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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  1. Nellie Jacobs’s avatar

    Great points, Susan! Here’s an excellent piece of advice given to me years ago: To be respected as a professional offering gratis expertise, provide an invoice afterwards detailing your hours, services, results, charges and total fee, followed by a line indicating it was given free.


    1. admin’s avatar

      Nellie, that is a GREAT piece of advice. I think in many cases, people don’t mean to be rude, they simply don’t know any better and they devalue that which is free. It’s important for their own professional development, and for that of their organization, that they understand the true value of the gift. How else can they budget moving forward?



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