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Asking A 59-Minute Guide to Everything Board Members, Volunteers and  Staff Must Know to Secure the Gift

Harvey McKinnon


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Acclaim for
The 11 Questions

"Harvey McKinnon hits a homerun here. These penetrating questions are destined to increase your philanthropic impact. Make time to read The 11 Questions."

- William C. McGinley, Ph.D., CAE, President, Chief Executive Officer, Association for Healthcare Philanthropy

"Laced with anecdotes and stories, The 11 Questions is enjoyable and real. This is a must-buy book for schools and other organiztions desperate to alleviate the anxiety their own volunteers fear when 'making the ask.'"

- Patrick F. Bassett, President, National Association of Independent Schools

"Harvey McKinnon is an outstanding fundraiser. He's also an exceptionally lucid writer. The 11 Questions combines both talents to offer the kind of distilled wisdom that will enlighten anyone called upon to raise funds."

- Bernard Ross, Director, The Management Centre, London, UK

"Fortunately for all of us, Harvey McKinnon has identified the core questions and answers that will satisfy and inspre donors to give more money. Pay attention to this book and to your donors, and you'll raise more money."

- Lynn Gran, V.P., Philanthropy & Marketing, The Nature Conservancy of Canada

“People often ask me which book they should read first to learn about fundraising. Now I’ve got an easy answer: Harvey McKinnon’s The 11 Questions Every Donor Asks. I can’t think of any other piece of writing in the fundraising field that packs so much insight into so few pages.”

- Mal Warwick, Author,
Raising Thousand Dollar Gifts by Mail

“The 11 Questions contains straightforward, practical advice that ALL fundraisers should know. I have encountered these questions throughout my fundraising career and only wish I had Harvey’s insight earlier; it would have made certain situations a lot easier!”

- Paulette V. Maehara, President and CEO, Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP)

“Ask the right questions and listen to and learn from your donors. Support for your cause will follow.”

- Tim Seiler, Director, The Fund Raising School, The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University

“The really crucial question is how quickly can you get a hold of this book and absorb its wisdom, so that you too will know what’s in your donors’ minds.”

- Ken Burnett, Author
Relationship Fundraising and Friends for Life

“In the time it takes to enjoy a leisurely meal, you can feast on the expert and inspiring advice of The 11 Questions. Peppered with engaging stories and seasoned with Harvey’s light humor, this book will leave you fully satisfied!”

- Rosemary Oliver, Director of Development
Amnesty International, Canada


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Interview with Harvey McKinnon

Author of The 11 Questions Every Donor Asks and the Answers All Donors Crave

One of the questions you cite in your book is “How will I be treated?” In your experience, are donors treated well today?

I’ll let you judge for yourself. In a recent “mystery shopper test” we sent gifts to 28 hospitals on the same day. One organization sent back a warm thank you immediately. But the average response for the others was four weeks. And one hospital didn’t respond with a thank you and receipt for 90-something days.

Ouch! Ninety days?

A long time, for sure. A client of ours has a great policy. As soon as they receive a gift of a thousand or more, they immediately call the donor. The person making the call has the highest-ranking title in the office that day. A few months ago, they received $10,000 in the mail. But there were no senior staff around – none. So the gift processor picked up the phone herself. She thanked the donor and learned that he’d sent $10,000 to five organizations, and her group was the first to thank him. To recognize their efficiency and how they treated him, he gave an additional stock gift of $122,000. I’m pretty sure the other four organizations don’t know what they lost.

You talk a lot about storytelling in your book. You’re convinced it’s critical in fundraising, aren’t you?

Yes. And for the simple reason that stories make needs come alive. You might call them the connective tissue. Right this minute in Niger there are a thousand starving children, you tell me. But that’s a number, an abstraction to me. Tell me the story of Samira - so hungry she digs through the garbage for a fruit pit with pulp on it - and I begin to understand the desperation. I get emotionally connected. I start to visualize the suffering child and want to help.

Generally speaking, what about the solicitor matters most to the would-be donor?

Trust is absolutely essential. Without it, a gift is unlikely. Trust in and of itself may not be enough, but it’s the critical component.

of related interest

OF RELATED INTEREST: In Asking, Jerold Panas convincingly shows that it doesn’t take stellar sales skills to be an effective fundraiser. Nearly everyone can secure sizable gifts if they follow a few step-by-step guidelines.

