T. Clay Buck discusses the ask

Episode aired July 15, 2020: The Ask

T. Clay Buck of Tactical Fundraising Solutions has 30 years of fundraising experience. So who better to have as a podcast guest to find out: Is “the ask” the hardest part of fundraising? In this episode Clay discusses

  • what the key to successful fundraising is- it’s not necessarily the money
  • when a donor says no, what are the 2 most important words in fundraising
  • the importance of clean data
  • 3 things to do to increase chances of getting a “yes” and
  • the excitement of sitting with a donor to make the ask.

Below you can listen, watch or read this podcast episode.


Ephraim: Welcome to this edition of the Your Weekly Dose of Nonprofit Podcast, the  podcast that delivers actionable items you can implement at your organization  right away, I’m your host Ephraim Gopin of 1832 Communications. Today I’m thrilled to have my good friend and nonprofit expert T. Clay Buck with us. Clay, how you doing today?

Clay: I am great! How are you?

Ephraim: I’m doing good. Let’s introduce you to our listeners, watchers and readers.

T. Clay Buck, CFRE, Master Trainer, is a fundraiser who has spent an equal amount of time as a frontline fundraiser and as a consultant. He has proven experience in all aspects of development. His particular expertise is in individual giving and annual funds and in his practice- Tactical Fundraising Solutions– he helps nonprofits develop data informed strategic fundraising plans. He’s a frequent presenter on individual giving and data management at national conferences, Association chapters and webinars all over the United States and is based in Las Vegas. Clay is owned by two Labrador Retrievers who do not get nearly enough exercise but could probably create their own fundraising and communications plan to solicit more kibble if they really want it.

Show Me The Money

Clay is here today to discuss one of the toughest parts of fundraising, the ask. Let’s dive right in. Clay, bottom line, is the ask all about the money?

Clay: Yes.

Ephraim: Excellent. Wanna expand a little bit on that?

Clay: Yeah because it’s not a cut and dry question. It feels like it is but it’s not. So here’s my take on fundraising: Fundraising is indeed about relationships. The key to successful fundraising is building relationships and whether you’re doing it in a 1 to 1 major gifts perspective, whether you’re doing it one to one with foundations and corporate giving or whether you’re emulating a direct one-to-one relationship through direct mail or digital, that’s the goal of mass platforms is to recreate a one-to-one feel, right?

The fundamental aspect of fundraising is about relationships and that is the thing that gets missed the most. Because we make the fundraising relationship about the money and not about joining values, which is really what we need to be doing. But that said, you can as a fundraiser build all the relationships in the world, you can get all the likes and buy-ins on your social media and have a database full of people, if it doesn’t result in relationships giving money, it’s not fundraising.

I mean that is at the end of the day. The problem is we don’t always effectively balance the two. We’re either so focused on money that we shortchange the relationship aspect or we’re so focused on the relationship that we never quite get to the ask aspect. So the magic of it and the key of it is living in that middle zone where we are building relationships that result in money. A well done ask is never a surprise. A well done ask emerges and comes out of the conversation and the donor gives because you shared the joy with them. So is the ask all about the money? Well yeah, but in context of that whole relationship focused energy.

What Happens If You Get A No

Ephraim: Fantastic answer. So follow up on that, if a donor says no, what should be the next steps for the fundraiser in order to continue the conversation with that donor?

Clay: Yeah and I’m struggling because again there’s so many variations of that. There are multiple reasons why somebody says no. And the first reaction is, is it a no or is it a not yet? So we need to really understand what that no is. Because if you’re making an ask to a donor who doesn’t believe in and hasn’t bought into the values and doesn’t see what they’re doing, this is just not part of their personal mission or their personal vision, then why was an ask made.

That should have been part of the discovery process. Did we rush the relationship? What’s the situation there? So if we can rule that out and the no is not actually a no, it’s a not yet, then it’s the continued cultivation to continue element of it… I mean in general, the very first response to a no is the two most important words in fundraising.

I spent 15 years managing phone programs and we trained this and taught this and believe in it. Two most important words in that conversation are: I understand. Commiserate and place yourself with the donor and when they say no, it’s thank you, I understand. I hear you and I acknowledge what you’re saying. If you don’t mind my asking, is it the amount that is uncomfortable or is it the mission that you’re reacting to? And we try to engage that conversation to really know, is this a hard no and go away and I don’t believe in what you’re doing or is this the money’s too much or the time isn’t right or whatever it may be? But above all, you know what, I’d really like to stay in touch with you. Can I can I keep you on our communications list, can I keep talking with you just because I appreciate you? So I understand, find out why and then set the plan for the next level of communication.

