Struggling to Make the Ask? Ditch the Golden Retriever Mindset
Updated: May 25
I originally wrote this blog last fall about a topic that is very personal to me - fighting the urge to keep everyone happy as a fundraiser. As ambassadors for our missions, it's important that we lead by example and graciously engage with our communities. That said, we need to be able to advocate and lean into difficult conversations when necessary. Hopefully, these tips can help us all as we balance the different pressures involved with building a successful fundraising program.
Anyone who has worked with me can attest to the fact that my sons, Elliot and Carson, play a big role in my work life. They love jumping into calls, saying hi, and every so often, causing a major distraction. While the two of them (and one very mischievous cat) get a lot of attention, our “oldest child” happily stays in the background. Our 6-year-old Golden Retriever, Rosie, has been with us since she was 8-weeks old and is an indispensable part of the family.
Rosie embodies every characteristic people associate with Golden Retrievers: she’s loyal, friendly, affectionate, and exceptionally easygoing. Even though she has a little bit of anxiety around new people, once she warms up to someone, she immediately wants to be their best friend.
Rosie’s disposition made it easy for me to understand the Tik Tok trend of describing people as having “golden retriever energy.” Like the dogs, these people are loyal, friendly, and eager to count everyone they meet as a friend.
Sound like any fundraisers you know?
This is one of the things I love most about the fundraising field. My friends and colleagues around the country are idealistic, outgoing, and genuinely want to change the world. Our collective Golden Retriever energy is one of our biggest strengths.
While this mindset contributes to our overall success, it does come with some challenges. Most notably, I’ve seen it come up a lot lately when people talk about struggling to close a gift or make an effective ask.
When I sit down with people and talk about how they ask for money, they share beautiful appeals and pitches, but asks that are qualified with phrases like:
“Will you please consider…”
“If you’re able to...”
“We understand if this is too big of a request…”
There it is - our Golden Retriever energy getting the best of us! This entirely understandable approach is built around the fear of the donor saying no. We don’t want to make anybody uncomfortable, so we hedge.
The problem with this approach is that we start saying “no” on the donor’s behalf.
As someone with a major Golden Retriever complex who HATES the idea of anyone being annoyed or put off by them, I struggle with this as much as anyone! But it’s where we have to remind ourselves that an ask is not an imposition. It’s an invitation.
We aren’t calling donors about purchasing an extended warranty for their cars. We aren’t doing things that are pushy, aggressive, or otherwise unexpected. Rather, we are giving them the chance to make an impact in a way that will be meaningful to them and, most importantly, the community the organization serves.
In this context, we may still be told “no.” But when that happens, it’s not a reflection on us or our work; usually, it’s about where the donor is and where their giving priorities lie at a given time. More often than not, the door remains wide open to continued dialogue and support down the road.
As much as it may make us uncomfortable to be direct with our asks, it will make us all better fundraisers. Instead of saying “no” for our donor, here are some phrases to think about when you’re setting up an ask:
I’d like to invite you: Remember, giving is a joyful thing. Asking a donor for money is giving them a chance to do something special and impactful. They can turn down the invitation, but they will do so with gratitude for the work you’re doing.
Join me: This is especially powerful if you’re asking as a Board member or existing donor. There’s no better vote of confidence in an organization than the person making the ask having given themselves.
You can make all the difference: After setting up your work and its impact, remind the donor of all they can do to move the needle. As fundraisers, we know the difference one gift can make, and we know this phrase is not an exaggeration. It’s another chance to invite the donor to do something amazing.
In addition to the different ways to directly make the ask, think about the type of ask you’re making and how that might shape your approach. You’ll want to consider different approaches for these asks:
Appeal letter/email: This is where it’s easiest to fall into the trap of soft language. A written format gives you a chance to tell your story clearly and concisely. The ask is the chance to close strong, giving your donor a clear call to action and opportunity to get involved.
Sponsorships and corporate solicitations: Think of how you can extend an offer to build a partnership. Emphasize the inherent benefits for a business partner along with the benefit to your mission. Make the ask while also highlighting all that a partnership can do for their business.
Major gifts: This is where it’s most important to build a personal connection. If you’ve made a personal investment in the mission, this is the time to highlight it. Give your endorsement of the mission and offer the donor the chance to join you in making an impact.
Grants: Even grant proposals can end up with soft language! Use active language to describe what a gift will do - remind the funder that with a grant, you will accomplish specific, measurable outcomes. Don’t tell them what you hope a gift will do - tell them what a gift will do.
Even for seasoned fundraising professionals, asking for money can be hard sometimes. It can bring up different fears and make us question ourselves. Our inner Golden Retriever can be a big boost, but this is a time to tune out that attitude! By being direct, sharing a heartfelt invitation to support the organization, and accepting whatever answer emerges, you can achieve fundraising success.