Give Before You Ask - A New Sales and Fundraising Strategy

We explore how social purpose brands can create a more compelling ask—by giving before asking.

September 6th Articles 9 min read
Give Before You Ask Horizontal

For foundations and nonprofits, asking for and collecting donations is an inevitable part of fundraising. Sometimes you can feel like it’s all you do. If that’s true for you—it’s time to rethink your approach.

For social enterprises, the ask is different. You’re asking people to buy something or acquire your services. If that’s your lead-in for every customer interaction—it’s time to rethink your strategy.

A crucial part of the asking process is to communicate the progress you've made and what still needs to be done. In pursuit of sales and funding, this marketing opportunity is often overlooked. Put it at the forefront of your efforts.

In this article we’ll explore how social purpose brands can create a more compelling ask—by giving before asking.

Problem, Proposition, Progress

We dug deep into donation request strategy while working with the Romero Institute on their Greenpower and Lakota People’s Law Project sites. Our outside perspective often puts us in a position to challenge the methods our clients use for sales and donations.

The goals of the two Romero Institute’s projects—community controlled renewable energy and institutional social and environmental justice—might seem unachievable. The problems are complex, the hurdles are high, and the powers of industry and governments are vast. How could a small organization and its donors succeed in the face of all this?

The fact of the matter is, they have been achieving victories, small and large for decades. The more we came to understand about the Romero Institute, the more we learned about the significant progress they are making. But their marketing didn’t always convey the results of their efforts. They talked more about challenges and asked for more donations to address them.

One of our main pieces of strategic marketing advice was to turn their formula on its head: Lead with progress. Clarify the problem. Ask for support in achieving the solution.

Our Give Before You Ask Strategy

If the ask is made too frequently and without telling your audience about victories or accomplishments, givers can become fatigued. This isn’t to say that the ask isn’t a key component of the give-ask cycle, but when it follows positive updates as well as challenges, the ask can be more effective.

We chatted with Benjamin Eichert, the Program Director for Greenpower, one of the Romero Institute’s projects, about this approach. We asked him if he had noticed a change in their interactions with their supporters since they increased positive communication with them.

Eichert told us, “I would say that our supporters are more deeply engaged. Our relationship with our supporters has evolved into much more of a two-way dialogue, as opposed to one-way communication from us to them.”

We asked him if he thought that our strategy of sharing victories and accomplishments with his supporters has proven to be a more powerful way to engage with them.

“I agree with it wholeheartedly.” He said, adding, “I would simply qualify it by saying that giving doesn’t always mean something material. We do this work because we believe in it—because it aligns with our values—because it aligns with who we are and how we want to impact the world that we live in. Giving, in that context for us, is appreciating what we do together—celebrating the difference that we’re making together, celebrating the individual actions we’re taking and the impact that they have.”

He went on to say, “Not everyone’s able to give resources; to make a donation. Sometimes people are able to take an action, or share an action. Or they lend their voice to something, or volunteer, and that’s how they give. They do it because they’re motivated by their values and their beliefs about what they want to achieve in this world.”

“So letting them know when they’ve been successful at that, when they’ve actually accomplished that, when they’ve taken some sort of action and it’s actually been meaningful—you have to share that.”

Our 3:1 Ratio

We recommend a three-to-one ratio, where three out of every four external messages are about impact, and one is about next steps and asking for support to accomplish your organization’s goals. If 75% of your messaging is about victories and progress, you convey the fact that you’re taking steps to achieve your mission. People want to support a successful organization. You must show them that you are worthy of their backing. Broadcasting your progress accomplishes that objective.

To give you an idea how this might work, we’ve created a sample series below:

  1. Interview someone who has benefitted from your work and create a blog post or article that you share with your supporters/customers. This personalizes your cause and shows real results. Be sure to thank your supporters for their help in achieving this positive impact on an actual person’s life.
  2. Record a video with a team member who has had a recent success. This could be a project manager, your CEO, or someone on the front lines who can tell a story about a person-to-person victory. This personalizes your organization, further solidifying your connection with your supporters/customers. Include the contributions from your supporters in this message.
  3. Report a milestone that has been achieved. If you reached a fundraising goal, hit a significant number of students who received school supplies, or something of this nature, write about it and share it. Be sure to call out your supporters/customers for making this possible.
  4. Send a photo collection from a recent success and describe next steps in achieving your overall mission. Remind your supporters that these steps require funding. Be specific. Do you need a new delivery truck? Do you need to purchase more water filtration systems? Do you need to travel for depositions? Describe these steps, so that people can get behind your ask and support the next set of concrete goals.

