Non Profits

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Making an ask isn’t easy. Most asks go unanswered. Then again, most asks are unartful.

And no, it’s not to say that an artful ask is guaranteed to get you what you want.

But it will give you a much better shot.

I think about “the ask” a lot. My job requires it, whether it’s trying to bring a sponsor on board to enlisting the support of an expert that can be helpful to a client.

But the truth is, most jobs do. We all need others to help us achieve what we set out to do. Knowing how to make “the ask” is often the difference between success and failure in today’s world.

My ask has evolved and I’m sure still has a long way to go. I have had some wonderful teachers along the way, some because they did it so well and others because they did it so badly. I’m sure others have learned from me too, both what and what not to do.

I get a lot of asks. Sometimes more than a dozen in any given week, people who are hoping we can donate services to help them elevate their cause or business. And almost to a person, these people are doing something important. They are truly working to make the world better in some real and demonstrative way.

But many of them have no idea how to make the ask. Some have tried to bully me into helping, others tried shame. And some bark orders promising employment that probably will never come, without any acknowledgment that my investment of time, energy and expertise is worth something now.

But I have learned over time to choose my causes, though we still take on more than we should.  I know that the loudest voice is the room doesn’t always belong to the smartest person. I have come to try and accept that not taking a cause on does not make me a bad person.

And while I can’t make any claim to having perfected my own ask, I can tell you the one thing that I think all good asks have as one who receives  so many the secret ingredient almost no one uses when they are trying to get help from someone:


Most people think of their cause only from their perspective.

You’d be surprised how many people don’t even acknowledge the value of or other demands on the time of the person they need. Their cause is so important to them, and they are often so rushed, they forget their manners and even basic civilities.

That is a big mistake.

Invest the time in the niceties. Remember to ask and not order. Seek to be helpful to them just as you want them to be helpful to you. Respect their efforts, and remember that every minute they give you is a gift. They owe you nothing.

At first your world will feel slower, filled up by the extra thought required to right important emails or building in time to do something small but nice for someone, like sending them an article of interest or even introducing them to someone who could helpful to their causes.

But in time, you will likely come to believe as I have that it is worth the investment of time and energy. People donate to people, be it money or time. And all relationships are about give and take.

When you want to be on the taking side of things, it’s best to think through what you can also give. At the very least, it should be your respect and gratitude. And those two things alone will go far in a world where they are in short supply.




Video is more and more important in this day and age. Video lets you tell your story effectively and evocatively, meaning it will resonate more fully with those you need to reach, including customers and press.

People also remember something they’ve watched much more than something they have simply read – by about 50%.

What kind of video you should shoot can vary with each project and the type of message you are trying to get out. More and more, unique video companies are carving out very specific niches for themselves. Here are two great unique video companies have really defined themsleves uniquely. And both are very good.

My City Lives helps location-based business and organizations tell great stories about themselves and what they do through video. The place and the context is every bit as important to the storytelling as the people, and they do really interesting beautiful work. They also have a mobile app. Check out their “about us” video at the top of the page.

Epipheo Studios does wonderful Explainer Videos. If you haven’t run across that term before, it’s much as you would expect it to mean given the title. An explainer video is a short, often animated video that is meant to explain a harder concept. Their website is a total work of art in itself. They’re not cheap, but they do great work. Here is an example of one of their videos:

How about you? Have you worked with a videographer who has a unique eye or has a really defined mandate? I’d love to hear about them.

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Philanthropy and service are being reimagined by a generation that wants to change the world but in their own way. uses the power of online to help teens engage in the issues that matter to them offline.

I spoke to George Weiner from and here is what he had to say about the whole new wave of philanthropy that will ultimately reshape or replace traditional organizations and events as this emerging generation increasingly finds its voice.

And George, a special shout out to you: 11. He knows what I mean.




Joe Waters runs Selfish Giving and helps non-profits and for-profits create win-win scenarios that raise much needed money for causes while helping businesses better position themselves as cariing entitites within their communities.

Want to know how to attract business to your cause or find the right cause to your business? Watch the video and then be sure to check out Selfish Giving.


