“I was afraid.”
It’s a simple yet profound statement that we’ve all uttered.
I had heart surgery last week – dealing with AFIB. I was afraid. While everyone said it was a normal procedure, all I could think about was leaving the planet. I was truly afraid.
But that’s understandable. When you face potential death, most people are afraid.
But I’ve also said “I’m afraid” about conversations I had. So has Jeff. So have all of us. “I just didn’t feel comfortable. I was afraid to go there.”
This is normal.
That’s why any writings about asking need to deal with fear.
When meeting with a donor, we all want to show up and be calm, warm, confident, connecting and present to our donor. We prepare and practice, but on the way to the meeting we start feeling tight and anxious, we get butterflies in our stomach, and our heart rate increases. Why? Because our bodies automatically go into a “Fight, Flight, or Freeze” response when under stress.
It’s a mechanism in the body that enables humans and animals to mobilize a lot of energy rapidly in order to cope with threats to survival. The part of the brain that initiates the fight or flight response, the amygdala, can’t distinguish between a real threat and a perceived threat. Even though the fight or flight response is automatic, it isn’t always accurate. In fact, most of the time when the fight or flight response is triggered, it’s a false alarm – there’s no actual threat to survival. So even though meeting with a donor isn’t going to kill you, your amygdala responds as though it may.
Any kind of stress – the ding of a text message, a traffic backup, a challenge at work – can all trigger our reactive response. When the “fight, flight or freeze” response kicks in, what happens in a conversation is that fight is represented by actions that go against (argue, bulldoze), flight is represented by actions that disconnect (avoid, look for something else to focus on) or freeze (lock down, stick to one’s own position, dig in). All these responses are the opposite of how we want to be with a donor.
So, our natural reaction to stress was great when we were running from a tiger, because it triggered hormones and our nervous system into narrow focus, hypervigilance, defensiveness, increased heart rate, and tension ready to spring. But when meeting with a donor, it takes away our ability to function in much-needed ways like big-picture thinking, risk-taking, creativity and calm presence.
Now you know why, when you’re with a donor asking for a gift, you may start talking too much, bulldozing, feeling spacey, having a hard time concentrating, feeling tight and unable to be creative, or just wanting to give up and get out of there if it isn’t going well. It’s a natural automatic body reaction to stress.
What should you do?

  1. Be aware that you’re in this state, and tell yourself it’s normal.
  2. Pause, take a breath and stop reacting. Remember, the signs of reacting to fear are that you stop listening, you talk too much, you get tense and tight, you lose your train of thought and conversation, etc.
  3. Get back in your body. Wiggle your fingers or toes and get back into your body. You’re currently in your head, and it’s messing you up. Name what it is you’re feeling – fear.
  4. Remember what this is about. Put your hand on your heart and say to yourself: “This is about the donor and her passions and interests. I’m here to help her find fulfillment and joy. This is not about the money.”
  5. Get back into the alignment circle. This is where you can intellectually check in and see where things are. And if they’re not right, then go around the circle and it will be fine. Remember, if there is a “no” coming your way, just relax. It will be OK. Think of the long term.

The other big thing you can do is continue to work on developing your asking language, which needs to be about open-ended questions rather than yes-or-no questions.
Here are some examples of open-ended questions to ask your donor:
Topic: Getting to Know Your Donor (Beyond the Bio)

  • In thinking about email, the telephone, written correspondence, face-to-face meetings, social media, and so on— how would you describe your communication style and preferences?
  • What would you like to be remembered for?
  • What has brought you the most fulfillment in your life?
  • Who have been influential role models or mentors to you?
  • What’s the most difficult question you’ve ever been asked?
  • What’s the greatest achievement in your life?
  • What was the happiest day of your life?
  • What’s the most memorable book (movie, concert, etc.) you’ve ever read (attended, watched)?
  • What were your greatest lessons from your family?
  • How did the place where you grew up influence your life?
  • What lights a fire in you?
  • What inspires you?

Topic: Defining Interests & Passions

  • What are you most passionate about in your life right now?
  • What are the most important things you’d like to accomplish this year?
  • If you had a couple of extra hours in the week, what would you spend them on?
  • How do you feel we can most effectively serve our community or the planet?
  • How did you come to the decision to give your first gift?
  • What is it that we do that first caught your interest?
  • What inspired you to invest in our organization?
  • What makes you continue to give?
  • What story do you remember the most from our organization?
  • Why is our organization important to you?
  • What do you like most about our organization?
  • What would you like to see changed or improved?
  • Why are you involved with our organization?

Topic: Increase Connection & Understanding of Organization

  • How do you want to be involved?
  • What would you like to know about us?
  • If you were to tour a project, what would you want to learn the most about?
  • What event most interests you to attend?
  • Is there a volunteer opportunity that has caught your eye?

Topic: Preparing to Ask

  • Can you walk me through your decision-making process?
  • What is important to you as you make decisions to give?
  • How do you like to be told about the results of your gift?
  • Am I doing an effective job at linking our work to your key priorities?
  • What have I done that has been most helpful to you?
  • In what ways am I helping you to achieve your goals?
  • What thank you from our organization has meant the most to you?
  • How do you feel about our organization?
  • What is the best way to get your attention with the material we send?
  • You stopped giving to our organization. Why? How have we disappointed you?

Topic: Discussing the Proposal

  • What parts of the presentation will be most valuable for us to emphasize and spend time on?
  • Can you restate, in your own words, what you hope to gain from successful completion of this program?
  • Given what we’ve set out in our proposal, and thinking about its value to you, can you say something about what you’d like to see less or more of?
  • What aspects concern you?
  • In what way did this capture what you are trying to accomplish?

Topic: Donor’s Response is Not to Give

  • Tell me more about your decision.
  • What has led to your decision that we have either done or not done?
  • What are the key factors that influenced you in making this decision?
  • Are you open to discussions in the future about other giving opportunities?
  • What timing would work best for us to come back with projects in the future?

Topic: Say “Maybe” to a Request to Give

  • What questions are still unanswered for you?
  • What concerns to you have?
  • What do you still need to be able to decide?

There you have it. The Permission-Based Asking Model™. Jeff and I, and our team, hope this has been helpful to you. Our Major Gift Academy team will be developing this into a course which will have more detail and nuance than I’ve covered in this series. Stay tuned.
In the meantime: always ask for permission. Remember that your interaction with your donor is circular, which is why you need to stay in the alignment circle until you find a natural place to exit. And always keep in mind that this whole major gift “thing” is never about the money. It is about walking with another human being and helping them fulfill their passions and interests. (Tweet it!)
Read the whole series on Permission-Based Asking:

  1. Permission-Based Asking: An Introduction
  2. Permission-Based Asking: Making Connections
  3. Permission-Based Asking: The Alignment Circle
  4. Permission-Based Asking: Celebrate
  5. Permission-Based Asking: The Alignment Cycle Matrix
  6. Permission-Based Asking: Dealing with Fear, Developing Conversation (this post)