Make Giving Part of Your Plan

There’s a lot to consider when devising your donation plan; the overall economic state, time of year, and what recent achievements should be announced. All of these factors play a big role in how and when to ask for donations. When you’ve just completed a large project or reached an achievement or milestone, you’re in a powerful position to make an ask.

Greenpower’s Benjamin Eichert had this to say about changing from their one-way-street approach to a positive, conversation-based giving approach, “When there’s a victory, we’re sharing that with our supporters. So, not only sharing when there’s a challenge, but sharing when there’s a victory. We’re appreciating and celebrating our supporters who make the victories possible.”

He concluded by saying, “Helping people experience how their engagement is making a difference by telling them, ‘Hey, you supported us last month and this is what we accomplished last month, and we were able to do that because of your support,’ that’s very important.”

Beyond the Donate Button

It’s imperative that you do more than slap a donate button on your website and expect donations to roll in. The donation cycle is about engaging existing donors and attracting potential new donors on a regular basis. Create consistent campaigns that effectively communicate achievements and milestones. Continue to communicate that more needs be done, and the next steps to accomplish them.

There are simple tools that can be added to your site to achieve this. Try including a numerical donation or donor counter on your site, or something more interesting like a graph or chart.

For established organizations with a history of success, a milestone timeline allows visitors to easily scroll back through your past achievements to see what happened when. You could even add testimonials and quotes from existing donors or volunteers. See the timeline we did for the Lakota People’s Law Project for an example.

A Different Approach to Giving

While not a typical social enterprise, local Santa Cruz brewery, Humble Sea Brewery, strongly embraces the ‘give before you ask’ philosophy.

Before they opened their doors in 2017, they embraced a novel and admirable philosophy; ‘Give before we make money.’ In an interview with the Santa Cruz Economic Development Offices’ Rebecca Unitt, Humble Sea Creative Director and Cofounder Frank Scott Krueger explained that his biggest fear in opening a business was “...opening a business that is only in existence to make money. I think that’s a horrible idea and it’s also not something that I want to wrap my life around. Our whole philosophy is ‘Give before we make money.’ And honestly, it makes me so much happier to raise money for a cause that we care about, like Save our Shores, or Save the Waves, rather than to just make money for the sake of making money.”

The owners of Humble Sea Brewery are deeply connected to the local brewery scene as well as the larger Santa Cruz community. They take pride in giving to local nonprofits such as Save Our Shores, Save The Waves Coalition, and Digital NEST. During the ramp up to opening their brewery, they participated in 23 events—in one year alone. They gave 5-50% of their proceeds to nonprofits, which Krueger humbly describes as, “...way cool.”

The Humble Sea crew quickly developed a reputation for giving. As a result, when they were struggling to launch their brewery, the community and local breweries rallied behind them. Always modest, Krueger describes opening day with astonishment, “It was absolutely insane. I walked in and the place was absolutely packed. I have no idea how everybody heard about it. I was looking around the yard, saw everybody’s glasses filled with Humble Seas beers, and it was one of those moments. It felt amazing.” Humble Sea’s philosophy of giving before they asked created a groundswell of support. It’s no wonder that they were packed on their first day of business.

The Takeaway

If you’re running a modern social enterprise, nonprofit, or foundation, you know that you need to market and fundraise. There are many strategic and creative ways that organizations maximize their fundraising efforts. One approach is to take a lesson from the Romero Institute. They moved their Lakota People’s Law Project and Greenpower projects beyond the ask. Their communities are now made up of people who feel empowered because they are part of the cause instead of sidelined supporters. They expanded the “we” when speaking about successes to include their network of champions.

With their increased efforts in communication, especially around giving more information about achievements, they are on a path to make more progress and and to expand their reach with the support of their community.

The approach of giving before you ask helps build ongoing community support. The results are more engaged customers, volunteers, partners, and donors.

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Charity Navigator reported that charitable giving has increased every year since 1977—except for three. Two of those years were during the recent economic downturn. This means that there hasn’t been a bad time to run a charitable campaign in over thirty years. With that said, it is still important to be mindful of external factors so that you can craft your ask in a way that is sensitive to the economic and social landscape of the time.

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