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How you make the ask will go a long way in determining if you get what you want or not. It’s one of those things, though, that rarely gets taught in school, even though it’s fundamental to business, particularly in a tough economy.

Most people have to figure out as they go, largely through trial and error. Many leave a trail of burnt bridges behind.

How people make the ask matters to me a lot because I often must make the ask but with even greater frequency, someone makes an ask of me.

In fact, this past week on one day alone, 9 people reached out for free advice, looking for everything from media contacts, ad buy advice to one request for a full donated PR program disguised as “could you please take a quick boo at this.”

Every week, I donate some time to a good cause or person. Even if I were to work full time at nothing but the requests I get to donate free services, I couldn’t possibly accomplish all that I was asked to do on a regular basis. And there are a lot of other folks in the same boat as I am.

If you want your request to get to the top of the heap, here’s what you need to know and do before you make the ask:

1. Make sure in every way possible, you are respectful of the time and talent they give you.

Last year, someone invited me to breakfast to help him prep for a very big meeting. For a couple of hours, I helped him understand what to expect, prepared him for the harder questions, and rehearsed him through points he really needed to make. The bill came, and he sat on his hands waiting for me to pick it up, and then reluctantly kicked in his share. He had also chosen the day, the time and the restaurant. A sports bar. I’m not making this up.

I wish that were an isolated event, but I’ve seen and experienced enough to know that it’s not. I don’t think people mean to be rude but they consistently get a few things wrong:

  • They get locked in their own head about how important their situation or cause is and forget to think about it from the perspective of the person giving of their time.
  • They forget that strategy, planning and execution take time.
  • They forget to value that when you have a skill and can do something more quickly, better or faster than someone who doesn’t have your skill and experience, that doesn’t and shouldn’t diminish your value to them but it should in fact increase it.

People invest in a cause because we believe in it. But for the sake of their sanity, reputations, and even for the profession itself, they will walk away when we are abused.

It’s critical to treat people who give of their time and experience the same way you would treat someone who handed you a big fat wad of cash.

2. Invest in the other person, preferably before you make the ask.

Try being proactively helpful. If you are friends with people on Facebook, repost what is important to them, particulary anything they’re posting for business. Retweet their tweets, perhaps send along an article now and then you think might be of interest, and add them to your Christmas card list.

Build your relationships wherever you can, long before you need to make an ask. If and when you do need their help, it won’t come out of the blue, it will come within the context of a give and take relationship. You will have shown you too know how to be generous, and your relationship isn’t one sided, you doing all the taking.

It’s very jarring to have people you are friends with on social media but who don’t give you the time of day suddenly pop into your email box assuming you’ll drop everything to donate advice and services worth tens of thousands of dollars.

3. Let them know “why them.”

Don’t just ask anyone to help you. Target your asks and let that person know why you’ve chosen them.  Think about what might make it beneficial to them: can you (legitimately) offer that person paid work down the line? By being part of this, can they work with other like minded movers and shakers? Is what you are doing something that will make the world better or contribute to something they care about? Make sure you’ve thought through “why them” or you risk make them feel like you chose them because you’re the only possible source for free labour they know.

Speak knowledgeably about their track record, what they’ve accomplished and why this is a fit for them. Even if it’s a very small contribution of time you are asking for, make sure you let them know your ask is a considered one.

4. If you’ve asked for advice, and they’ve given you something other than what you asked for, there’s probably a reason.

People reach out to me all the time asking me to put them in touch with particular people in the media or asking me to send on materials, pitches and campaigns that aren’t thought through as they need to be. Or they want me to look at the whole of their business or cause and off the top of my head, create a campaign.

When I introduce a person or a cause to a media outlet, I’m essentially endorsing them and the product or idea. It takes time to create a smart campaign and it takes research. It takes understanding the lay of the land really well in order to create something truly newsworthy. The vast majority of people who want me to do them the quick favour of sending something along don’t usually realize how far off the mark their campaigns or materials are.

And often, they demonstrate through their approach and dealings with me that they do not really know how to manage or nurture any kind of relationship I would want to make for them.

If an expert comes back to you with concrete advice (like your press release doesn’t work: here’s what you need to do to fix it), make the changes they’ve given you before coming back and asking them for any more advice. And remember that what you think is a quick ask probably isn’t, particularly if your campaign isn’t in the shape it needs to be to get solid media attention.

