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Daily Nuggets: A For Impact Blog

Anatomy of an Ask – the Funding Rationale

A great ask has a two key ingredients:

  • A clear request. 
  • A compelling funding rationale. 

80% of the organizations we encounter lack a funding rationale.

A funding rationale is the basis for your clear request. Insofar as you are asking someone to invest in your cause, organization, or project, the funding rationale articulates the return on that investment.

This return on investment can be quantitative: 10 lives impacted.

And/or it can be qualitative: With this investment we will change the life trajectory for a generation of kids.

It can be certain and distinct: Every time you invest $10,000 this enables us to impact one village in one year.

Or, it can be aspirational: with these funds we will attempt a new solution!

A good funding rationale…

  • Bridges the emotional thrust of your story to the role your funder can play in that story.
  • Offers some logical (or contextual) justification for the level of financial commitment/investment.
  • Can be individualized for a funder.

Although this leaves a lot of room for creativity, here is a simple framework you can use to litmus test your clear request and funding rationale:

Would it be possible for you to consider an investment of $ X? (clear request)
With this level of investment we will hope to make Y impact. (funding rationale)

The reason you need X is because it will do Y.
Or, in order to achieve Y it will require an investment of X.

The 1:1 ask is what compels and maximizes an individualized investment. A great ask has a clear request and a compelling funding rationale.

Engagement has a 24-Hour Half-Life

At For Impact, we’re constantly trying to get people to think about what it means TO ENGAGE! In school, in business, in life, we’re taught how to present, but we’re not always taught how to engage.

We define engagement as a dynamic within a relationship that holds attention, heightens interest and motivates action.

Think about a movie or a performance you’ve attended where you were engaged and left with that feeling of being present and excited. Think about how that engagement consumed your mind! Now think about how you felt the next day.

Engagement (that level of attention, interest, and motivation-toward-action) has a 24-hour half-life. That is, if we could measure engagement in some way, it seems to dissipate by half every 24 hours.

This means that within 48 hours of your visit the prospect has an engagement level at 25% of what it was after your visit.


As salespeople, we need to be making engaging presentations and asks. And, more importantly, we need to pounce on timely follow-up. It’s better to follow-up immediately, even if it’s 60% of your best effort, than to wait three days. The longer you wait, the harder you’ll have to work to recapture engagement.

(Read more on the 24-Hour Follow Up Rule here.)

A Story About Clay Pots and Making Quality Asks

This is a story about clay pots. It’s also a story about learning and perfection. I’ve shared it a lot and it seems to really resonate with people so here you go:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work-and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

(Excerpt from Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking)

If you are new to fundraising my advice is to go make as many pots (read: visits and asks) as possible. I think we spend too much time waiting for the perfect time to visit and the perfect time to ask, or the perfect time to make the perfect ask. Visit and ask a lot. You will learn and you will outperform any benchmark that can be found.

If you’re not new to fundraising my advice is to go make as many pots (read: visits and asks) as possible. Even with a top-shelf portfolio of prospects we have to stay sharp and make the best asks of the best prospects. Find a way to visit and ask a lot — whether that’s through more time with your top prospects, or identifying and engaging new prospects.

Finally, quantity is relative. For some organizations this might be 10 visits (instead of one PERFECT visit). For other organizations this might be 1000. The point to drive home is that we can’t wait for perfection or you’ll end up with the philanthropic equivalent of a pile of dead clay. 
Related content: As it relates to building up new team members and getting visit repetitions, this is another reason why we love the Leadership Circle as an entry-level-major-gifts-concept; it’s a great way to build talent.

A Campaign Is…

We spend a lot of time aligning teams around the campaign concept. The concept of a ‘campaign’ means different things to different people. So to start, I’ll ask a board or a team, “What is a campaign?”

The word association shows the varied images people have.

  • “Committees!”
  • “Asking our friends for money!”
  • “Kickoff events!”

If the ‘Capital Campaign’ had a brand, it would be a bad one.  So, the first thing I often do is take control of the word.

