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Making the Ask

June 1, 2011

This morning, leaving my house and climbing into my car, I spotted movement in the fence next to my car door. Upon closer examination, I found a small sparrow, fluttering its wings as hard as it could. I remembered my husband mentioning that birds had built a nest in the fence last night, but quickly realized that what he’d mistaken as a nest was actually a tangle of weeds and string that this tiny bird had been caught in. My stomach sank as I realized that if I got in the car and left, there would be a dead bird when I came home. I didn’t know what the state of its foot was inside the string, but I did know that injured animals freak me out. I didn’t have any idea how to free it. I stood there like an idiot in my driveway, on my cell phone first with my husband, then my father, both of whom were sympathetic but who kindly told me they were not planning to leave work to come rescue the bird.

I had a couple of choices. I could leave the bird, go to work, and try to pretend like it wouldn’t die in the six or seven hours til my husband got home. I’d be an unproductive wreck all day worrying about the stupid sparrow stuck in the fence, so I nixed that. Or, I could figure it out myself, and since I wasn’t going to be able to stomach getting the bird out of the gate, that meant finding help.

To put this in perspective, I live in the city. I believe in the best in people, but I once locked myself out of my house in socks in the rain, and when I went next door to use my neighbor’s phone, she told me no, clearly hesitant to let me (at the time a 25-year-old woman with no more lethal weapon than wet feet on her floor) in. So it’s no wonder that relying on the kindness of strangers wasn’t my first thought. But I had seen a crew of workers doing construction two doors down. I figured these were the least fraidy-cat people I was going to find at 10 am on a weekday morning, so with the bird’s life hanging in the balance, I marched over.

“Hello,” I said, somewhat embarrassed to play the damsel in distress but willing to do it for the sparrow. “There is a bird stuck in my fence. I am afraid of animals and I don’t really know how to get it out. Can one of you help me?” Within thirty seconds, I had a co-liberator. Within five minutes, he had gotten the bird away from the fence and we worked together for ten more, using scissors to remove every last bit of string from its foot. Its leg was badly injured, but the second my buddy released him, the bird flew off. By the way, the sparrow’s savior didn’t even speak English, so more than likely he had no idea what he was getting into when the crazy lady stomped onto his construction site waving her arms around. He just came and helped anyways.

Working with nonprofits and reading all the appropriate nonprofit blogs, I see posts about “making the ask” all the time. It’s a tough thing to do, asking someone to support you, to support your cause, to open their wallet or take precious hours of their time to do a necessary job. When our fundraisers set up a GoodTwo campaign, we admittedly make the ask just a little bit softer thanks to the fact donors are getting a great deal along with their donation. But my sparrow experience this morning taught me a few valuable lessons about the ask–whether you’re asking people to support your GoodTwo campaign, to donate money, or to give you a few hours on a Saturday morning–I thought I’d share with you:

  • It’s easy to ask someone for something when there’s no other option. Your organization needs money to operate. You need to meet your fundraising goal for your marathon or you’ll have a hefty charge on your credit card. You can’t stomach the idea of a bird dying a slow death while you order an iced coffee at Starbucks on your way to the office. Whatever the reason, don’t think of the ask as an option–recognize that it’s necessary.
  • People want to help. The more cynical of us may believe that there aren’t a lot of good people left in the world, but the fact of the matter is that our jobs, our missions and our successes often depend on not just the kindness of others, but the kindness of strangers. My co-liberator may have gotten roped into one tough task today, but he left my driveway with a huge smile on his face.
  • Your message doesn’t need to be perfect, it just needs to be clear. When I asked for help today, I didn’t realize that the person I was asking didn’t even speak the same language I did. But the fact I needed assistance was written all over my face. No one wants to fundraise based on desperation, but it’s worth telling your donors how important their contributions are to you–and how much you NEED them to function, fulfill your mission, and thrive as an organization.
Whether you’re running a GoodTwo campaign, organizing a gala or recruiting donors, you’re asking people to support you, your organization, or your mission. Remember why it’s so important to ask them, and make your message strong enough that those who are naturally inclined to help will understand that you need them.
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