Do Ask, Do Tell

Holly Million March 1, 2010

I’ve been raising money for 20 years. During my career, I have asked people for all kinds of money for all kinds of reasons. However, whether I’m asking for $1,000 or $100,000, I have found that there are some key concepts that rule.

These are my Hella Hot Tips for how to ask people for money. The good news is that this isn’t brain surgery. It’s common sense. If you take these key concepts and use them as your guide for individual donor fundraising, you, too, will raise money.

1. Put yourself in your donor’s shoes.

You walk into a donor’s home or office because you have something to say to them. What you really need to do is listen to what they are saying. Understand what they are looking for. Understand what is getting in the way of their saying yes. Work with them to remove the obstacles so they can say yes. What do they get out of this?

2. ALL fundraising is about relationships.

You need to build a relationship with the donor or prospect. It doesn’t begin with your asking for money. It needs to start before that point. And it doesn’t end with their gift. You have plenty of work to do afterwards because you will want to ask them again later. There’s no use in calling up somebody you neglected for five years to ask them for money for your new film. When it comes to your donor prospects, be the constant gardener.

3. There is no magical Rolodex.

Everywhere I go, people are searching for the magic list–somebody else’s list that they can get a hold of that will give them the names of the people to ask for money. It doesn’t exist. You have to create your own list. It starts with who you know, then goes to who they know. Sit down and start writing out names. Have everybody in your organization do the same. Eureka! You now have a prospect list.

4. Focus on six degrees of bringing home the bacon.

Kevin Bacon is reputed to have been in so many films that every other actor is connected to him and through him to everybody else. This is called Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. It’s based on the concept of Six Degrees of Separation. In the 1960s, a social scientist determined that we are ALL connected by no more than six degrees of separation. Anybody you could want to know is already part of your network. You just need to connect the dots.

5. Your fundraising is only as good as your ideas.

Spend time honing your message. What is your mission? What is your vision? What are your immediate objectives? What major ideas inform your actions? Who are you and why are you here, doing this thing? Now spend time getting good at talking about what you do. Practice. Create stories that show your impact. Who have you helped? What is their story? Put a face on this thing. Inspire me.

6. Go out and ask, already!

It seems ridiculous that I have to say this. But you have to ask in order to raise money. Lots of people get stuck in the courtship and can’t seem to get to the consummation. When in doubt about timing, amount, etc., just ask. The worst thing that can happen is that they will say no. The best thing that could happen is that they will say yes.

7. There is no such thing as no.

A board member of a nonprofit I used to work for once said of me, “For Holly, all roads lead to yes.” That’s true. I don’t believe in no. If I ask someone for money and they tell me no, I understand that this “no” is not the ending place. I need to find out why they said no. Is it the amount? My timing? Do they have unanswered questions? Do they want to do this a special way, maybe different from the way I’m asking them to do it? My job is to work with them to find a way to get past the no. I have to be patient and realize that it takes two, three, maybe more attempts to get the yes I want. Be persistent. Persistence pays off.

Holly Million is a consultant, author, and filmmaker with nearly two decades’ worth of experience in fundraising. In addition to securing funding for A Story of Healing, which won a 1997 Academy Award, Million has raised money for documentary and dramatic films that have aired on PBS, HBO, and other broadcast outlets. She is the author of Fear-Free Fundraising: How to Ask People for Money, available on Visit Million’s website at and her fundraising blog at She invites you to follow her on Twitter @HollyMillion. She’ll follow you back!

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