A Campaign is…

  • When an organization gets very serious about building and maximizing relationships.

    This begs a question – When would we NOT want to be building and maximizing relationships? This is all. it. is. By this definition we should ALWAYS be in a campaign.
  • A defined initiative with a goal and a plan. The first notion of a campaign I can find goes back to the Roman days – targeted initiatives with an objective and a plan (and then a celebration.)
  • A story!

    The campaign is a time for us to tell our story! And, in fact, the campaign itself is a story. What’s the story we want to be telling about the next chapter in our impact?

    The story is not about ‘a capital campaign’ or ‘a building.’ Instead, what if we built a focused story around what we want to accomplish in the next 1000 days? Some examples:
    • “We want to be there when people need us!”
    • “Advancing care for vulnerable populations.”
    • “Scaling our impact on a national level.”Each of these examples were very successful campaign initiatives. They provided the focused narrative for a 1,000 day WHY/WHAT/HOW.
  • A catalyst.

    For telling our story. For engaging others. For change. For results. For Impact.

2:1 Rule for Deliberate Dialogue

I recently provided some fundraising coaching to a world-renowned research scientist. When meeting with a prospect he had a habit of ‘presenting’ for 20 minutes before giving the prospect a chance to engage in any way.

It was shutting out the other person. The scientist was skipping right past many connections. On every visit, the prospects were entertained by the scientists’ amazing knowledge, but they were not fully engaged.

To change this, we started to focus on the practice of creating DELIBERATE DIALOGUE.

Deliberate dialogue is the act of intentionally stopping to create dialogue.

For my scientist friend, we had to be even more specific. The coaching was this:

For every two minutes of ‘presenting’, you should STOP and ask a quick question.

We called this the 2:1 RULE using DELIBERATE DIALOGUE.

This is about INTENTIONALITY!!!

Some people do this very effectively:

  • I’ve been talking for a few minutes so I want to stop and then see if this is making sense.
  • Or simply: Does this make sense?
  • Or, you can set it up: I will talk for a few minutes and pause to see if we’re tracking.

It doesn’t have to be scripted. Most of the time the ‘talker’ just needs to stop long enough for the other person to jump in.

If you’re struggling to ENGAGE with someone else, or
        If YOU end up doing all the talking,
                be DELIBERATE in creating DIALOGUE.

The benefits are numerous:

  1. If you’ve lost them, then it’s not by much.
  2. If there is an on-ramp for the other person, it lets them catch it.
  3. You can listen when the other person is talking.
  4. When we talk, we become fully engaged. (So let the other person talk.)
  5. Feedback. Simple.

For the scientist, it was a game-changer. On two of the next visits the prospects were so engaged they asked, “How can I help?”

7 Lessons from Virtual Visits

We’ve spent the last three months helping clients pivot to virtual visits. 

I still don’t think there is any one-size-fits-all advice but here are some of the more frequent lessons, or observations, we’re making.

  1. The sales model continues.

    Clients that had previously installed a sales model (to professionalize philanthropy) have largely continued their fundraising uninterrupted. A lot of the observations below are tweaks, not seismic shifts in strategy.
  2. Predisposition is important, now more than ever!

    The fundamentals of ‘sales’ and ‘human engagement’ are even more important when we can’t visit in person. Another way of saying this is that as we’re all figuring out new norms, doing the basic things well is all the more important.

    The first fundamental element to highlight is predisposition.

    Predisposition is an important part of the sales process. It sets the context for the discussion. As coaches we’re spending a lot more time working through predisposition strategy with our clients, this way the phone call or virtual visit is productive and we don’t spend too much time trying to navigate shifting and ‘new norms’.
  3. We’re constantly tweaking our funding rationale for context.

    We’ve spent a lot of time/effort with our clients positioning the funding rationale. Messaging and funding priorities need to live in a very current context.

