We’ve all been there, but sometimes it really hits you that, as fundraisers, you’re asking a major donor for a large gift, the size of which is not something you would ever be able to make yourself. 

I remember, early in my fundraising career asking a donor for a $300,000 gift.  At the time, I was recently out of grad school and doing a precarious balancing act between making student loan payments, paying rent and having a stocked refrigerator.  It was a good month when I didn’t have to use my credit card to cover end of month expenses before my next paycheck arrived.  I barely had any savings, let alone $300,000 that I could give to someone else! At the time, I was constantly anxious about money and worried that I didn’t have enough. 

During the ask, I felt vulnerable and inadequate.  What right did I have to ask someone for such a large sum when I had no experience with that kind of money in my own life?  How could I challenge someone to give so much when I’d never be able to do the same? Could the donor see how stressed and anxious I was about my finances as I talked to him about his?

In spite of myself and the stress ball I must have presented as, I walked out of that meeting with a pledge for $300,000. (That donor really liked the mission, so luckily for me, the messenger didn’t matter so much.) I also came away with the understanding that to be a successful fundraiser, I needed to sort out some things about my relationship with money so that my personal anxieties wouldn’t get in the way of the important conversations I needed to have with potential donors.

I got to work.  Through therapy, advice from financial experts, lots of reading and a concerted effort to put my financial house in order, I became more comfortable in my personal relationship with money.  More importantly, I was able to use my newfound awareness to recognize that not everyone had the same money hang-ups I did.  This made me more comfortable in my role as a fundraiser.

(I want to be honest with you.  It turns out that it doesn’t matter how much money I have or don’t have, I still stress about it.  It’s a behavior I learned in childhood.  And while I’ve gotten better at managing this behavior, it’s something I’ll always carry with me to a certain extent. Like how you never forget how to ride a bike, only much less satisfying.  What has changed permanently, I hope, is my realization that donors have their own relationships with money.  And, that their relationship to money is much more important in the context of a gift solicitation than mine is.)

Maybe you can relate to this or know someone who could.  Maybe this has never been an issue for you. Congratulations!  (PLEASE tell us your secret in the comments section.)

But, if this resonates with you in some way, know you’re not alone.  Here are three things I try to keep in mind when talking to donors about money.

  • Everyone, including you and the donors you’re talking to, has their own baggage when it comes to money. It’s just different baggage. Don’t believe me? Quick. Finish this sentence:  Money is __________.  Now ask the ten people nearest to you to do the same. I bet you received a variety of responses.  Every different response illuminates underlying values or issues surrounding money.  For another perspective, see Sonya Campion’s Movie Monday episode where she talks about how her time in the peace and social justice movement informed her beliefs about money and affected her as a fundraiser and philanthropist.
  • Money is a tool that gets stuff done. Like the time I tried to hang a picture on a plaster wall with a small hammer when a more powerful drill was needed, money is a powerful tool to accomplish great things.  Without it, you’re just making ugly cracks and divots in a wall because the hammer isn’t big enough to do the job.  When you’re asking a donor to make a gift to your organization, you’re actually asking them to supply the tool needed to achieve your organization’s goals.  Because the donor is as enthusiastic about the vision as you are, she will happily provide the tools you need to get the job done.
  • Kick yourself out of the way and let your cause walk in the door. Sure, maybe you have some money hang ups.  Maybe you, too, have some perceptions about money that get in your way.  It shouldn’t matter because it’s not about you.  It’s about the mission.  And, it’s about the donor and what the donor wants to accomplish with her resources. When you’re asking a donor to make a gift, you’re simply serving as the conduit between the donor’s need to give and your organization’s need to receive.  Your personal relationship with money is not and should not be a factor at all.

It’s easier said than done to kick yourself out of the way.  For me, it was a process of deep reflection, missteps, small triumphs and unfolding awareness that took place over several years. Even today, I have to check in with myself before I start the conversation, reminding myself that a donor’s values around money are likely different than mine and that her values are the only ones that matter during the conversation.

The sooner you can ‘get clear’* about how you feel about money, as Sonya Campion says, the sooner you’ll be a happier, more effective fundraiser.

Good luck!

*One way to unveil your personal values around money is to spend some time thinking about how you finished the sentence above.  What does your knee-jerk response tell you about your ingrained beliefs about money?  How do those beliefs show up in your life?  How are those values serving you well?  How are they tripping you up? Becoming aware of your latent values is the first step in addressing or modifying them.  And for further enrichment, here are a few more resources:

An article by Emily Anthony and Julie Edsforth on your organization’s culture of giving and how it impacts your fundraising.
A TED talk by Amanda Palmer on the Art of Asking
A book, The Soul of Money by Lynne Twist, which helps you process your relationship between money and your life.
Another book, Women and Money: Owning the Power to Control Your Destiny by Suze Orman, which helps empower women to understand and manage their finances