And what’s not so important?

How smart you are. I know some brilliant people who aren’t good person-to-person fundraisers. They don't connect well with people. They're not great at reading social cues and can't engage in the kind of conversation that motivates donors to part with their money. And then there are other fundraisers of average intelligence, who because of their charm, passion, and integrity raise a fortune.

There’s a saying in fundraising that if you want money, ask for advice and money will follow. Perhaps. But is this disingenuous?

Whether it’s disingenuous depends on the intention of the person asking. Virtually every major donor has more to contribute than just money. Take my brother-in-law, for example. He’s the CEO of a billion-dollar corporation and sits on a number of nonprofit boards. He knows of course that it’s important to make his own gift. But he wants to do more than that. If he were asked for the names of other would-be donors, or to evaluate the giving capacity of certain individuals, his input would easily be as important as his own gift.

By economy of scale, a national organization, whether it’s engaged in health or social welfare or youth development, is able to spend less per dollar on fundraising than a grassroots group or a start-up agency with perfectly noble goals. Is it really fair, then, for a potential donor to put a lot of emphasis on overhead?

I can understand why rating agencies, and even some donors, want a simple tool to evaluate organizations. It’s partly because they have so many choices. But I’m convinced that looking only at overhead and ratios is a horrible metric on which to base your giving. What you want to look for is impact. Keep in mind that it’s all too easy for organizations to allocate funds in a slightly dishonest way. Meaning money that should really be allocated to fundraising or overhead is conveniently counted in the “education category.”  This means that nonprofits that are more transparent and honest will be penalized. That’s wrong. I give to a number organizations that spend practically all their money on overhead because I know they’re going to grow, and I like what they’re doing.

Fundraising through social media - right now is it real or much ado about not much?

For emergency campaigns it can be lucrative. Social media can also work reasonably well with peer-to-peer fundraising. The problem here, though, is that people aren’t giving to the cause, which they frequently don’t care about, they’re giving to their friend. And they’re difficult to convert to long-term donors. If you think the attrition rate for direct mail is bad, take a close look at donors who come in through social media. It’s appalling.

Anything we can do about it?

Yes. Don’t rely solely on the Internet to renew online donors. From our experience, and it’s extensive, you have to try to convert these individuals using a combination of channels, including the mail and telephone. 

Pick the most important of the 11 questions in your book and tell me why.

First a caveat. The most important question varies from donor to donor. There’s virtually nothing that applies to 100 percent of any population. But if you forced me to choose one question that’s most important to the majority of donors it would be: Will my gift make a difference? All else equal, if you can answer that question honestly, and compellingly, your chances of getting a gift soar.

And I assume since you discussed it last, the question “How will you measure results?” isn’t as pressing for donors?

It’s extremely important for a certain percentage of people – usually high-dollar donors. But many others simply trust that a well-known organization will use their money responsibly. But make no mistake about it. Organizations that fail to report back on their successes – essentially how a donor’s gift was used - ultimately raise less money and lose more donors.

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The 11 Questions Every Donor Asks and the Answers All Donors Crave
by Harvey McKinnon, 112 pp., $24.95. (Click here for quantity discount information)

Years from now don’t be surprised if The 11 Questions Every Donor Asks and the Answers All Donors Crave is singled out as a watershed book in the field of fundraising.

People might well point to Harvey McKinnon’s work and say, “That’s when the conversation with our donors changed – literally.”

And they’d be right.

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In what it sets out to do, The 11 Questions is deceptively simple. The author wants merely to prepare you – whether you’re a board member, volunteer, or staff – for the questions you’ll inevitably face from prospective donors, whether spoken or not.

But of course, since a good measure of your fundraising success hinges on the answers you give, things aren’t quite as simple as they seem.


OF RELATED INTEREST: After spending just one hour with David Lansdowne’s bestselling book, Fund Raising Realities Every Board Member Must Face, board members everywhere will understand virtually everything they need to know to raise major gifts.

McKinnon has identified 11 core questions, ranging from “Why me?” to “Will my gift make a difference?” to “Will I have a say over how you use my gift?” And the suggested answers are illuminating.

One thing is certain: McKinnon is an eloquent instructor. Rather than dryly tell you to “Do this” or “Do that,” the author punctuates his prose with dramatic real-life stories.

