Read time: 7 minutes
I don’t usually start a post by telling you not to read it, but here is an exception: don’t read this. Instead, go read Amanda Palmer’s book The Art of Asking. It is filled with so many important lessons for nonprofit fundraisers, organizers, and marketers.
Mind you, Amanda probably wouldn’t call herself any of those things. She is first and foremost a rock star, artist, activist, and rabblerouser.
But her book—and the TED Talk on which it’s based—is an exploration of how it feels to ask and be asked. It offers thoughts on how to gracefully receive help (and to accept the fact that you need help at all). Above all it describes how the alchemy of giving creates community.
Those of us who spend our days urging nonprofit supporters to give money, sign petitions, make phone calls, share social media posts… we are Professional Askers for Things. For us, The Art of Asking resonates deeply, with plenty that we can learn about our craft and so many unarticulated gut instincts put plainly into words.
It’s also very funny in some parts, and very sad in others, which if you ask me is how books ought to be.
Convinced yet? Go read it! But on the off-chance that you can’t drop everything you’re doing just this second to read a full book, let me whet your appetite with seven important lessons in The Art of Asking for us digital nonprofit-y types.
1. Making a human connection is essential, and it can’t be faked.
Amanda started her career as a performer in Harvard Square. She worked as a living statue, dressed as a bride and standing stock-still waiting for passersby to be intrigued or inspired enough to chip in a couple bucks.
No offer. No value proposition. Just the chance, for a moment, for a person to connect with a person.
Fundraising for a cause begins the same way (I mean the human connection part, not the standing on a street corner dressed as a bride part. Though if that works….). Statistics do not move donors, and most supporters engage with their hearts long before their heads get involved. When somebody joins your email list, welcome them! Approach them like they are people who care about things, like you are a person who cares about the very same things.
When we focus on relationships, not transactions, we begin to build a community of people who will really care about our cause, and who feel valued. And that kind of community will take action, show up at events, give money, and do whatever else needs doing for your cause.
2. Experiment, innovate, and try new things
Best practices are great, but the breakthroughs come when we stretch and try something new. Our goal at M+R is to hit an 80/20 ratio: 80% of time, effort, and campaign work relies on the tried-and-true, and 20% goes to the wacky, the wild, and the “I wonder if this will work?” Or, as Amanda puts it:
The field of asking is fundamentally improvisational. It thrives not in the creation of rules and etiquette but in the smashing of that etiquette.
Which is to say: there are no rules. Or, rather, there are plenty of rules, but they ask, on bended knees, to be broken.
New things, including (especially!) new technology, can be scary. Try them anyway, and remember: someone will help if you ask. That holds true for crowdfunding platforms, social media, digital ads, or playing the ukulele. Not every new platform or approach will work for your nonprofit, but all of them are possible.
3. Ask for what you need… but also ask for what your audience can give.
It’s a sad fact of life for fundraisers: not everybody is going to give you money. That doesn’t mean their support doesn’t matter.
The Art of Asking isn’t only, or even primarily, about asking for money. It’s about asking for all the things we need to survive and thrive as people: a shoulder to cry on, a word of advice, a place to crash, time to think, patience, hope, compassion. And money, yes, that too.
It’s up to us as fundraisers to treat supporters as more than ATMs with email addresses. We need to meet them where they are, and find ways to let them help. Some can write checks; cash them. Others will help by showing up, volunteering, spreading the word, sending words of support, or just following along quietly until they, or the cause, reach a place where they can help. But they won’t do any of those things if they are only ever asked for money.
4. The email list is everything
Here is Amanda describing how she built a network of fans and allies as a young musician, one email address at a time:
Any time I ran into an old college friend on the street, any time I got into a conversation with a stranger on the subway, any time someone expressed even a remote interest in the band, I’d ask, DO YOU DO EMAIL? If the answer was yes, I recorded their address onto whatever was handy—my journal, a napkin, my hand—and when I got home, I’d send a personal welcome note.
For digital fundraisers, the whispers and worries have never gone away: email is dead, or dying, or at the very least has come down with something that seems quite possibly contagious. There are concerns that shifting demographic and tech trends spell the end of email as a useful fundraising and organizing tool.
And someday, that may be true. Today is not that day. Year after year, nonprofit email audiences keep growing, and email revenue keeps increasing (by 24% last year, as shown in our recently-released Benchmarks Study. Have you seen all this wondrous data yet? Go check it out!).
Even in the age of social media, the email list is the most common and most important way that supporters give you permission to stay in touch. And we should always be asking for that permission—to grow our audience, to extend our reach, and to keep engaged with the people who care about our cause.
5. If at all possible, marry Neil Gaiman.
This part is pretty self-explanatory, really.
6. Care about the people you have first, before chasing new audiences.
Acquisition is how we grow; retention is how we build a strong and durable base of support. Both are essential to success, but it’s the latter that will get you through the hardest moments, or the long stretches when your cause or nonprofit are not leading the evening news.
Make sure that your existing supporters know they matter to you—through the ways you acknowledge their support, the ways you engage with them, the ways you include them in your planning, your mission, your vision.
And that doesn’t mean to stop asking them for things! Lots of nonprofits just stop sending email to monthly (or high-dollar) donors, figuring that these folks have already done the highest-value thing, and shouldn’t be bothered more. But when done right, “asking” ≠ “bothering.” If a nonprofit is effective, the cause is worthy, and the ask is important, why cut off supporters who have already made a big commitment? They may need a different kind of ask, and they certainly deserve our gratitude, but they don’t need to be protected from our campaigns.
7. Trust. Your. Audience.
They are smart, and brave, and they love you. Really. Treat them with the care and respect they deserve. Learn to see them.
“Almost every important human encounter boils down to the act, and the art, of asking.”
Those are pretty good words to live by for those of us who are Professional Askers for Things.