Home Fundraising Gnarly Growth Part 6: When Asking Feels Like Begging

Gnarly Growth Part 6: When Asking Feels Like Begging

by Aplos Success Team
Following Up On Fundraising Pledges

Miss the beginning of the series? Go to Gnarly Growth Part 1: A Creative Approach To A Traditional Fundraiser.

The beard had been grown, the cause passionately communicated, the sponsors recruited.

It was time for the beard to come off so the funds could come in.

Taking a final tally, I found that some of the people who had agreed to be my sponsors had not yet made their donations. As I sat down to write a pledge reminder email, I realized that, for me, this was the hard part. Suddenly, the passionate flow of my story hit a wall.

At the outset of this series, I noted the format of Dave’s fundraiser was perfect for him as a self-described introvert. Our Beards of Hope brought in beard-growers to do the difficult job of asking for money, allowing Dave to focus on motivating his team, which found wild success. While this fundraiser’s structure helped him to get around that itchy curve a little more smoothly, there is no way to entirely escape this uncomfortable point of fundraising. No matter how smart the method, we will all at some point have to have that conversation: the ask.

Except for a few social dynamos out there, getting down to the nitty-gritty of collecting pledges is a common struggle. The asking process pinches like my childhood Easter Sunday clothes. I’ve never been described as a social dynamo, so I don’t know why I was so surprised when this conversation was such a difficult one to approach.

I’d like to share how I dealt with this struggle so the asking process felt less like begging and more like an extension of that first inspiring conversation.

The Painful Process Of Pledge Reminders

The initial experience of sharing Dave’s story and my passion for the cause was an easy one because it was just that: sharing. When asked about my growing beard, I found sharing the grander story of adoption, what the Obwalds were doing, and how my growth would help bring their little girl home was as easy as going down a slide. But when the time came to call in my chips, the dynamic shifted. Suddenly I was sitting at the bottom of the slide wishing gravity would reverse so I could gleefully ride my way up. The glee did not come.

As I started an email reminding a friend of their commitment to donate, all kinds of bizarre thoughts entered my head:

What if their original interest was just a ruse to get me to stop talking?
What if they just hit hard financial times?
What if they were in a jet ski accident and can’t afford the donation they promised?
I didn’t even know they had a jet ski. How could I not know that?
What if I forgot their birthday?
Did I forget their birthday?
Is that why they didn’t donate yet?
I am a horrible friend.

I felt like a Roman tax collector. The email felt like this:

A Poor Example Of A Pledge Reminder Letter

What’s the matter with me?

Effective Pledge Fulfillment

I realized at that moment that I had recently heard someone warn against this exact scenario, and I felt dumb when I realized that someone was me.

We’ve talked about how to share your nonprofit story for your fundraiser in a way that inspires rather than manipulates participation. In composing this follow-up email, I felt the only tactic I had left in my arsenal was to manipulate. So I knew I was missing…something.

I decided to go back over some of my previous posts in this series and see if another perspective would help.

Part 2, Inspire A Movement, may as well have been titled, “Dude, Knock It Off,” as I remembered Dave’s example of starting with the story—sharing why you care rather than what you’re going to do.

Mentally, I had left the cause—the story—out of the equation when preparing to ask. This left me feeling like an enforcer for the mob who was collecting a debt. I had stepped out of the cause and into the mindset that I was asking for money for myself. As If I were asking for the cash so I could buy an iPhone or get my own jet ski. I had left behind the most important thing: we were working to change a little girl’s life forever.

As I tried to edit my email, I began with the story and kept repeating: you are not asking for you; you are asking for Aunna.

The key is to lift your story—the cause—as high as possible at all times so you don’t lose sight of it when the task of the moment tempts you to look elsewhere. Beginning the ask with your story accomplishes two things without you ever having to manipulate a payment:

  1. It centers you and your donor around your cause, your passion, and your ability to do something about it.
  2. It guides your donor back into the role where they initially saw themselves able to contribute.