And they’re highly engaging, each one skillfully selected to drive home a point. You’ll discover, for instance:

How a volunteer coached by a nationally known consultant secured a gift of $175,000 without ever once asking for the gift.

How the chair of a YWCA sparked a first-time gift of $100,000 with a single disarming question from her heart.

How by sensing his donor’s ability to give, a development officer at a technical institute turned a $100,000 gift into a $1 million gift.

How McKinnon himself, when he was a young fundraiser, handled a brusque prospect who fulminated: “Will you leave my office right now if I write a check for $1,000?!”

How by artful negotiation the head of fundraising for a leading HIV/AIDS organization prevented the rock band Queen from donating a vast sum of money to something entirely wasteful.

How with an exquisite 30-minute presentation, and a double-shot of espresso, the Head of Fundraising for Greenpeace International transformed a $1 million gift into a $10 million gift.

The 11 Questions Every Donor Asks and the Answers All Donors Crave registers high on the fundraising Richter Scale. And its impact on how we relate to donors will reverberate from Houston to Toronto, from New York to Vancouver.

When the dust settles and we’ve absorbed the essence of Harvey McKinnon’s book– we will begin anew, and in earnest, to approach our donors in a way that inspires their generosity and fortifies their commitment to the life-changing work we do.

Jerold Panas, who knows a thing or two about fundraising, calls The 11 Questions “A beautifully polished gem, with real-life stories that unerringly hit their mark.” That’s high praise from America’s grandmaster of philanthropy.

About the Author

Harvey McKinnon is co-author of the international bestseller, The Power of Giving (Tarcher/Penguin), selected as an Amazon Best Book for 2005. His other works include, Hidden Gold, and the audio CD How Today’s Rich Give (Jossey-Bass), as well as the Tiny Essentials of Monthly Committed Giving (White Lion Press).

McKinnon, who is one of North America’s leading fundraising experts, runs the Vancouver/Toronto based fundraising consultancy, Harvey McKinnon Associates (HMA) www.harveymckinnon.com.

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Table of Contents


1. “Why me?”                           
2. “Why are you asking me?”                        
3. “Do I respect you?”                       
4. “How much do you want?”        
5. “Why your organization?”        
6. “Will my gift make a difference?”           
7. “Is there an urgent reason to give?           
8. “Is it easy to give?”                           
9. “How will I be treated?”                             
10. “Will I have a say over how you use my gift?”
11. “How will you measure results?”                  
Two-Minute Review

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Excerpt This article is excerpted from Harvey McKinnon's The 11 Questions Every Donor Asks and the Answers All Donors Crave, ©Emerson & Church, Publishers. To obtain reprint permission, call 508-359-0019.

How Much Do You Want?

Have you ever wondered, “How do I get rid of this person?”

It could be a new co-worker who drones on about his Porsche and its 3.6L displacement. It could be the office gossip who keeps telling you who was caught after hours with whom. Or it could be the panhandler soliciting spare change, the telemarketer, or the door-to-door salesperson.

We often want to escape from an interaction. Do our potential donors ever feel the same way about us?
Maybe. But that doesn’t mean you’ll lose the gift. It does mean you’ll get less than you hoped for.

Decades ago when I made my first “ask” for an obscure little cause, I gathered quickly that the man I was sitting across from was less than enthusiastic to see me. I got the appointment because I could say that a prominent community member suggested I meet with him.

As I started into my well-rehearsed pitch, the man brusquely interrupted to ask his burning question:
 “Will you leave my office right now if I write a check for $1,000?” That was a decent gift for the time and for this particular cause. But it was considerably less than what I had in mind.

This fellow clearly wasn’t interested in the cause. And he had no reason to pander to me, a young unknown fundraiser. But I was in his office because I had invoked the name of a highly regarded personality: June Callwood.

I believe his real question to me centered around two things: “How much do you expect me to give?” and “How can I give as little as possible and still satisfy the ‘obligation’ to my friend?”

I admit I was taken aback by his abruptness. But I did manage a laugh and said, “Well, June Callwood said you might be able to give $5,000. Is that possible?”

I had read, no doubt like you have, that once you ask you must stop talking – immediately – and wait for the person to respond. So I simply smiled. In fact, I couldn’t stop smiling.

It seemed a good hour – I bet it was no more than 60 seconds – when he finally blinked and said, “Will you leave my office if I give you $2,000?”