    Note, this does not necessarily mean that you need to change your funding priorities, but certainly, you need to be able to speak to them in the context of COVID, in the context of your community, and — if you weren’t already doing so — in the context of social justice broadly and racial justice/equity, specifically.
  4. We practice asking questions and managing the flow-of-the-call in call-prep.

    We spend a lot more time helping clients think through how they will manage the flow of the conversation, in particular, how they will transition from the opening, to the story, to the ask. This includes the language to get numbers-on-the-table.

    Sometimes this is simple as a phrase. Some examples:
    1. “Right now we’re really looking for a handful of people that can come together and help us get this project off the ground. It’s going to require $100,000 all-together. Is that something we could talk to you about helping with?”
    2. (A variant of the Clueless Close, used to accelerate the overall timeline of the funding conversation). When the prospect asks, “How can we help?”
      “We have a pretty good handle on our math. After factoring in some of our existing funding streams, we’re going to need to cover a gap of about $1000 per family. Can I ask you to think about how many families you could help?”
    3. See other ‘closes’.
  5. Champions are (more) eager to help.

    We’re observing an uptick in champion support. As one board member shared, “I feel called now more than ever to step up and helping this organization is my way to do good in the world right now.”

    Now is a great time to work with champions to make new connections and help as natural partners for more complex gift strategies.
  6. Virtual very often means phone.

    Whereas it seems most internal conversations have flipped to Zoom, we’re finding that a lot of the virtual visits are happening by phone.  This isn’t to say visits aren’t happening via video conference but we’re observing approximately 50% of prospects (of all ages and types: individuals/corporations/foundations) replacing ‘in-person visits’ with a preference for phone calls.
  7. Funders run the gamut right now.

    On the whole, we see funders stepping up in a very big way. On a case-by-case basis (especially with individuals and corporations) visit-propensity still can be widely scattered.

    Here is some incredibly generalized advice. Think about your next 10 prospects in a 3/4/3 pattern.  It’s likely three of them are going to tell you they can’t fund right now. Four of them are going to have a behavior pattern (such as being hard to get a hold of) – it may take a little longer to get a hold of them but don’t give up! Three of your prospects are going to say, “Oh, thank you! I’ve been trying to figure out how to do more. I’m so glad you reached out. I/we need to be doing MORE right now!”

    As I told one executive director last week, “I’m telling you about 3/4/3 because I don’t know the order in which you’re going to encounter these prospects… and I don’t want you to get discouraged if the first three say, ‘Now is not the time.’”

Ask Dexterity: Today, Tomorrow, Timeless Funding Needs

The three questions we’re asked the most are:

  • What are you hearing from funders?
  • Can I engage funders right now?
  • Are (insert category) of funders funding xyz?

In talking with many funders, and tapping into broader funding networks, I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all answer to any of this. Instead of thinking about a broad-brush-approach, we’re advocating for dexterity. Instead of choosing one strategy, have three (ask) scenarios and then be able to maneuver toward the appropriate scenario(s) with any individual funder.

Here is the sorting framework (PDF download) we’ve been using.
COVID Fundraising

  1. Impact: Start with disruption and innovation.

    Impact drives Income. Before we talk about funding let’s get straight (strategically and then in terms of messaging) about how your impact, or the need for your impact, has changed. Your ability to raise funds successfully assumes that you have made hard decisions (if applicable), prepared scenarios, and generally optimized for impact in this environment.

    The scenarios here are too numerous to catalog but would include words you see flying around like: restructure, respond, pivot, pop-up, scale-up, or ‘getting lean’.

    At a minimum, every funder is asking (rightly), “How has COVID-19 impacted your work?”
  2. Income: Then sort and package your funding needs (asks) into one, two, or three buckets.

    What is required right now is dexterity. I can’t tell you when a category of funders will turn toward recovery, I can only say that you should be able to speak about your impact and opportunity TODAY (in a response time) and TOMORROW (in a recovery time). It’s also going to be helpful to put both of those in the context of TIMELESS needs.

    As you’re talking to funders, I think we need to be prepared to talk about what you’re seeing in all three of these lenses and then have funding opportunities — or the ability to contextualize your funding needs — around all three lenses.

