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Fundraiser, thy name is confidence

Date : Jul 29 , 2020 | Featured,Opinion

Venkat Eshwara, who has steered Ashoka University’s remarkable fundraising journey, writes why fundraisers must ditch diffidence and invest effort in developing the kind of confidence required to persuade donors to support their cause.

A few weeks ago, I had a call with the head of fundraising of an emerging non-profit organisation aiming to build significant scale. The person was bouncing ideas and seeking advice on sizing, strategizing and addressing the Indian philanthropic market. After the interaction, something struck me as odd and fundamentally amiss. It was the absence of confidence and an overwhelming presence of an apologetic demeanour towards raising funds.

Why confidence is key

Fundraisers are the first port-of-call and the organisation’s public face for donors. If you, as the fundraising person, are tentative and lacking in confidence, the donor could develop doubts on two counts: One, do you lack conviction or belief in your organisation? Two, is your non-profit capable of absorbing the contribution and using it effectively? And the donor will likely hit pause, reconsider, or worse still, terminate the contribution.

Yes, non-profits need the money. And yes, there is almost nothing ‘in return’ for the giver barring the joy of changing lives. And sometimes not even that when the donor is giving to fund structural overhead investments and no money directly flows to a cause or a community. Which is why it is critical that you exude confidence and conviction when you speak about your organisation and the reason you need funds. 

Fundraising – non-profit or otherwise – is a sales process. It is elevated salesmanship because one is selling, even if the ‘product’ is intangible. And a diffident salesperson will regress the organisation. Fundraising professionals need to possess and display confidence, not in a muscular kind of way, but in a manner that exudes quiet self-belief and communicates reassurance to donors and stakeholders. 

Gandhi unapologetically used modern sales methods like hawking autographed photographs of Nehru, Patel and Azad for a price. And Mother Teresa never suffered any blushes asking for funds in the name of the Lord.

Always remember that a wonderful idea and keen strategy can be waylaid by the absence of high-quality fundraising. Fundraising pulses the arterial blood flow of your organisation, its commitment and aspiration. The success of your organisation depends on how well – and how confidently – you do your job.

What makes a confident fundraiser?

Fundraising with confidence requires, in addition to a deep conviction in the work your organisation does, a significant amount of discipline and conscious, consistent effort.

  1. Engage at a principal-to-principal level: Donors prefer to engage with principals while writing a cheque, especially, if it’s a large one. Given that context, it is essential for fundraisers to conduct themselves as principals and be perceived by the donor as the person responsible for powering the organisation. Consequently, the chances of closing the deal increase manifold. It is the responsibility of non-profit leaders to equip and position their fundraisers as principals. 
  2. Narrate a story: Never adopt an in-your-face selling style. And don’t be boring. A good pitch is 75 percent emotion. Narrate a story and carry your listener on a journey. Use the story to anchor your pitch and let the listener discover a hook to your organisation and its needs.
  3. Practice. Practice. Practice: Selling is a performance. Be honest. Be earnest. But hone your craft and sharpen your pitch knives every single day. Cultivate three pitches:
    • An elevator pitch that you can zing out in a minute
    • A 10-minute version for paucity of time
    • A 20-minute expansive edition.
  4. Vary your pitch: If selling is a performance, remember that you are performing for a new audience every meeting. Sell the same story through a different route. Make uncertainty your best friend. The more you break the linearity of the pitch, the more comfortable you will get with ambiguities.
  5. Take risks: Asking big helps and confidence is your biggest ally. Here is a story. Six years ago, when Ashoka University was still young and growing, I was in a meeting with one of India’s most celebrated business leaders. After a thoughtful 45-minute pitch and conversation, he asked, ‘What is the amount you have in mind for me?’ I replied, ‘We will be grateful if you could support Ashoka with Rs 50 crore.’ Now, a Rs 50-crore ask is sizeable even by today’s benchmarks but back then it could have been construed as overly ambitious. But was it? The gentleman thought for a moment and replied, ‘What if I propose Rs 200 crore instead?’
  6. Confidence in vulnerability: Tell your donors you need the money. And that without their support, your organisation is unlikely to progress or deliver impact. Or worse still, even survive. I have said these in meetings: ‘We need your money, without which we will not be able to educate this student’ OR ‘We have just x number of days’ expenditure as cash in the bank, need your help to overcome the situation’.
    Let the donor know unambiguously that their contribution is central to the success of the organisation. Are you showing yourself and the organisation in vulnerable light? Yes. Will it hurt your prospects? No, because the honesty and integrity of purpose will shine through.
  7. Demonstrate impact: A scholarship beneficiary from a small town accompanied me for a fundraising meeting. She spoke simply about her experiences at Ashoka and how that education altered her life. This lived experience is far more effective than any well-meaning pitch. This will elevate the confidence of the donor, and in turn, yours too.

In conclusion, train well and learn to sport a confidence cloak. Gawky everyday Clark Kent or Lois Lane can morph into fundraising Superman or Superwoman. The ask could be big or small but fundraising principles remain the same. It takes similar effort and diligence whether raising Rs. 500,000 for a scholarship or Rs 5 crore for building institutional infrastructure.

Lastly, never be apologetic. Non-profit work is uplifting and in the service of society and country. Let that selflessness inspire the giver into taking positive action. As Henry Rosso said, ‘Fundraisers should use pride, not apology when asking for a gift for a charity that is doing good work.’ 

Venkat Eshwara, the author is one of the speakers at our upcoming ILSS Fundraising Program, designed to help fundraising professionals in the social sector become more effective and confident.  Applications are now open for the Program.

Venkat Eshwara is Vice-President, Development and Alumni Relations, Ashoka University. (Development is university parlance for fundraising.) Venkat has been with Ashoka for eight years and prior to that, spent 21 years in building and growing start-ups in financial services and related sectors.

Become a change leader. Apply now for the ILSS Leadership Program.

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