5. Take no graciously.

One of the things I hate most in the universe is having to turn down a good cause or person who I know could really use my help but can’t pay. In any given week, however, I get so many requests, I have to say no way more often than I can possibly say yes.

But as Marc Pitman says, a no really means “not right now.”

I watch charities and causes, and I sometimes jump in quietly behind the scenes when I think I can be helfpul. And I’ll keep causes in mind when I hear of opportunities that might be useful. But an awful lot of people cut off their nose to spite their face.

I’ve swapped stories with lots of people who give what they can time wise to as many causes as they can but who have received terrible push back (being hung up on is a common one) when they just have to say no.

I know what it’s like to feel desperation in a cause. Through my volunteer work, I am very close friends with the parents of children who battle aggressive cancers.  I have worked along side them on campaigns where we all desperately tried to raise the funds for the research we hoped would be in time for their children. Too often, their children lose the fight, like Megan McNeil did last year.

As an advocate for a cause, however, your job is to enlist the people you need to your side. Trying to bully someone into a cause never works. You may not get them now, but we remember how people treat us when down the line we see an opportunity to help.

And yes, it may be too late to help with the urgent thing you have now.

But they may well be helpful to you in the future. And someone or an idea may pop into their head that they’ll reach back to you on. I’ve had that happen to me. Someone says they can’t help, and then they’ll meet someone or remember someone who can.

So best advice? Think big picture and always put yourself in the shoes of the person of whom you are making the ask. If you do that, your make the ask success rate will improve.

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Marc Pitman, aka The Fundraising Coach and I got together to talk about funding for charities and common mistakes charities make in their relationships. What I love about Marc’s approach is the humanity he brings to his work – and that he asks of each of us to bring to ours too.

I can imagine that the $10 test Marc talks about in the video, where he and his colleagues each send 10 $10 donations to charities to see how they respond, has a few of you wondering how you could possibly put resources and time into responding to a donation of $10.

My mail is filled with solicitations for donations from organizations I’ve never given to. And never will. Someone who has bought from you or donated to you is 20x more likely to buy from you again. That’s a qualified lead – one that’s much better to have some kind of return than someone in some neighbourhood somewhere who’s front porch is filling up with junk mail from charities she will ignore ever more.

So figuring out how to thank all donors, no matter how small, is not only doing the polite thing; it may actually be pure self interest. Want to learn more from Marc or hire him to help your board, staff or volunteers learn how to ask without fear? Check out his site, The Fundraising Coach.


One size does not fit all when it comes to non profit communications. It’s not unusual for big charities to have substantial in-house public relations departments with high priced outside help. On the other end of the scale, small and medium organizations, even those up to $10million dollars run the gambit from having a small in-house communications unit (often one person) right down to having communications duties taken on by committee, in rotation or by one already very over worked staff member or even volunteer.

Non Profit communications isn’t something that can be thrown on at the end. It’s key to how your major stakeholders do or will perceive of you. Here are a few essentials for non profit communications in today’s world.

Non Profit Communications – Internal Communications

In any organization, it’s important to treat your insiders like insiders or they will become outsiders and act accordingly. Smaller organizations so often have to do more with less and everyone needs to be moving in the same direction.

You may have good news, you may have bad news – it doesn’t matter. They need to hear it from you first before they hear it from the outside world. Demoralized people stop pulling with the team and they don’t have good things to say about the organization they feel beaten down by. It doesn’t matter what you tell the outside world you are as an organization. You will be killed by a thousand cuts if your organization has staff or even third party vendors who feel they’ve been treated poorly by your organization.

Organizations also frequently miss opportunities or create messes all the time because key departments or people aren’t talking to each other and fail to look for or find ways to leverage each other’s opportunities or mitigate potential problems.

There are technological solutions like intranets, Project Bubble, Basecamp and PBWorks where people can easily invite people from other departments to part or all of a project. Google Docs are another great tool that let people in different locations (down the hall or on the other side of the world) work on the same document simulateneously in realtime. These tools can be helpful in allowing for greater collaboration or even a fresh set of eyes, which can be invaluable.

