything I knew about the organization. I would tell them stories and facts and figures and whatever we were up to, and the latest programs and services. And you’re right, I would try and talk them into a gift. And I was doing it all wrong, because they weren’t part of the conversation. There was no conversation. It was a monologue.

What questions will do, if you think about what do you want to ask your donors, what meaningful, important, thoughtful questions do you want to ask your donors before you go into the conversation, right, don’t leave that to chance. But that’s not a script. Just what do you want to ask them that will help them be part of the conversation, that will help you learn about them and what their philanthropic motives might be. What are some of your favorite questions to ask donors, Andrea?

Good Questions to Ask Your Donors

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Yes, so some of my favorite questions have to do with the donor’s relationship to the organization. I want to know how the donor got started giving to the organization. If it’s a long time donor, I want to bring that up. I want to say:

“I noticed in reviewing your record and getting ready for this meeting, that you’ve given to us for the last 15 years. We must really be important to you. Why is that?”

It’s remarkable when someone gives for that long. What in your life is it that pulls you to our organization It’s a great question. Even if you know the donor will, you may not know that.

Amy Eisenstein:
Yes, I love that. And I think of that. A good example is even talking to board members you might say:

“You know what? I see you every month at meetings, but I don’t know why you joined this board, or what motivated you to volunteer in the first place?”


“Why did you give your first gift? And what motivates you to keep giving? Why is this mission important in your life? Why do you care about what we do?”

Those are the types of questions. You know you’re only going to ask one of those questions, but the bottom line is, why do they care. Why is this organization important to them?

Understanding Giving Patterns

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Yeah. It’s also important to understand what their giving patterns are. And if you ask, people are likely to tell you. You want to know how they make giving decisions. You want to know what that process is and how they feel about their philanthropy.

  • Do they plan all year in advance?
  • Do they make immediate decisions on the spur of the moment?
  • Do they talk to their partner to make decisions? What gives them pleasure?

You might want to find out what their favorite gift they ever made was and why.

Amy Eisenstein:
Yeah, that’s a great question.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
That gives you a real window into somebody. We all have giving patterns. Amy, you and I have very different giving patterns. Those giving patterns grow out of who we are. And your donor will have giving patterns. And to the extent that you know what their patterns are, what they like to do, why they like to do it, how they like to make decisions, then you can shape your ask to fit how they function. And that’s where you want to be.

Amy Eisenstein:
Yeah, so this is such an important piece of the conversation, because there’s no script when you’re asking questions. You’re going to have to react. And I love that you started us with the idea of improv, Andrea, because as a development director, you are not an actor learning your lines or practicing a script, but you are a good listener. And that’s what improv is all about, is listening to the person across from you, and being able to respond appropriately in real time. And that’s what you’re going to do when you’re asking your donor questions.

You have to be fully present, phone off in your bag, nowhere in sight, no distractions, paying attention, and being able to ask follow up questions, and continue the conversation along. What would make them feel great, if this organization did what, if the community looked like this? How do they want to be remembered? What is their philanthropy about? That’s what you want to be talking to your donors about.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
So yes, and…

Amy Eisenstein:
Yes, and…

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Amy knows that the key of any improv, if you ever taken an improv class, and is a core to improv thinking. Whatever your donor says, your answer in your head and maybe what comes out of your mouth is yes, and, and maybe tell me more. Yes, and I’ve noticed that you are really interested in such and such. Yes, and…

You never want to be in a position of making whatever the donor says wrong. You want to take that and go with it. And it’s fascinating when you get in that mindset, because that’ll encourage your donor to start telling you a little more about themselves. And when they do, it’s going to give you a window into how they function and how they might want to give.

To Your Donors: “Tell Me More…”

Amy Eisenstein:
I think that concept of tell me more, or can you expand on that, is so important. Sometimes when we’re talking about this kind of topic, we talked about the difference between closed questions and open-ended questions, and closed questions. And generally with a yes or a no, do you like this organization? Yes, no, it doesn’t lead to conversation. But if you flip that question around and say:

“What do you like most about this organization?”