I told him that would be very generous. Two minutes later I had a check in hand as I rode the elevator back to reality.

Be careful of what you ask for. You just might get it.

Another friend of mine, an accomplished fundraiser, was much luckier than I … or was she?

As the senior development officer of a large organization, she and the group’s president were approaching the head of a major corporation. They had a figure in mind. But they decided to be bold — and doubled the figure. If they were successful, the gift would be one of the largest ever to their organization.

When it came time to close the deal, the president of the nonprofit steeled himself and voiced the words, “We’d like you to consider a gift of….” He was sure his pounding heart was visible through his jacket.

He didn’t expect what he heard next – not by a long shot. “No problem,” said the CEO, “if that’s all you need, that’s great. I was willing to give a lot more.”

Oh my, how the solicitors wept inside. They did what all of us do from time to time: they asked for too little. In this case, seven figures too little.

Their first thought upon leaving with a check for the very amount they requested was: “We blew it.”
So while your donor will undoubtedly think seriously about the question: “How much do you hope I’ll give?” you have to think about it even more as this example illustrates.

You would like to say “Everything you have.” I advise against it. The real answer is an amount, determined in advance, that takes into account what you know about the potential donor and is based on the answers to these questions: “What is his relationship with the person or team asking?”, “How skilled, well-trained, and persuasive is the person asking?”, and “How clear and inspiring is your case?”
If you can accurately answer these questions, you’ll find an amount that’s within the prospect’s giving capacity but challenges her initial thoughts on what she thought was appropriate.

Is Charlie More Charming Than Me? Short Answer: Yes

My friend Charlie use to work for a technical institute, and at its open annual meeting he heard the magic words every fundraiser longs to hear:

 “I can’t believe what you’re doing here. I want to give.”

The words were spoken to Charlie by an older man whom he’d never met. “Because I didn’t know him, or what his capacity to give was, I suggested lunch a few days later. Meanwhile I discovered through research that he graduated from the school in the 1930’s.”

This gentleman, David was his name, had bailed hay for 13 cents a day to earn his tuition. The institute gave him a range of skills, and upon graduating he opened one profitable business after another. He was now very, very wealthy.

Over lunch, Charlie gave David and his wife an update on the school. Seeing that the couple was receptive, he said he’d develop a proposal for them.

At the follow up meeting a few weeks later, Charlie and the school’s president suggested a gift to build an automotive center (an area David was clearly interested in). “We asked for $1 million and offered to name the building after him,” Charlie says.

The older man paused, leaned across the table and, as though deciding upon a suit of clothes, said, “Do you have anything cheaper?” Something in the range of $100,000 to $300,000 was what he had in mind.

Sensing that David was struggling with the amount, Charlie suggested they reconnect at the end of the month. He did reiterate that the project they were offering was an ideal fit.

A few weeks later Charlie met over lunch with David and his wife. “He admitted the institute had changed his life,” says Charlie. “It gave him the foundation he needed. With tears in his eyes, David said he’d give us the million dollars.”

Charlie’s perceptiveness – he didn’t underestimate David’s ability to give – and his recognition that we all need time to make a decision of the heart, were amply rewarded.

The first gift often leads the way

“How much should I give?” is a question that continually runs through a donor’s mind.

Some, like June Callwood’s friend, want to give the least possible – but respectable – amount. They’ll plumb for that level.

But even generous people will refuse sometimes, for fear of embarrassing themselves.
Take my friend, Lucinda.

She regularly contributes $1,000 to causes she knows well. But her comfort level with unfamiliar groups is $100 to $250.

Should she offer this smaller amount and be viewed as Scrooge, or is it safer to say, “Not at this time”? Unless Lucinda’s is made to feel that her “initial gift” is a generous gesture, she does the latter – she begs off.

Too many organizations are insensitive to people like Lucinda. Sure, you want the big gift right off, but that rarely happens. Better to view the first gift as one of many, as an overture on which to build a lasting relationship.

Capital campaign expert Kent Dove once told me that a donor’s largest gift is often their 7th, 8th, or 9th gift. If there’s a more powerful reason to start the giving process, I don’t know it. And if doing so means welcoming $100 as you would $10,000, take comfort in the fact that philanthropists from Andrew Carnegie to Bill Gates have long used “test” gifts before committing much larger sums.

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