Implications and reminders:

  • You don’t need a COVID program; you only need a COVID-context for your discussion. It could be as simple as, “This is what we’re seeing and where we need the most help, today.” Or, it could be more elaborate such as, “Our mission has always been about X, in this time we’ve reconfigured to do X in this way.”
  • Don’t make decisions for your prospects. Don’t predetermine their interest, affinity, or timing. Some funders are trying to double-down right now. Others are trying to think 4-5 moves ahead. And, I think we’re far enough along in this crisis that most are thinking about today AND tomorrow.
  • An organization focused on a recovery opportunity does not need to be hibernating right now. You can be leading around recovery. Eg. “When we’re ready to start thinking about recovery it’s going to be really important that we think about x and that’s why we’re having conversations today about y.”

This strategy will maximize funding when timing is right for everyone. I remain very optimistic that overall funding and philanthropy for the social sector — when all is said and accounted for — will be higher overall over the next 18 months. What that looks like to your organization is most likely going to be a reflection of your impact in the COVID-context and your preparedness to speak to that impact at the right time.

Changing Context for Impact and Income

Last week I wrote about the Five Mindsets To Help You Think in “These Crazy Times.” Building on that email, we started offering ‘Sorting Sessions’ – conference calls to help our past clients, Boot Camp alumni, and WOW readership sort out everything. We will continue offering sorting sessions to help social sector leaders on a no-cost, first-come, first-serve basis. To sign-up just email me directly

In this post, I’m sharing selected concepts and framing people have found helpful.

These nuggets can appear to be unrelated and disjointed. However, they all speak to CONTEXT. Context is what gives meaning to everything. One common thread to all the advice we’re giving is to examine everything in a new – and changing – context.

  • Disruption Innovation is the context for impact. Clayton Christensen introduced the notion of Disruptive Innovation. But right now we’re all seeing something different: Disruption Innovation. Entire business models (for-profit and not-for-profit) were disrupted overnight. Look at the disruption + innovation happening in food-service-delivery, online education, and late-night television – last week alone!

    I truly believe these next six months will be the most innovative of my lifetime.

    • Disruption + Innovation. Depending on what you’re doing and what day it is, this can be fear-filled, or hope-filled. It can be surrender or starting anew. I think all emotions and reactions are normal right now.
    • Disruption. Much of the world is not like it was two weeks ago. This doesn’t mean we should stop fundraising, for instance, it just means that everything lives in a new and still-changing context.
    • Innovation. There is enormous hope and opportunity for the work we do, for the populations we serve, for the problems we’re solving. New tools and new norms will emerge in the coming months. Be ready to test new ideas… move fast… inspire others and be inspired by others as humanity innovates together. 
  • COVID-19 *is* the context for funding.

    When you talk to funders, don’t wonder if COVID-19 is going to come up. It will.

    Generally, our advice around a fundraising approach has been falling into a few categories. (There is no one-size-fits-all. I was on a call this morning where I encouraged someone to use these as three different approaches for three different prospects!)
    • Urgent Impact: The ‘Now More than Ever Category.’

      If you’re in relief services, helping vulnerable families. Don’t be bashful. Engage. Ask. NOW MORE THAN EVER!
    • Timeless Impact (but not COVID urgent)

      Whereas our usual ForImpact mantra is JUST ASK, there are times this week when we’ve said, “JUST CONNECT! Don’t focus on the close, or trying to figure out how to secure that gift by April 20. Time is standing still right now in the world of the funding conversations you’re having. Funders will be there for you, just let them sort everything out.”

      We’re not saying you can’t close gifts. In fact, we have many examples of closed gifts from this week. What we’re saying is, right now – this week/month – let the close come to you. If you need help with a specific language around this, sign up for a sorting session. I’ll also try to write up several examples on our blog at

      Remember: “Sales is not a business transaction. It is first and foremost the forging of the human connection.” – Bob Burg
    • Recovery Opportunity Impact.