Improve Your Chances Of Getting A Yes

 Ephraim: Excellent. So today’s actionable item: What are three proven tactics that a fundraiser should be doing in order to improve their chances of getting a yes when they make the ask?

Clay: I’m talking… I’m gonna answer these in context of we’re talking about everything from direct response and digital broad-scale fundraising, to major gifts one-to-one to corporate and foundation. The number one… number one thing a fundraiser could be doing to improve chances of getting a yes: have your information correct. Know the donors name, know how to reach them, know what their preferences are, know what they value, what is important to them, where they fit in with your mission. Know your information before going in for the conversation. Everything from demographic to hygiene data to values and other giving and anything that you have learned about them in the process.

Number two: Your story. Your story about a single individual, a single situation that was helped because of the mission, that conveys the need. It’s the difference between saying, we fed 10,000 hungry people last year versus little Joey is hungry and because of donors he got food and a place to live. One, information. Two, the story.

And three, confidence. Being able to convey that confidence that you- donor- can make a difference through this work, because this is what this work is doing and you the donor are doing it through it. And so knowing and being confident in what the results of the mission are, by getting there through knowing your donor and knowing your story.

Feeling Excited When Making The Ask

Ephraim: Love that. You have 30 years of fundraising experience. Do you feel nervous, scared, excited or other when you’re sitting with someone and about to ask them for a donation?

Clay: So I’m gonna tell a secret that I hope will stay amongst us, because it could…I don’t know… it might be a little anathema for somebody who’s been in the fundraising world as long as I have. I have never made a traditional ask like that! I’ve never sat in front of a donor and made a direct huge ask. Because every single ask that I’ve been a part of as a frontline fundraiser, either one- and I have done it hundreds of times- one, by the time we got to the amount, the donor knew exactly what was coming, knew exactly what amount we were talking about, knew exactly where we were. So it never really resulted in an ask. It was a relationship that evolved into a gift.

In some ways I’m lucky yes and it’s always unfortunate but in other ways I’m truly grateful to donors that you know sort of got the conversation and where we were going with it. When I have been employed and when I am a frontline fundraiser, I believe we have to be so ingrained and bought into the mission that the conversation itself is a joy. If I go in and I am nervous about making an ask, my focus on the situation is wrong. if I go in and I’m excited about sitting with you and talking about the life changing community building, whatever it is, work that is happening, that’s a much different focus then: I’m nervous to go in and make an ask.

The Importance Of Clean Data

Ephraim: Excellent. I love that. On your website, you talk about clean data. How do you define clean data and why is it critical to fundraising success?

Clay: I think there’s two questions every nonprofit should ask themselves and every fundraiser should ask themselves regularly about their data, about their CRM, about their donor whatever you wanna call it… the group of individuals that you have as part of your network. Right now, this very second, can I pull a list of my closest donors, my best friends, our VIPs, our board, whoever it is, that tight list of core supporters who really believe it. Can I pull that list right now and send them some communication? Can I go to that data and pick up the phone and call them right now and have absolute confidence that I will be able to reach them? That I know what their name is, that I have their correct phone number, I have their address, their correct email and that that email will go through. If the answer to any of that is no, then you have a data problem. I’m just talking core supporters. I’m talking board members, I’m talking VIPs. If the answer to that is no, you have a data problem, let alone what the bigger database looks like. So it’s just that key critical… just as simple as being able to reach them, just the ability to contact them directly and engage in conversation, number one.

Number two, what we have to learn from our sister professions of marketing, marketing specifically and you know the for-profit business world. Personalization is driving everything now. The world expects a personalized response and we’ve almost become immune to it when we see our name in the subject line of an email or we see a Dear John letter or whatever. There’s tons of data. I read one report the other day that some test run, I want to say was something like 202% increase in response when personalization was used versus a generic greeting. The impact of personalization on messaging is huge and if we’re not able just as simple as Dear Clay, just as simple as that can make a massive difference versus dear friend. So a) the ability to contact and b) the ability to create a personalized direct communication. Person-to-person. Seth Godin says we are living and working in a connected economy. If that is true and I think we all kind of agree that it is, if that is true, then data is the fuel of that connection economy.

