The Art of Asking in Fundraising

Up until recently, my interaction with Amanda Palmer was limited to listening to one of her songs on Youtube, being asked by a friend to see her as part of the Dresden Dolls, and watching her Ted Talk. It was after sharing her talk with several of my colleagues that I decided it was due time to buy her book,  The Art of Asking.  

Described on her site as, part manifesto, part revelation, this is the story of an artist struggling with the new rules of exchange in the twenty-first century, both on and off the Internet,” the focus on “cultivating trust” and human connection can easily be brought into the realm of fundraising. (I recommend reading it outside of the earshot of a sleeping baby, so you can really get the full effect by verbalizing the “Aha!” moments.)  

Palmer claims that giving is imprinted in our DNA and people need to get comfortable asking for and receiving assistance. Ask any nonprofit staff member and I would bet my program income they’ll agree; this is a tremendously important lesson for Executive Directors and fundraisers to learn.

Many of us struggle with feeling worthy of receiving money as individuals and I think this mentality rolls over into fundraising.  Having to ask for support while not offering anything immediately tangible makes many EDs uncomfortable which negatively impacts an organization’s’ ability to have a strong ask. I cannot tell you how many people in leadership positions I have run into over the past 25 years who are not knowledgeable in:

  • asking people in an appropriate way,
  • asking people at the appropriate time and
  • making it easy for their donors to give online (preferably on a mobile device)

We need to recognize that an individual’s contribution is an investment in the positive impact of our organization’s work. We need to promote the intangible value that is received from giving.

Palmer was one of the first musicians to use Kickstarter to raise a lot of money (over a million bucks), and she did so by recognizing that she was giving her donors something in return: donations were an exchange for the art that she was creating, even if the money didn’t result immediately in a physical copy of the work.

The truth is that every day that we struggle over where, when or whether we can ask our constituents for help, there is some businessperson/fast talker/Harvard MBA out there who has no qualms about making the ask. These individuals will receive the money that we could have used to support the populations we work with, and that may result in those dollars having much less impact. Examples of those who benefit in these situations include:

“Lance Armstrong of the yellow bracelet,” a dishonest individual who raised a lot of money through a charity that was more self-serving than impactful.

Dan Palotta of the AIDS Ride who operated a for-profit organization that, although helping many organizations raise money, had questionable fundraising practices, a sudden increase in overhead expenses, and ethics that were not in line with nonprofit standards.

or Greg Mortenson of Three Cups of Tea fame, who embraces the zeitgeist and rides with it, ethically or not, using funds raised from his donors as a “personal ATM”.

While not all of us can develop and market a bracelet that is quickly bought up by hipsters like Mr. Armstrong, spend millions on advertising our event like Mr. Palotta or get a spot on Oprah’s Book Club like Mr. Mortenson, we can ethically ask in the correct ways in our own realms.  

Palmer’s wisdom in the form of if-you-need-something-ask is a lesson nonprofits should take to heart and put into practice. Asking for support helps the people we help and it helps our ethically-run organization become stronger, more sustainable and able to grow.

If you need help learning how to make your ask effective, contact us at

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