Ask For What Your Donor Wants, Not For What Your Organization Wants

What does your donor want

Here’s successful fundraising in a nutshell.

Don’t ask your donor to do what you want her to do,


Ask her to do what she wants to do.

Big difference.

Let me pull this apart for a moment…

“Asking your donor to do what you want her to do” is done with your organization in mind. It’s how you think about the action of your donor.

Here’s what this looks like:

“Will you please support us?”
“Join with us as we…”
“Will you partner with us?”
“Will you help us continue this good work?”

Notice who is primary in each example pulled from my files? The organization. They talk about the organization, first and foremost. Is the donor involved? Of course.

But it’s mostly about the organization. The organization doing its work.  

Make Your Ask About Your Donor

“Asking her to do what she wants to do” is done with your donor in mind. It’s talking to your donor about what she cares about in the way she thinks about it.

(Note that’s different than the way your organization thinks about it. This is why fundraising is so hard.)

Here’s what “asking your donor to do what she wants to do” looks like:

“Will you send X to one person today?”
“Will you make a difference for one person today?”
“Will you provide one person with an X?”

Notice that the organization isn’t even mentioned? Those examples are all about the donor, the beneficiary, what the donor’s gift will accomplish.

The next time you’re asking your donor to make a donation, don’t ask her to do what you want her to do. Don’t ask her to make a donation or to partner with your organization.

That’s about you. That’s about your organization.

Instead, tap into her story. She loves to help people and causes she loves.

So ask her to help a person!

It’s simple to understand, but hard to do; you’ll raise more money if you ask her to do something she already wants to do.

A Transformative Conversation

A Transformative Conversation.

A conversation with a high-ranking official who wants their fundraising staff to talk a lot about their organization:

“It’s really hard to get new donors.”

Yup. I learned the hard way that when you have nothing to say, be careful that you don’t pay money to say it.

“Wait, what?”

Have you ever paid for a mailing list? Or for radio spots? But basically nothing happened? You spent twenty thousand bucks and got eleven new donors?

“Sure. A couple times. But everyone has paid for things that didn’t work.”

When this happened, did you realize your message was at fault? Or did your organization just move along to whatever the next urgent thing was?

“Well, it wasn’t really a failure. We raised awareness and got some name recognition.”

I hate to say this, but name recognition will only make a difference if your competitors are invisible or incompetent.

“What do you mean?”

Invisible means that they don’t have the courage to ask for donations. Incompetent means their fundraising is worse than yours.

“But our fundraising is way better than average. It looks and feels professional.”

I hate to tell you this, but most fundraising isn’t written primarily to raise funds. It’s written not to offend anyone. It’s written to please internal audiences. This is why most letters follow an outline that doesn’t work. And why most fundraising gets lost in the shuffle. And why most organizations never “make the leap” to the next level.

“Are you saying that most fundraising is ineffective?”

Even the weakest fundraising is somewhat effective. That’s because donors are incredibly generous. They are able to see past the poor fundraising because they care so much about the cause or the beneficiaries.

“Can you tell me what you mean by that?”

Weak fundraising is about the organization itself. But talking mostly about the organization in fundraising is a mistake because most donors care more about the cause and the beneficiaries than they care about the organization. Listen, they became your donors in the first place because they care about the cause. Your organization helped them do something about it – which is incredibly valuable but isn’t the primary reason they donated to you.

“So if I don’t talk about my organization, what do I talk about?”

Good fundraising is about your donor and what they already care about. About their passions and interests. About what offends them. About the problems in the world that break their heart.

“So how do I find out what my donor cares about?”

You already know what they care about! They care about your cause or your beneficiaries. They wouldn’t be your donors in the first place if they didn’t care about those things. So talk about those things at their level of understanding – not yours.

“Why their level? Why not ours? We work on such a complex, in-depth problem. And our holistic approach produces the best results! The statewide average is 37% but we produce an 89% …”

Forgive me for interrupting. Remember: she’s interested in her passions, her interests, at her level of understanding. Why did you just start talking about your approach instead of what she cares about?”


Your approach makes you great at what you do. That makes your organization effective. But most donors are not experts. They don’t make their gifts based on your efficacy. Most donors make gifts based on whether you talk about something they care about.

“But if I just talk to donors about what they care about, why would they ever donate to my organization?”

That’s easy: because your organization will be the only one talking to them about what they care about. They’ll LOVE you. All of the other organizations will be droning on about their organization, their incredible processes, the stats that only experts understand, on and on. All the while your donors will keep donating – and new donors will be attracted to you – because you talk to them about what they care about. They’ll think you are a friend who can help them do the good in the world that they already want to do. It’s like you arrived in their life to help them. Doesn’t that seem like a good way to win, keep and lift donors?

“As much as I hate to say it, you’re beginning to make a little bit of sense.”

Thanks. You just started an incredibly rewarding journey where you’re going to come to appreciate donors in a whole new way – and raise a lot more money!

Editor’s Note: inspired by a Monday Morning Memo from Roy H. Williams, one of my advertising heroes.