How To Do Life

Fresh ideas about career and personal issues

Making the Ask

Techniques for getting a yes and for resisting unwanted solicitations.

You’re asking for someone's money or time. Or they're pitching you. In either case, it’s helpful to know techniques for getting a yes.

To that end, I interviewed Russell James, who teaches fundraisers on how to get people to make large charitable donations and who directs the charitable financial planning program at Texas Tech University. Here is a distillation of my interview with him:

MARTY NEMKO: How do you know your techniques work?

RUSSELL JAMES: There’s both traditional and physiological research. In traditional research, we divide subjects into groups, with each group using a different donation-solicitation technique. That shows us what works best. And now, thanks to advanced brain imaging, we can validate that against physiological changes in the brain. The evidence is growing clearer, for example, this, that these techniques are, indeed, valid.

MARTY NEMKO: Are those techniques useful to anyone trying to get a yes or to resist someone trying to get us to say yes?

RUSSELL JAMES: I can’t say for sure, but that’s a reasonable inference.

MARTY NEMKO: Okay then, let’s get to the specifics. Is there one technique that’s particularly potent in getting a yes?

RUSSELL JAMES: Tie the donation to an older relative. So, for example, you might ask the prospect, “Do you have a relative, perhaps an older one, who’d particularly appreciate your leaving a will gift in their honor?” My most recent article provides validation evidence for that approach. It’s now at a journal under review: Remembering Friends and Family Through Charitable Bequest Giving.

MARTY NEMKO: What’s another way to capitalize on people's tendency to give more when other people are involved.

RUSSELL JAMES: Make the ask in social situations: Have a prospect’s friend who has donated make the ask. Or hold a fundraising auction gala in which people bid/donate aloud in front of the group or in a silent auction in which people write their names next to their bids.

MARTY NEMKO: What’s another not-obvious but potent technique for getting a yes that would be applicable to a wide range of my readers?

RUSSELL JAMES: Your written and verbal messaging should highlight people who have donated big, especially people whom the recipient might know or relate to—probably not Bill Gates.

MARTY NEMKO: What's another technique?

RUSSELL JAMES: Have prospects tell you how their life story relates to the cause. For example, a solicitor for a cancer nonprofit might ask, “Have you had any friends or family whose lives have been affected by cancer?” If so, have them tell the story. That encourages the prospect to believe that a late-in-life major gift is an important capstone to their lives, a final chapter that adds to their legacy. I provide the research substantiation for this approach in my book, Inside the Mind of the Bequest Donor.

MARTY NEMKO: What’s another tip?

RUSSELL JAMES: Avoid using formal, legalistic terms  So, don't say “bequest," say "“gift in your will.” Don't say “Sign this contract.” Say, "So is this what you’d like?” 

MARTY NEMKO:  Do you have one more potent but not-obvious suggestion for getting a yes?

RUSSELL JAMES: People are normally more resistant to giving money than time. So start by asking for a small time commitment, then a larger one. Next, start asking for money, more each time. University of California research finds that if you ask often and for more each time, you’ll get more.

MARTY NEMKO: I get annoyed by frequent solicitations.

RUSSELL JAMES: Research indicates that frequent solicitations increase annoyance but yield more money.

MARTY NEMKO: What works in getting you to say yes?

RUSSELL JAMES: Having a personal connection with the solicitor, especially if s/he’s not a professional fundraiser.

MARTY NEMKO: Okay, you now know me and I’m not a professional fundraiser. Give me a million dollars.

RUSSELL JAMES: I don’t know you that well.

Marty Nemko's bio is in Wikipedia.

Marty Nemko is a career and personal coach based in Oakland, Ca. and the author of 7 books. 
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