And speaking of fresh eyes…Not every organization cultivates new ideas or sources for them and I think that’s a shame. Some management styles are hierarchical, or “tall,” meaning they have a very rigorous allegiance to top down management styles with little room for meaningful input from staff or other stakeholders.

There are efficiencies in this model, but so much gets lost along the way, including inspiration. Many talented (often young) people with fresh ideas leave because they feel undervalued. This style of management also contributes to the challenge of interdepartmental communications.

Non Profit Communications – Clients and end users

It is so easy to lose the focus of the real mission of why an organization exists, particularly in an atmosphere where time is measured against dollars in, but consider this. If the very people you serve turn against you, you may find fewer of everyone else supporting you in the end.

Processes are important but they should not completely drive out gestures that remind ourselves and those we serve of our shared humanity. At the very least, it is essential that end users are part of the visioning for any organization’s future. They have insights that no one else can possibly offer the organization.

Rage by an organization’s end users is easy pickings for a media outlet and a story like that can make everything else, including fundraising, much harder. Whether by survey or in casual conversation, it’s sometimes important to ask the harder questions, the questions that ask end users about how valuable they see the organizations as being and how they see it fitting into their journey.

Non Profit Communications – Volunteers

If you have a critical volunteer or panel of volunteers, make it easier for them to help you. Find out what they are hoping to get out of being involved and find whatever ways you can to help them achieve that.

Remember you are in a relationship with them and you must invest back in them, even in small ways, and not simply barrage them with requests for free work. If you are friends with them on social media, be helpful by re-tweeting and re-posting their posts, particularly the ones that advance their agenda and not just yours.

Work hard to understand the true value of what volunteers are giving. It will inevitably involve time and maybe things like talent and contacts.

If they are generous enough to open up their Rolodex, understand they will need to know that you can manage the relationship with them before bringing other potential relationships into the fold.

If they do introduce contacts to the cause, be respectful of their role in doing that and work out the parameters of future direct contact with the contact. It can take years to cultivate a good working relationship with someone and your volunteer may feel they need to manage the contact on your behalf.

Non Profit Communications – Donors

I love what Marc Pitman had to say in this interview and I think he’s a great fundraising coach. He’s absolutely right when he points out that no donor, particularly a significant one, likes to be treated like an ATM machine. It’s important that not every contact with a donor is an appeal for money.

As an aside, there is an interesting report just released about 2011 online giving trends with a good summary of it here. It might be interesting to compare your own results to those within your sector and in others.

Online donations continue to grow in importance even though in many organizations, they constitute less than ten per cent of gifts. Raisin is a great platform that makes non profit communications much more efficient along with the management of all kinds of fundraising and donor events. It is definitley worth checking out. Raisin is quite affordable as well when you consider that it is also a good database management system.

Non Profit Communications – Media Relations

This is worthy of a blog post or 10 in and of itself so I will just say this. A good cause does not make a good story. You need to have a good news angle.

You may think you are doing the most vital work in the history of the universe but the media are not your press agent and are not motivated in getting you exposure or helping you raise money.

In fact, some media outlets have been so besieged by non profits seeking media coverage, they’ve gone to great lengths to make it easier for them to quickly say no. Some have adopted particular causes and invoke a rule that they won’t cover causes outside of those they’ve chosen unless the event is really newsworthy on a variety of levels. The news angle they create or find (if you don’t give them a really strong one) may partially or wholly eclipse your non profit’s communications goal. In other words, they may cover some aspect of your event but not mention your cause.

Similarly, talk shows often blow cold on segments featuring non profits. Other non profits spend big money advertising on their networks and they kick up a fuss when other organizations go on and get great exposure right in the show. The push-back just isn’t worth it.

You can’t make the news come to you. You have to go more than half way and make sure you are giving them what they need to cover you.

It is a world unto itself, non profit communications. Bigger organizations have the advantage of resources and name recognition. But as it is in business, not everyone trusts “big” at the moment, which does give smaller and medium sized charities an advantage they don’t usually have.

The one thing that rings true no matter the size of your organization: it runs on relationships. Thoughtful communications will let you better manage and maximize your important (stakeholder) relationships as best as possible.