My 11 year old son Jacob has no problem asking for me for money. Whether it’s for a new Star Wars Legos set that is priced above rubies or for a new video game so that he can learn to snowboard like Shaun White (in the warmth of our basement), he easily and eagerly asks for cash to meet his ever-changing wants and needs. No embarrassment, no hesitation.
Contrast that to the hundreds of professional and volunteer fundraisers whom I am honored to train every single year – people who are charged with asking for money not for their own needs, but on behalf of others who may not have the luxury of thinking about toys and games. They are asking for those who must choose between food and medicine, heat and clothing, to stay in their homes or to start over in a strange land. They are asking to help those who otherwise might not get a rich Jewish education or a meaningful camping experience, or for those who need other types of enrichment, education, comfort or care.
They are often driven to ask by the words of Leviticus 19:16, “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” and Isaiah 62:1 “For the sake of Zion, I will not remain silent. For the sake of Jerusalem, I will not rest.” These solicitors’ requests are deeply compelling, heartfelt, and selfless. And yet, unlike Jacob who asks without dread, these talented and seasoned fundraisers are often in a deep schvitz.
Why? Partly it’s because the mission is so critical. If Jacob doesn’t get his new Legos, it only feels like a matter of life and death to him, but we both know that he will still have food on his plate and heat in our home and a Jewish education and a summer camp experience. When solicitors fall short of reaching their goals, they know that lives and futures are at stake. Nothing is a given, which is why inspiring others to give is deeply important to them.
And there are other reasons why those folks who ask for those who cannot ask for themselves get tense: Sometimes, they feel embarrassed to put a number out there to start the ask. “Who am I,” I often hear, “to suggest that someone can give $25,000?” My job is to assure these fundraisers that not only is the number they are starting with typically based on a significant amount of donor research, but that very rarely will people be offended if you think that they have a greater giving capacity than they really do. (Seriously, of all of the ways you could insult me, implying that I am incredibly wealthy is at the bottom of my list of offenses. Try me.)
But wait, there’s more! Not only do some professional and volunteer solicitors lie awake at night wondering, “how much?” they also wrestle with “why me?” Not “why me?” as in “how did I get roped into doing this holy work?” but “am I the right person to be making this ask?” It’s an important question to consider. Most fundraisers have a personal preference as to whether they ask their friends and family or total strangers. Some feel that they’d rather be asking someone with whom they already have a personal relationship, while others would sooner sky dive off Masada before they ask a friend or relative for money. (Ah, if only Jacob felt that way!) In either case, I tell solicitors, you’re the right person if you feel passionate about the cause, are reasonably educated about its mission, and can articulate at least one reason why this donor would care about the work of this organization. You're also the right person if you yourself are already supporting the organization's work with your own gift. It's much easier to ask someone to join you in giving than to ask someone to do something you aren't willing to do yourself. A final word on whether or not you're the right person: If your last name is Hatfield and the donor's last name is McCoy, you have my permission to send in a backup.
Why else do solicitors sweat? For the same reason that JDate and Match.com have swept the dating scene: the fear of face-to-face rejection. Many of the solicitors I know would gladly prefer to make their asks by Facebook, semaphore, or even by carrier pigeon. That way, if the answer is "no" to their request, they don't have to suffer the anticipated embarrassment or discomfort in person. It's not that these fundraisers don't enjoy the human connection and conversation about shared values that an in-person solicitation provides — it's just that they'd rather not get rejected in front of a witness. And while they know that the rejection is rarely personal (after all, they're not asking for money for their own needs), the ask feels deeply personal. When you've put your heart, soul, time, ego and energy out there, it's hard not to feel deflated when your balloon of expectation gets popped.
Of course, while many of us recognize that "no is a complete sentence" (unless it needs to be followed up by "because I'm the mom, that's why!") I do encourage fundraisers to remember that a "no" in a solicitation conversation may not be the end of the line. That much-feared rejection can be the beginning of a treasure hunt that can lead a fundraiser to incredibly valuable information about what's going on in the donor's world. "No" can mean "not now" or "not at that amount" or "not until you address some of my concerns" or "not for that particular project". The possibilities are endless, including, of course, that no just means no — and that the next step is to thank the donor for his or her time and other gifts of time, money or mitzvot.
The Mishnah reminds us that while we need not complete the work, we are not free to desist from it. While even professional and seasoned volunteer fundraisers sometimes sweat the asks, they can't and usually don't let their fear get in the way of repairing the world. And come to think of it, the next time I am asked to do solicitor training, I may just bring Jacob to model how to make an unabashed, unashamed, no-excuses ask for money.