Ask for Something Specific!

Ask for Something Specific!


8 February 2022


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


“Your guidance on the direct mail has been spot on. I got a few complaints about “asking for specific amounts of money,” but I haven’t worried about it too much because we are crushing our fundraising goals. (Also, the planet is in bad shape, so now is the time to lean in, quite frankly.) Anyway, we have more unrestricted money right now than I think our land trust has ever had in its entire history.”

-Terri Eikel, Avalonia Land Trust


I want to start this week with a bold statement. Here it is:


Organizational appeals, campaigns,
and other fundraising activities
will ALWAYS raise more money
when the actual request is specific.


The insidious part is that most fundraisers who aren’t asking for specific amounts never see what they could be raising by doing so.

So, if you are one of those who doubt the absolute, test it. For your next general audience appeal letter, send exactly the same package to everyone, but divide the group into two statistically equivalent groups. Ask the first one for a generous donation and the second one for some specific amount – like $100, for instance. You will raise more money with the second letter.

Every time.


So, why are we so collectively reluctant to ask for specific amounts of money?

There are probably many answers to this question, but I’ll use today’s post to focus on just two: Fear of asking for too much, and fear of asking for too little.


Fear of asking for too much. We never want to say we’re afraid, of course, so we say these things instead:

  • It’s unfair to those who can’t give as much. They will feel pressured to give the ask amount and feel that lesser contributions won’t count. Some will just decide to give nothing instead.
  • By including all the options on the response card, we are effectively asking for specific amounts. They get to choose that way.
  • We don’t know what people can afford, so we can’t know how much to ask for, and we might be insulting them.


But really, we’re just afraid.

I do want to acknowledge the validity of the first point. I have tested asking for $100 against asking for $50, and there was some depression in results.

Some people apparently did make the decision not to give.

We also raised more money.


I’m not saying that you can ask anyone for anything, and it will be OK. But I am saying that asking for $100 is acceptable for everyone and that asking for up to four times their gift to last year’s appeal is probably OK. Let everyone off the hook by emphasizing that all donations both greater and less than the ask amount are gratefully accepted, but don’t let that stop you from asking.

And being specific about it.


I will admit that I have asked for too much.

But I lived to tell about it.

I asked a capital campaign donor (and former Board member) for $500,000 when he was expecting to be asked for $30,000. He was livid and had no inhibitions about letting me know how out of line I was.

(And I was out of line – his largest gift to any nonprofit to that point had been $30,000. It wasn’t about wealth. He was plenty wealthy. It was about philanthropy and expectations. I should have done my homework.)

It took another 6-8 months of stewardship, but he eventually committed to a $300,000 gift, spread over five years.

I’ve thought back to that experience often. What would he have given if I hadn’t asked for a specific amount? If I hadn’t asked for $500,000?

Probably $30,000.

As painful as it was in the moment, I still raised more money by being specific. Ten times more.


So what about the fear of asking for too little?

Just about every fundraiser I’ve known has a story about a donor who gave more than they were asked. And quite a few use the story to justify not being specific for the next donor. (Even though we all know it’s really about fear.)

And to every story like this, I say: “Sample size = 1.”

Many capital campaigns depend on donations from as few as 40-50 donors. If we fail to ask for specific amounts of money from these donors, trusting that they will give more when we are not specific, we will lose. Perhaps not for any specific one of them, but certainly for the group as a whole.

Every time.

Maybe, if we leave it up to them, they will give more.”


And then again, maybe they’ll give $30,000.


And for that odd donor who would have given more, I say: “Trust me. It’ll be OK.”

This is a relationship that will (hopefully) last much longer than this one interaction. If we under-ask today, we may be better positioned to ask for much larger gifts tomorrow.


And just for the record – this explicitly includes Board members – be specific.

And foundations – be specific (can you imagine asking a foundation to just “be generous”?)

And major gift prospects – be specific.

And appeal letters – be specific.

And renewal letters – be specific.


Let people know what you want them to do. Tailor each ask amount to the individual donor you are soliciting to the greatest degree possible. Leave the door open for them to decide to give more or less than the requested amount. But be specific – even in general appeal letters.

You will raise more money – every time.


Cheers, and Have a great week!




Photo by JillWellington courtesy Pixabay


PS: Your comments on these posts are welcomed and warmly requested. If you have not posted a comment before, or if you are using a new email address, please know that there may be a delay in seeing your posted comment. That’s my SPAM defense at work. I approve all comments as soon as I am able during the day.



Share this!
  • Ashley UpChurch
    Posted at 14:38h, 08 February

    We took your advice this winter and segmented our appeals by ask amounts, asking everyone except our top donors ($2,500+) for a specific amount based on what they gave in years past. As of today, we’ve had almost 200 end of year donations associated with our appeals, and 75% either gave more than we asked, what we asked for, or less than what we asked for but more than last year. Only about 20% gave the same as last year, and less than 1% have given less than they gave last year. We’re sold on this; thanks again, David!

  • Heidi Habeger
    Posted at 08:33h, 08 February

    Lots of good points here, David. Agree!!!

  • Caroline Poteat
    Posted at 08:30h, 08 February


  • Alice Hudson Pell
    Posted at 08:22h, 08 February

    Great post, David! Totally agree.

  • Carol Abrahamzon
    Posted at 07:12h, 08 February

    100% agree!