Fundraising: How to Make the Ask

Want Money? Ask for Advice!

Asking for advice is a great way to cultivate your community of potential supporters. Think of the 10-15 people closest to you—mentors from back home, family friends, and extended family—people who have shown interest in you and your music over the years. They should be music lovers who are well off enough to make contributions to various causes.

Look over your list and choose the 5 people you feel would be most interested in your current project. Email or call them and ask to take them out for coffee or lunch. Tell them in advance that you want to talk about a new project you’re launching. It’s a great way to cultivate your relationships, get outside perspective on your project, and begin your fundraising campaign.

Be prepared—have your project mapped out in a concise written form and practice your verbal presentation in advance. It’s not a speech, but you do need to feel comfortable describing it to potential donors.

Part of the development process is educating people about your project. Non-musicians are often unaware of the costs and procedures of producing concerts, recordings, or advancing a music career.

Pay attention to the questions they ask. These may point to something in your description that needs clarification. Revise your explanation as needed in advance of your next meetings.

In your meetings, it can help to remind people of a few of your past successes and describe how your project fits into your long-range goal. This is where your written project map comes in. Have your budget ready so that if your prospective donor has detailed questions you’ll be prepared.

The goal of these meetings is to gather support and ideas, and in so doing so, deepen the level of involvement of your supporters. Be prepared for advice and suggestions and be open to these. You don’t have to necessarily act on any of the advice but you should be receptive to new ideas and perspectives.

The best case outcome is to have the person listen to your project description, get interested, take out a checkbook and say, “How much do you need?”

That’s wonderful, but it doesn’t always happen. Instead, she or he may suggest changes to your project or plan, or may refer you to others for additional support. Or offer to host a benefit house concert. All of which are good outcomes for advancing your project.

But they’re not money, which you may also need.

So in the course of your meeting, if your potential donor does not volunteer to contribute, you need to “pop the question.”

How to “Make the Ask”

It’s important to ask for a specific amount because if you say, “I’d be grateful for whatever you can give,” people may give $20 or $50 instead of $200 or $500. And don’t give them a range. People will most likely only hear (and give) the lowest amount of the range.

Do some research in advance of your meeting. Ask your family and friends—people who know your prospective donor—what they think an appropriate amount might be. If your potential donor is well off and regularly contributes to community arts organizations, this should inform your thinking.

Practice your presentation in advance with a trusted mentor or coach. A run-through will help you feel more comfortable in talking about yourself, presenting your project, and in making the ask.

This is the part I’m dreading. What do I say?

Let’s imagine you’re going to meet for lunch with your Uncle Ted. You’ve told him in advance that you want to talk with him about a new project. After you’ve caught up on all the family news, your conversation may go something like, “I’m really excited about this new project and wanted to tell you about it.”

After you outline the project, answer his questions and talk about the cost and how the project will benefit your career in the long run. Then you might say something like, “I’m hoping you can assist me with this project. The total cost is $3,000 and I’ve already raised $800 from gigging. I would really appreciate a contribution of $ [appropriate specific amount].”

Then you need to SHUT UP . . . this is crucial . . . don’t fill in the silence!

Out of discomfort, you may be tempted to say, “But actually, whatever you can manage is fine . . .” Don’t do it: it will only undermine your efforts.

Instead, breathe and give Uncle Ted a chance to think and respond. He may say yes, or tell you it’s too much but that he can give X amount. Or that he needs to think it over and get back to you. Whatever the answer, thank him for his time, advice, and interest!

What if the answer is “no”?

“No” doesn’t mean that you and your project aren’t worthy of support. And it doesn’t mean the potential donor won’t say yes to future projects.

“No” may mean the timing is bad, or the amount isn’t appropriate, or it can mean that your donor isn’t “into” your project. It’s their money to do with as they choose: no one “owes” you anything. You’re simply presenting a kind of investment opportunity.

Most often the person will give some sort of explanation. Make sure you really listen.

You may fear that you’ve damaged the relationship. But if this person is on your list because you’ve known each other for a while and you know they are supportive of your career, then a thoughtful ask won’t hurt anything. And they may have suggestions for your next steps—and other people you can ask. Be gracious.

Keep the big picture in view: the aim isn’t to find a quick fix for one project. It’s about cultivating a community of friends and supporters for the long haul.

Why do I have to meet people in person?

By far, the strongest, most effective way to fundraise is to be in the same room, breathing the same air with your potential donor. In-person meetings allow you to be fully present with each other and to make more impact. The people you meet with will get to see your commitment and your interest in them.

Because of all this, it’s much harder to turn someone down in a face-to-face meeting, especially when they know you and you’ve just presented a compelling invitation for their support.

Think about it: we all get direct mail appeals asking us to contribute to a wide range of causes, from local homeless shelters, to the Red Cross, to cancer and AIDS research organizations. And most appeals go directly into the trash, unopened. Direct mail campaigns have an abysmal return rate of just 1-4%.

And in terms of crowdfunding campaigns, according to Entrepreneur magazine, the majority of campaigns (69-89% depending on the platform) do not meet their goals.

On the other hand, with face-to-face meetings you get an even shot at succeeding: a 50% chance of scoring a “yes.” Much better odds.

So, while you might use strategic fundraising letters and crowdfunding campaigns for a portion of the money needed for a project, by far your best bet for larger gifts is doing in-person asks. For your closest circle, your likely largest donors, you need to make it personal—so meet in person. It’s the best use of your time as it has the strongest return.

To illustrate, here’s a story from the coaching vaults, with the names changed to protect the innocent.

Nick and Nora make the ask

Nick and Nora each needed to raise $1,000 to participate in a summer tour with an orchestra going to South America. They came to see me and were in a panic because their immediate families couldn’t help and they had just one month to raise the money.

So we talked about their support circles. I asked Nick and Nora what family friends had shown interest in their musical development over the years. Nora thought of her family doctor and dentist, who were both avid music lovers. Nick thought of his high school band director—with whom he’d kept in touch. They both knew these were generous people who contributed to community charities. Nick and Nora said their potential patrons were not rich, but they were certainly well off. And they could afford to—and might actually want to—contribute.

With some encouragement, Nick and Nora each called their potential patrons to set up lunch dates, explaining they wanted to catch up and to discuss an opportunity they had been offered.

And in advance, Nick and Nora practiced what they would say. Together we did this as role plays, with me playing the part of their family friends. Initially, they both felt awkward and nervous about asking someone directly for money. But once they’d practiced describing the orchestra tour opportunity and why it was important—and they visualized talking with these family friends who knew them well—they were both more confident.

What happened? Nick and Nora reported that their lunch conversations were much easier than they’d imagined. Their donors were enthusiastic: they each got the funds needed and had a terrific tour!

Your best prospects are people already in your network, those closest to you and your family. People who know you well and can easily be brought up to date on your project and plans.

This week: Think of the 5 people you know who would likely support your project. When did you last speak with them? Maybe it’s a good time to get caught up.

As always, I welcome your comments and questions—looking forward to hearing from you!

If you’d like to discuss your career goals, and find out how coaching can help you achieve them, let’s talk! Reach me at

Looking forward to hearing from you,

Dream Big, Plan Smart, Live Well!

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