Asking Well

I want to go to there. The other day, one of my neighbors sent around an email asking to borrow a large duffle bag. The family was heading to Hawaii for 9 days, and they really wanted to take their boogie boards with them but didn’t own a bag large enough to pack them in for the plane trip. They didn’t want to have to buy or rent boogie boards when they got to Hawaii.

Full disclaimer in case said neighbor reads this: I totally would have leant you the bag if I had one like that, and I’m sorry for using your well deserved family vacation as an object lesson for how not to ask for things if you’re a nonprofit. I hope you had an amazing time.

Now, for my nonprofit readers: you can perhaps imagine what my initial, gut-level reaction was upon reading my neighbor’s request. If not, it went something like this: The only way I would be digging around my attic to find a giant duffle bag is if I was going to Hawaii. Buy your own damn bag.

Of course, my rational, altruistic self then kicked in, and I realized that I would love to help, but I don’t own a bag like they needed. And probably someone else did, so really, I didn’t need to go digging around in the attic to make sure.

And then another email came in from a friend looking for childcare so she could go to a party with her husband – their first date in the two years since their son was born.

My gut-level reaction to that request? YES, I would LOVE to help you out.

When you’re asking your donors for money, are you making the right pitch?

Both my neighbors and my friend were asking for something that wasn’t completely necessary. There were no lives at stake, just convenience and fun.

My neighbors made a practical, extremely logical pitch: It would be a waste of money to have to buy new boogie boards when we could just take ours with us if we had a bag. That logic got my brain working, but it didn’t exactly make me feel like being generous.

But my friend made an emotional pitch: We haven’t been out alone together in two years! That heartfelt request moved me to immediate action, and I thought, “I can make that happen for her.”

When you’re asking your donors for support – or your friends for a favor -- remember: emotion wins the day.

Passionate Persuasion

"Passionate people are the only advocates which always persuade. The simplest man with passion will be more persuasive than the most eloquent without."
~Francois de La Rochefoucauld

When I interviewed the executive director of an environmental organization recently, he was extremely eager to give me statistics about Congressional budgeting as it relates to the environment and to talk about specific legislation winding its way through Congress – down to the subcommittees and staffers involved. I think we can all agree that only the most wonky among us have that level of interest in environmental legislation.

So I asked him why he cared so much. There must be a reason he was willing to delve so deeply into the minutiae of the legislative process on this one issue, right? It took him a few minutes to shift gears, but once he did, he talked about what prompted him to become an environmentalist, his outrage at what he sees as the immoral way government is spending taxpayer money, and his fears for the future of humanity if we ignore Global Warming.

In just a few minutes, we went from a dry fact piece about Congressional spending on the environment, to a Control-tying acquisition letter based on an impassioned plea for moral and humane fiscal decisions.

It’s easy to get caught up in the facts about what you’re doing – and for a lot of people working in nonprofits, people who face desperate circumstances every day as a part of their job, it’s an important method of self-preservation. But when you’re trying to get people to support your mission, you have to be able to recreate that initial surge of passion. Because all the facts in the world won’t get you as much support as one good, emotion-driven story.

This is where that old writing rule “Show, Don’t Tell” comes in.

Need an Example?

It’s easy to tell your story like this: “Every week we see more than 50 homeless, often ill, dogs come into our shelter. And tragically, fewer than 20% of those are adopted. As our canine population grows, our needs grow, too, and today, we’re facing a crisis situation. We urgently need an infusion of $XX to house, feed and care for the dogs we currently have and those we expect in the next few weeks.”

You’ve got the numbers, it’s pretty emotional, and your core group of donors will probably respond.

But consider this approach: “Zoe cowered in the back of her dog carrier, shaking. I looked at her check-in sheet: She’d been abused in her previous home, and she suffered from malnutrition and a bad case of fleas. I got down on the floor, my eyes fixed on her big brown beauties, and coaxed her forward. It took a while, but eventually, she scooted out of her carrier, calmed her shaking, and placed her head trustingly in my lap. One small triumph…that will be replayed more than 50 times this week. You can help Zoe – and all the dogs of XX shelter – make this challenging transition…”

Who can resist a pitch like that? By painting the picture of one dog the shelter has helped, you give your donor the chance to feel like they are there with you. What’s more, this approach breaks down an overwhelming problem – 50 dogs a week that need homes – into a small, do-able task. They may not be able to help every dog that needs them, but they can help this ONE dog.

Very few people dive into the nonprofit world without having some passion. So don't forget why you chose nonprofit work in the first place. Communicate that in your fundraising, and you'll find others flocking to your organization as well.

Your Fundraising Letter: the 3 Pillars of Persuasion

When you sit down to plan out your next fundraising letter, of course you'll remember to write to one donor, have one signer, make it personal (by using a lot of "I, you, we") and keep your paragraphs short and your key ideas and asks highlighted. And still it might not be enough to push your letter from "solid" to "solid gold!" So take another look at your copy and see if you've used arguments from all three Pillars of Persuasion.


The Intellectual Argument is often one of the easiest for people to make. We're used to collecting facts and figures to back up our positions. Numbers can tell a powerful story to many people. After all, it's hard to argue with cold hard statistics.

A letter I received recently from World Wildlife Fund tells me that "The average American uses 350 plastic bags each year." That's nearly one for every day of the year! It goes on to report that "Every year, more than 100,000 whales, seals, turtles and birds die as a result of plastic bags." I -- like probably most of the people WWF mailed to -- really try to limit my use of plastic bags, but as I sit at my computer, I can look over at my recycling area and see a few poking out.

I hope I use fewer than the average 35o bags per year, but I know that if 100,000 wild animals are being killed by plastic bags, then using any bags at all is too many. Those numbers convinced me.

But you can't rely on numbers alone.


When you're asking people to part with their hard-earned cash, you have to move them emotionally. One easy way to do that is to paint a picture of the problem they're helping to solve. Animal rights groups can describe the deplorable conditions for animals raised on factory farms. Environmental groups can show the suffering of children with pollution-induced asthma or the rapid disappearance of ancient stands of old-growth trees.

Tell a story related to your mission, include a photo of someone impacted by your work, or talk about a moment that moved you.

Make your audience feel the importance of your cause and the passion of everyone in your organization to solve it.


Most of us believe we are moral people, and your direct mail package can give your donors an easy way to exercise their moral muscles. Remind them that their support places them on the side of Right. Knowing that by giving to your organization they are in fact standing up for their principles is a huge motivator for many people.

Which brings me to the silent 4th pillar:

Know your audience.

Some audiences respond more consistently to well-reasoned arguments and solid facts, while others are consistently swayed by a moral ask, and still others care little for facts and respond solely to emotional pleas. Test different ways of framing your ask to see how your audience responds.