I have the scars.
I don't know how many calls I've made. Hundreds, I suspect. Maybe a thousand. I haven't kept track.
Along the way, I've had some great successes. I asked Joe for $50 million and, after three or four visits, got it. For me, that's a high mark. I was plenty excited—humming the theme from Rocky, I recall.
But the gift I remember most was from J. Paul Fisher in Lima, Ohio. I was in my first job, three weeks out of college. I had no idea about asking. I didn't even know how to spell philanthropy.
One day, I caught Paul in the hallway. “I need two hundred bucks for a program I'm doing in the inner-city,” I told him. “I want to buy some jackets for grade school kids.”
No trial close, no probing for concerns. No open questions. No negotiating. No selling of outcomes and benefits. Heck, I was happy just to get the words out of my mouth.
I'll talk with you tonight,” Paul replied.
He didn't say he would. He didn't say he wouldn't. Just that he'd see me this evening.
That evening Paul walked in my office, sat down, opened an envelope. He counted out $200 —in five-dollar bills. I cried. He cried, too.
That's when I got my first clue that there's great joy in giving to a cause you believe in. Paul felt great about being able to help those kids from the inner-city. Me, I think that's just about the best gift I've ever received.
But I've made plenty of mistakes along the way too. Plenty.
I didn't listen. I assumed too much. I didn't probe. I sold features instead of outcomes. I've had my share of embarrassing moments. I have the scars to prove it.
I'm going to give you the 10 mistakes I feel are the worst you can make in asking for a gift (I've made them all). I call them “The Horrid Ten.”
But before I do, let me tell you about a call I made on Theodore S. Geisel and his wife Audrey. Two wonderful and generous people.
You may know him best as... well, I'll tell you in a minute.
The Geisels lived on top of the world, on Mt. Soledad, on a winding not far from downtown La Jolla, California. I drove up to see them and when I entered their home and had a 360-degree view of the world—the Pacific Ocean on one side, the mountains on the other.
I did what I was supposed to—I probed and asked open questions. I talked about the institution and the important role it played in Southern California and throughout the world. I was short of dazzling, but not bad at all.
Then Ted started telling me a wonderful story about his first book, one he wrote and illustrated. I found he had a special gift of inventing words, putting them to rhyme, and creating the most captivating kinds of creatures.
He took his book to a publishing house, but his manuscript was rejected. And then to another publisher and it was rejected. And to a third, and it was rejected.
Number six said no. And on and on it went. “I kept going to publishers and they all rejected the book. Number twenty-two said no. When would you have given up, Jerry?” he asked me. “Would you have stopped after the third rejection, the fourth, the fifth?”
Well, Geisel went on to number twenty-three—rejected again—and was ready to give up. And then he went to twenty-four and the publisher said yes.
There's an important lesson in all of this. The great pleasure in life is doing what everyone else told you couldn't be done—and then succeeding. You never give up.
Well, you know Ted Geisel as Dr. Seuss the author of Green Eggs and Ham and The Cat in the Hat, and 50 other books that sold 200 million copies.
Never give up, that's lesson number one. I was with the Geisels for nearly two hours. I was so excited in hearing the story that as I was driving back down the hill, I realized I hadn't asked for the gift. I felt sunk. I was quoting terse abstracts from the Laws of Deuteronomy. That's the second lesson! Make sure you ask!
Here are my 10 horrid reasons you didn't get the gift. Since most of your solicitors will be board members, I've prepared this primarily for them (please share it). But what I say is every bit as appropriate for staff.
1) Didn’t make the call to set up the visit.
You committed the most grievous act of all. You never telephoned to set up the visit. You kept putting it off. Then you stared at the phone. And you stared. You hoped it would ring so you wouldn't have to punch in the number. But it didn't ring. You stared some more. You finally gathered up your material and walked away.
2) Inadequate Preparation
You didn't take time to prepare or to know your prospect. And you didn't practice. You thought you could wing it. You went dashing into the session thinking: "I'll make the call and get it over with."
You got the kind of results you deserved. George Allen, one of history's greatest football coaches, says that winning can be defined as the science of being totally prepared.
I am reminded that:
The saddest words of tongue or pen
Are those you didn't think of then
You were nervous, insecure, and uncomfortable. It wasn't an easy visit, and it showed. You felt you were at a party, sitting out a dance.