That’s an open-ended question, and that leads to conversation. So really think about how you’re asking the question. Not, do you want to give, yes or no, but what would you consider giving? Talk to us about that. Think about that.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Here’s a real practical tip. When you ask questions, start each question with the word how or what. And if you get that word out of your mouth, how, you’ll naturally find an open ended question. Imagine, Amy, how are you feeling this morning? It’s an-open ended question. Right?

Amy Eisenstein:

Andrea Kihlstedt:

“What do you want to eat today?”

That’s an open-ended question. All questions that begin with how or what are open-ended questions. And if you practice using those words, when you ask questions of your donors, you’ll have much more effective conversations.

One Scripted Question You Do Want to Ask

Now, there is something that does need to be sort of scripted when you are ready to ask for the gift, which presumably is once you understand how the donor functions, and what it is they like to give to, and how their philanthropy works. You do want to have a number in mind. And you do want to say, use this sentence.

“Mister so-and-so, or Joe, would you consider a gift of X to accomplish Y?”

Would you consider? Consider is the core word here, and you should have a very specific ask in mind. So there is one sentence that is scripted, and that’s it. The name of the person, would you consider a gift of X?

Amy Eisenstein:
A specific dollar amount.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
A specific dollar amount to do Y. Would you consider a gift of X to help us complete the renovation to our new clinic? Would you consider whatever it is. Right?

Amy Eisenstein:

Andrea Kihlstedt:
But it has to be very short. This is one sentence. That’s the ask, and it’s a question.

Amy Eisenstein:
Excellent, yes. So that’s the only piece of this that is script like at all. You do want to go in with the specific ask amount. Now it’s possible, and it sometimes happens that you’ll change that based on the conversation that you’re having, but you want to be pretty clear about it in advance. Don’t chicken out and ask for less most of the time, unless you’re getting very clear feedback about that. But the reason to ask for a specific amount, because if you’re vague, you will get a much lower gift. The donor will be confused. There’s no starting place. So if you just say:

“Jane, we want to ask you for a gift to help renovate the afterschool program.”

She says:

“Sure, I’ll give you a hundred bucks.”

And you were thinking a hundred thousand bucks, so you need to be specific.

Alright, so I just want to remind you, if you’re enjoying this podcast, click to follow, so that you can be notified every time we have a new episode. We don’t want to have you miss any of them. You can also learn more about this topic and more on our blog at capitalcampaigntoolkit.com. Alright Andrea, let’s give a few more points about the importance of not using a script and having these free-flowing conversations with donors, especially when you’re asking for money.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Yes. So before you go in to ask for money, be sure that you have some questions in mind that you want to ask the donor, open-ended questions that begin with the words how or what. That will help you understand the donor’s mindset, both regard to your organization with regard to their philanthropy.

Amy Eisenstein:
Excellent. I think that’s great.

Final Thoughts

You really want to start with your big ideas. And those can be in the form of questions you want to know. What do you want to get out of the conversation? What do you want to learn about the donor? What is your end goal? What is your follow up plan? So the outline of the conversation, you can go in with certainly bullets in your mind. You want to start with this. You want to ask these questions. You want to ask for a gift. You don’t want to leave without a follow-up plan. That’s sort of the outline, the arc, which we will talk about in another podcast, the arc of the ask.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
And one more thing Amy, just to drive it home, there is one sentence that needs to be scripted, and that is, Joe, would you consider a gift of a specific amount to this particular project? Would you consider a gift of X to Y? That’s the only sentence that you want to have drilled into your brain, that you’re not improving about. Everything else is improvising, and being right in the moment, and getting to know your donor in the process.

Amy Eisenstein:
So prepare, practice, but don’t use a script. Alright, thanks so much for joining us. We’ll see you next time.

1 Comment

  1. Sharon Papo

    Another excellent podcast! I love the open-ended questions, “yes-and”, and how to ask for a gift (the one scripted sentence).


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