Ask Culture vs Guess Culture

Ask culture and guess culture.

Sometimes an idea or perspective from outside the world of Fundraising can help you see the work of Fundraising more clearly. 

That’s what happened when I heard about “Ask Culture vs Guess Culture.”

Here’s a quote from when this idea first appeared online

In some families, you grow up with the expectation that it’s OK to ask for anything at all, but you gotta realize you might get no for an answer. This is Ask Culture.

In Guess Culture, you avoid putting a request into words unless you’re pretty sure the answer will be yes. Guess Culture depends on a tight net of shared expectations. A key skill is putting out delicate feelers. If you do this with enough subtlety, you won’t even have to make the request directly; you’ll get an offer.

When an organization is operating in Guess Culture, here are three of the behaviors you see:

  • Over-stewarding of donors
  • Never asking, or Asks that aren’t direct or clear
    • Perfect example: I did a “creative review” for an organization where I looked at twelve pieces of their fundraising.  In all those pieces they never actually asked the donor to give a gift. 
  • Under-communicating out of a fear of “donor fatigue”

You’re also seeing Guess Culture at work any time you hear a Major Gifts Officer say something like, “If you do a great job of stewarding a donor, you won’t even have to ask.”

Guess Culture and Fundraising

I think the unique demands of nonprofit fundraising cause people and organizations to operate in Guess Culture more than they normally would. 

Asking for money is a vulnerable experience, and it’s hard to be vulnerable.  Many times, for many reasons, it’s emotionally easier to shower donors with stewardship and give them the occasional “opportunity” to give… instead of boldly preparing a specific offer and asking the donor to make a gift.

And of course the Guess Culture approach works sometimes.  Because donors are generous, any approach will work sometimes.

But looking at the performance of the nonprofits we’ve worked with over the years, an Ask Culture approach to major gifts fundraising (and to direct response fundraising) works better.  It results in raising more money and keeping more donors year-over-year.

Ask Culture major gifts fundraising looks like:

  • When setting up a conversation or meeting, telling the donor in advance whether you’re going to ask for money or not
  • Being willing to ask major donors for more than one gift a year
  • Asking for a specific amount
  • Asking directly with phrases like, “…so I’m asking if you’ll give a gift of $10,000”
  • After the ask is made, being silent and letting the donor speak next

Of course there will be a few “no”s.  Of course there will occasionally be an uncomfortable silence.

But you’ll get a lot more “yes”es and you’ll raise more money for your cause.


Steven Screen is Co-Founder of The Better Fundraising Company and lead author of its blog. With over 25 years' fundraising experience, he gets energized by helping organizations understand how they can raise more money. He’s a second-generation fundraiser, a past winner of the Direct Mail Package of the Year, and data-driven.

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