Event Recap: Making the Ask

By Kelli Lydon, co-founder of the Des Moines Rehabbers Club, a nonprofit that seeks to revitalize neighborhoods by connecting homeowners to the resources and education they need to fix up and maintain their houses.

At the YNPN Des Moines “Making the Ask” event at Saints Pub in Beaverdale, fundraisers of all levels got to ask seasoned professionals how they get the job done. Zachary Mannheimer, executive director of the Des Moines Social Club, Jack Reed, development director of the Ronald McDonald House, and Emily Williams-Bouska, chief development and communications officer of Planned Parenthood of the Heartland were experienced enough to give sound advice but close enough to their days as rookie fundraisers to relate to the fresh faces in the room.


The range of experience among the crowd made me realize how important these skills are in many different fields and for many different positions within a nonprofit. Development directors and professional fundraisers do great work, but it’s also important for board members, volunteers, and other leaders to know how good fundraising and development is done and to become part of the process.

Our expert panelists were each great mentors in their own ways, but one thing they had in common was that they’d been down in the trenches of fundraising for a while and they’d seen it all. Based on their answers to the host’s questions and question from the audience, I think their advice breaks fundraising down into three stages.

Back at the office, it’s all about preparation and organization. A donor database is crucial and how you use it can be the difference between making a successful ask and looking like a total rookie. It’s important to have a central location for tracking things like where a potential donor has given money in the past, preferences for communication, and contact you’ve had with them. A donor database is the key to adequate preparation for making the ask.

Making the ask is only about 10% of the total time you’ll spend fundraising, according to the panelists. Some tips for the actual fundraising conversation include:

  • Have a definite goal in mind and aim high.
  • Quantify your organization’s impact and why the donor’s gift is a sound investment in your good work.
  • Leave the potential donor with something to mull over after you’re done (a brochure about your organization, a summary of your plan for the coming year, etc.)
  • Learn to read the situation through experience, sometimes through trial and error. Listen to the donor and relate your work to their experience and concerns. Be flexible in conversation and style while remaining committed to your goal and message.

Follow-up after a meeting is just as important as the preparation you’ve done before the meeting. Pay attention to the donor’s preferred method of communication. If the donor states a clear preference for email, follow through with that. If you don’t know, defaulting to a handwritten thank you note is a safe bet. Following up later is also a good way to show you’re dependable and committed to the donor’s interest as well as your own. In addition to a simple thank you for the meeting and (hopefully!) their donation, take the opportunity to answer a question the donor had or provide more details on an area of your work you discussed. If the donor relationship requires a long term strategy to ensure continued support, the three stages end up becoming more of a cycle.

The conversations I had and overheard after the panel discussion showed that there was something in that advice for all levels of development. I know I started scratching down notes immediately about how we could apply these tips to the growth and development of my organization. YNPN has been great for getting young professionals in the room with experienced mentors and this was a perfect example of why it’s so valuable.

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