      I spoke with one entrepreneur who runs an ‘innovation lab’. He wanted to know how he should talk to funders about helping him to make his Q2 goals happen. My advice was blunt. “Don’t. Throw those goals out the window. Take a deep breath. We’re going to need you on the other side of this. Today, your quarterly numbers are just noise. Tomorrow, I can’t think of a sector, a city, or a company that won’t stand to benefit from the impact you can provide.”

      We put together strategy and messaging to connect with funders today in the coming weeks/months, but we’re focusing our conversations around the ‘recovery opportunity impact’, not urgent crisis. The strategy doesn’t stop fundraising activity; it’s just realistic and prudent.
  • Shared Humanity is the context for all-of-us.

    Impact Drives Income is our point of view. It’s also a great way to think about managing a conversation (with a funder) starting with the impact and then driving toward the income. During this time, we’ve been advising social sector leaders to envision a ‘shared humanity’ – transcendent to Impact and Income. Start with that. Then you can move into how your organization is having an impact IN this shared humanity and – in the COVID Context – talk about funding.

Today, Tomorrow, Forever Funding Framework

This is a simple framework we first started to develop 25+ years ago with private schools as a way of asking annual fund supporters to continue to impact students TODAY while investing in priorities that would benefit the school TOMORROW. (It was a way of ensuring continued participation in the annual fund AND making a special gift for a bricks and mortar project.)

Over the years we’ve continued to tweak how we apply the framework to benefit almost any funding initiative, for any sized organization, in any sector. It’s now a versatile tool to help you navigate a funding conversation and maximize a relationship.

Use this framework to:

  • Get numbers on the table. A big part of success is simply getting numbers on the table for dialogue and engagement. In our experience funding conversations happen 40% more frequently simply because the numbers are there — in front of you and the prospect, on a sheet of paper. They can’t be avoided! Even if you’re insecure the funder will often take over and start talking about ways they can help.

  • Qualify. There are many ways to do this. One is to use a Clueless Close. A second way is to ask someone to join the Leadership Society as a qualifying ask.

  • Predispose for later ask(s). Let’s suppose you have a campaign or a special project on the horizon. You can visit TODAY and start discussions about what they might fund TOMORROW.

  • Talk about Planned Giving, often! With most organizations planned giving is a ‘someday maybe’ idea. Or, we only discuss it when someone requests information. Using this framework you can

  • Maximize relationships using the Triple Ask! (Watch the explainer video above for more.)

  • Reframe Annual Fund / Capital Campaign. Historically organizations asked supporters to make an annual contribution. Periodically they would organize a special ‘capital campaign’ for special needs. While there might be circumstances where this is still a good strategy, many organizations either should ALWAYS be in campaign mode or, at least, ALWAYS be funding using a tomorrow and tomorrow funding model to fund operations + special projects.

Applying the framework:

  • Keep it simple! You don’t have to use this framework. It’s just a helpful tool. If you’re raising money for one project, or a special campaign, don’t get too cute by trying to adopt the framework to your presentation.
  • For younger organizations: you might benefit from talking about impact TODAY and TOMORROW (you might not need FOREVER).
  • Three ways to think about TODAY/TOMORROW/FOREVER. I walk through these in the explainer video above.

No More Cultivation Visits

I cringe when a development professional starts a visit preparation discussion with the declaration, “This is just going to be a cultivation visit.”
There should be no such thing as ‘a cultivation visit’!!! And, certainly not ‘JUST a cultivation visit’! It suggests the visit is limited only to the realm of relationship BUILDING.
This framing is not consistent with the thinking and vocabulary in a Sales Culture For Impact.

Are there times when it might be premature to ‘ask’? Absolutely! But the intent… the mindset… the goal… should never be to ‘just cultivate.’ 

In these situations, we should make it our goal to communicate and inspire so that more prospects ask, “How can I help?” Then, we need to be ready to answer that question — even on a first visit!

See also: Stop Cultivating and Start Communicating