Chances are, if you were properly prepared and had practiced, you could have overcome this. There's no reason to be nervous. You know what must be done. You know the drill.
Be at ease. There are those who simply won't be interested in your great cause. That’s okay, they have a different agenda. There is nothing you could have done to change their mind. Go on to the next prospect.
4) Assuming Too Much.
You called on someone you felt knew a good bit more about the institution and the project than was actually the case. You jumped to the ask too soon because you assumed too much.
Or you called on someone who had been actively involved in the institution for a period of years. You took for granted she'd be interested in the project.
You felt no need to interpret, to sell the dream, to discuss how important her gift would be. That’s what you thought! You asked for the gift too soon—you leaped from step one to step nine. You lose.
5) Failure to Probe.
The prospect was nodding in approval, smiling and throwing off all the positive physical signs during your entire presentation. Even the body language seemed right. You left thinking you'd made the case, made the sale.
But you failed to probe for any concerns, you didn't determine whether there were lingering questions. You realize that George Bernard Shaw said it all in the title of his wonderful play, You Never Can Tell. You didn't ask right questions.
If you don't probe, you haven't even begun to make the ask.
6) Poor Listening.
You talked too much, you listened too little. You never found out how the prospect felt about the program because you spent all of your time talking. You failed to listen the gift.
The more attentive you are in listening to others, the more likely they will listen to you. Give your undivided attention to the prospect. Undivided!
The person asking the questions—that's you—is in control of the conversation. An attorney, for instance, examining and probing a witness is a prime example. He questions, probes, examines, directs the interrogation and the content of what the judge and jury hear. The person who listens influences the outcome, not the talker.
You are in charge. Listen!
7) Too Much on Features, Not Enough on Benefits.
You spent your time going over details and speaking about features (the gymnasium will be regulation size, the new center will have nine Conference Rooms, the new Library can house 40,000 volumes).
You pulled out the fancy brochure and reviewed the floor plans. But you failed to notice that the prospect's eyes had glazed over. The presentation was flapping like flags in a high wind.
You spent too much time talking about money and not enough about the results and outcomes that could be expected from the prospect's investment.
The purpose of your presentation is not to sell a program or a building. It is to help the prospect to visualize and enter into the world of audacious dreams.
You didn't take enough time talking about how the program would save lives or change lives. You missed your golden opportunity.
8) Premature Selling.
You asked for the gift and made a brilliant close but you didn't take any of the necessary preliminary steps. You hadn't taken time to make the program properly irresistible. You hadn't probed for concerns or asked enough questions and taken time to listen. Shame!
You found the prospect nodding in agreement and you took that as a sign that you had finished the job. You raced from first to third base, without touching second.
You spent all of your time talking about how important the program was for the institution and how it would meet its needs. You may have even have shown the prospect a Gift Table and talked about the importance of major gifts (as if the prospect would make a sizable gift just because the institution needed it or the campaign would fail without it).
You didn't talk about those who would be served. More important, you didn't talk about how it would benefit the donor. You forgot your organization doesn't have needs. Those you serve have needs, and the gift you seek will help provide the solution.
10) Didn’t Ask.
The most heinous sin of all—you didn't ask.
You made a brilliant presentation, you asked all the right questions, you probed. You followed every step. It was a glorious session. A rush of life.
One small omission—you left before actually asking for the gift. You were so pleased with your performance, you forgot the last Act! Curtains!
In my earlier days I was guilty of the same crime. Actually, in some cases, I was pleased to get out alive without having to make the dreaded ask. I could feel my tongue getting thick, my throat as dry as the Sahara.
If you wait for the perfect time, perfect conditions, the perfect opportunity when everything is just right (and the stars and the moon are in perfect alignment), you'll never ask.
Go ahead, ask for the gift. And take comfort in the fact that it's not the eloquence of your presentation which will determine your success or failure. It's the simple act of asking.
One thing is certain—if you don't ask, you won't get the gift.
Here's one thing I know. Once you start asking, once you feel the exhilaration of inviting a person to join you in a noble cause, you'll never be able to stop. It's in your blood, it's the most fulfilling and rewarding thing you've ever done. You'll want to go on to another prospect.
Arthur Salzberger, Jr., publisher of The New York Times, said of his stepmother:
"Carol was like a martini. The first sip is a bit of a shock, but by the second and third, you're feeling a quite bit more comfortable. By the end of that first martini, you want another."
And that's how it will be for you—you'll want another.