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10 Most Common Errors When Soliciting Major Donors

By: Kristin Clarke , ASAE & The Center for Association Leadership
Source: Center Collection
Published: March 2008
With the U.S. economy in decline, nonprofit leaders are more anxious than ever to find and keep major donors. Here, Curtis Deane--longtime nonprofit fundraiser and principal of WoodleyLion consulting firm--shares the most common mistakes he sees leaders make with such potential donors.
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  1. They don’t ask for the gift. Ironically, this is the most common mistake made, according to Deane. “Most people don’t like to ask for money, so they talk about the organization, the issue the gift will support, and the wonderful benefits of programs, but they never actually say, ‘Will you consider a gift of $10,000 to support this program?”

  2. They don’t ask for enough money. “This is the second most common mistake,” says Deane. “With good donor research, you should be able to ask for a gift that inspires and challenges the donor, rather than gives the donor an easy out. Inherently, though, people don’t like to ask for a lot of money.”

    He urges leaders to remember the basic steps of the major donor process: “You identify a prospect; you research a prospect; you cultivate a prospect; you solicit a prospect; and then you steward the gift of the prospect-turned-donor. All of that relates to knowing how much of a gift to ask for. It’s not uncommon when you do an ask, to leave knowing that you asked for too little. You know this as soon as you ask for $50,000, and the guy immediately says, ‘Yes!’ That’s why you should think of asking for a little too much, rather than a little too little. Donors can always come down from the ask amount, but they seldom go up.”

  3. They do not listen and instead talk too much. “[Leaders] think they can convince someone by explaining, explaining, explaining,” Deane says. “But the donor will tell you everything you need to know,” and if you’re talking all the time, you’ll miss that important information. Learn to listen and restrain yourself. Especially important is staying silent after asking for the gift, he cautions. That often prompts the prospect to speak, which is what leaders should want.

  4. They don’t ask questions. Ask a one-sentence question, so the donor can tell you in five paragraphs when he or she thinks, rather than you talking through five paragraphs about your wonderful program and not learning anything about the donor’s opinions and perspective.

  5. They talk about the organization and its approach rather than about benefits to the donor. Leaders must remember that this is about the donor, not you and the organization, he continues. “The best approach is donor-centric,” Deane advises. “When we say ‘benefits to the donor, we’re not talking about an honorary nameplate on a door of a room. It’s likely the primary motivating factor of the donor is advancing your mission, so if you’re talking to someone who is a doctor, and you’re saying, ‘This gift will help us advance this area of medicine that we know you’re really interested in,’ that’s the benefit. Don’t get into how that all fits into your strategic plan. [The emphasis] is the donor’s agenda and how you’re advancing the donor’s agenda, which is hopefully synonymous with your agenda.”

  6. They are not flexible in what they ask for and have no alternatives ready to offer the prospect. A potential donor may want to give you that $100,000 you request—but spread it out over three years, wait until a certain stock hits a certain value (because that’s the source of the dollars he or she would donate), or agree to donate the amount but want it dedicated to a different program focus.

    Nonprofit leaders should not necessarily accept the first offer that a prospect suggests if it is lower than expected. Instead, they must be ready with a wide range of options in terms of financial timelines, financial vehicles such as stock gifts, and budget requirements of the program for which you seek funding. Another option to suggest if the offer is too low for your program is a relevant alternative funding project (example: if not the big education campaign, perhaps one of the tools needed to help it succeed). Leaders also should be prepared to say no—by not accepting money dangled in front of them but unrelated the organization’s mission or program goals (“I’ll donate $100,000 for a teen pregnancy program but not an AIDS education campaign.). Good donor research should help prevent the latter problem, but it does still happen occasionally.

  7. They do not properly train their solicitors. If soliciting from unknown donors is difficult, requesting money from friends and colleagues—especially major gifts—is often even harder psychologically for many board members or other people who may be going on an “ask” with a leader. Thus, training—often a day-long or refresher course--is vital, because research shows that the way you ask can make a difference in securing the gift and the amount of the gift. Deane recommends working out several signals among those who are soliciting. For instance, the executive director might cross his legs or take off her eyeglasses, which tells the other solicitors to be stop talking or to make the direct ask.

  8. They do not know the prospect before solicitation. While independent firms are often asked by organizations to mine their database for top prospects, leaders sometimes misuse the resulting list by asking for money far too early, essentially skipping the cultivation process. Until an actual relationship has been built with each individual—and the number and types of contact needed before you can determine that varies—leaders should not ask for money. Do not mix up the cultivation and solicitation processes. “That’s not an uncommon circumstance,” Deane acknowledges. “Too quickly people expect the list to produce major gifts for them.”

  9. They are too fearful of receiving a no. “That [immediate no] will seldom happen,” says Deane. “They wouldn’t have met with you if they were going to tell you no. They’re interested in supporting you for your mission, so it’s unlikely they are just going to say no. Now, they might say, ‘I want to do this, but I don’t have the means right now.”’ But that allows leaders to explore when the donor might have the means and what alternative funding options the donor might prefer.
The best advice is worth repeating: “Leaders who remember that giving is about the donor and not about their organization” will vastly increase their fundraising success in both the short and long term.

Kristin Clarke is a writer and researcher for the Philanthropic/Nonprofit and Social Responsibility initiatives at ASAE & The Center for Association Leadership. She can be reached at

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