After all, their initial reaction to the story was to offer monetary support; they didn’t offer to grow a beard or adopt their own child; they offered to donate. That was their knee-jerk reaction to the story and the role they saw for themselves as part of the solution. I didn’t need to convince them of anything. I didn’t need to view it as a sales pitch or reduce a friendship to a transaction; rather, I just needed to begin with the story. For me, growing a beard is useless without a meaningful reason, and her name is Aunna.

The Right Image For The Right Feeling

Moving on to the theme of telling your story visually, I thought, “A-ha! I have succeeded here. I already added a picture.” I was immediately pummeled by the realization that I had again failed my own test. I looked miserable. I hadn’t taken advantage of the fact that using a visual, like a photo of my beard, gave me an opportunity to be known, or better yet, let the fundraiser be known.

These donors presumably hadn’t been growing beards. I don’t think they kept up with the Our Beards of Hope blog or had any idea what the experience felt like. This image was a chance to share a feeling, but the only feeling my selected photo shared was that of being scolded by a Wookiee.

I added a new picture of my bearded self—proudly looking like Chewbacca—because it was part of something profound.

Building A Relationship With Each Donor

The first approach had been a sad recipe: “Dear sir and/or madam, all I did was grow a beard. Now YOU have to give money. And all I did was get lazy about shaving for a while.”

I giggled like a little schoolgirl as I saw how the shift in my approach—focusing on the story and using visuals to share a feeling—had taken the focus entirely off me. Next was the idea I had shared in Part 4: How To Grow A Following. I read through the ideas of how to treat a distant benefactor like a friend, focusing on the donor relationship. I saw that I needed to change my message from “me, me, me” into something worth saying, making sure I didn’t treat my real-life friend like they were a distant benefactor.

At that moment, when I used the phrase “distant benefactor,” I realized what my greatest disconnect had been. What made it so hard to ask for money was that I had viewed the fundraising process as disconnected parts rather than as a whole.

When I began spreading the word about Our Beards of Hope, I saw those first conversations with potential donors as appeals to people’s hearts by enrolling them in a cause as sponsors. However, this email felt only like an appeal to their wallets to fulfill their pledges. In my insecurity over dealing with money in general, I left out our shared purpose. This not only made it harder for me to ask, but it also completely negated their passion and value for the cause—a passion they had decided to express through monetary support.

The Essential Roles For A Successful Fundraiser

When I checked in with Part 5: How To Grow Your Leaders, I put it together. I remembered how Dave communicated with his fundraising leaders in a way that gave them (us) a shared stake in the cause. He focused on the value of something as simple (or gross) as my gnarly beard. To be clear, there is no real value in looking like the guy who was kicked out of ZZ Top, unless that sad beard serves to point others to a greater cause. I didn’t need to look at it as asking for a cash payout. Success for me came from looking at their monetary support the way my leaders emphasized my support: to point to the cause in which we shared ownership.

The importance is not focusing on what we can do on our own, but rather on the knowledge that we can do something. The size or worth of the role we play has nothing to do with the simple fact that we are a part of a bigger whole.

A cause dies without its leaders. A leader without followers is just a dude wandering around. Donors without a cause to guide and inspire them are just losing money.

The key feature in every role is a clear view of the North Star. With this in mind, I took another stab at my email.

Example Of A Donor Pledge Reminder

Asking can be hard. It may be tempting to soften the blow by asking for less or making less of our cause, but that method is its own sour reward. People tend to be wary of being asked to do the least possible. They are hungry to see the full weight of their own potential on behalf of the causes they love. But they have to be asked.

Fundraising For A Purpose

It has been five months of awkward growth. I have seen friends turn into werewolves and made new friends who look delightfully like aspiring Santas. When I look back, I don’t focus on the hot summer days, the itchy nights, or the fact that several friends waited for the beard to come off before they would trust me with their secrets. What I remember most was looking forward alongside a leader who focused us around a clear and impassioned cause.

In a fundraising format that was initially designed to bring in $2,500, the Obwalds raised every cent of the remaining $15,000 they needed to complete the adoption process.

The entire Obwald family returned home from China with Aunna. The beards were grown and then shaved when a little girl was finally able to come home. Sometimes, to reach something beautiful, you have to go through some gnarly growth.

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