Ephraim: Fantastic. Goes back to what you answered in the first question about it’s all about building relationships.

Clay: Well you know we joked about it actually before we started, so a little behind the curtain here for everybody. I list my name professionally as T. Clay Buck. I have always used my middle name. I have never used my first name. It’s a family thing going back generations. If I get a letter and I’m getting them now addressed to Dear T, you don’t know me! And that is my first clue that you don’t know me, so see ya!

Let’s Learn More About Clay

Ephraim: That’s a good example. Let’s move on to the lightning round and learn more about Clay. What got you started on your nonprofit career path?

Clay: I got mad. My mom always said when I was a little kid that if you ever wanted me to do my chores, all you had to do was make me mad and then I would clean the house. I got pissed off. I was in graduate school at Michigan State University studying theater and in the theory theater and criticism class in graduate school, we were studying arts funding. And I was on a soap box and just ranting and you know, I know that sounds strange for me because I’m so soft spoken and all that. But I was on a soap box ranting about arts funding and a major professor, my major professor in my graduate program looked at me and said, if you’re so fired up about arts funding, why don’t you do something about it? And I went alright, dang it, I will! And so I finished my graduate school and got a job in fundraising for arts education programs.

Ephraim: That’s an excellent story. So given all your years now in the field, if you could shake up one thing in the nonprofit world, what would it be?

Clay: Increasing the visibility and viability and acceptance of fundraising as a profession, as a separate profession, with its separate code of principles and knowledge and training and that a trained experienced fundraiser is a specialized… I’m getting mad now… a specialized, specific function that can’t be replicated just because somebody did a bake sale.

Ephraim: Cosign on that one. Since you’re a master storyteller, what’s a favorite book or story from your childhood?

Clay: The Chronicles of Narnia. Loved them, specifically the Voyage  of the Dawn Treader was my favorite of the series. But I loved… actually you know, here I am a grown adult and every once in awhile I’ll go back to them and reread them. They’re delightful stories.

Ephraim: Excellent. The thing you like most and hate most about social media?

 Clay: The thing I like most is the connection of bringing together disparate people from different parts of your life and it is true for many… my circle of friends is scattered quite honestly worldwide and from various stages of my life. So it allows me to stay in touch, you keep in touch with and know what’s happening. One thing I love about social media is in some cases it takes out the need for small talk. I don’t have to ask you how you are and how many kids do you have and all of that. I know all that because I’ve seen your posts. I can get right to, you know, a deeper conversation.

What do I hate most about it? FOMO and trying to remember that what you see on social media is somebody’s highlight reel, not their real life. So you see it and think, wow look at all these cool things that other people are doing and that’s great stuff and have to remember that behind that highlight reel, they are having the same day-to-day struggles and issues and everything else that everybody does.

Ephraim: Yes. Where does your obsession with showtunes come from?

Clay: I don’t… I don’t know that it’s an obsession necessarily. I do have two degrees in theater, Bachelor of Arts in Theater and Masters of Fine Arts in Performance. I mean this was my intended career path and indeed, I still do act from time to time. Like I act like I don’t want to throw a screaming raging fit when somebody pushes out bad fundraising advice. I act like I’m not gonna lose my mind when you know something terrible happens.

My parents were very musical people. My father was a voice major, vocal performance major and then a minister of music. So there was always music in the house and I grew up on… because what they listened to, my mom specifically, the Rodgers and Hammerstein you know, Sound of Music and The Music Man. This was the music of my childhood in many ways. So it just sort of stuck. I don’t know musical theater after like 1997. After that I don’t know what happened. I don’t know. Phantom and Miss Saigon came along and I just went ok, I’m done.

Ephraim: Finally we will turn the table. You get to ask me a surprise question, I have absolutely no idea what’s coming. Go ahead.

Clay: Assuming that money is no object, that you’re not… the money is there. Assuming that money is no object and geography is no object, if you could choose any profession to be in other than what you do now, what would it be?

Ephraim: Any other profession…outside of the nonprofit world…

Clay: Let me rephrase, let me put it this way: So money is no object but you have time that you need to fill. What would you do?

Ephraim: Here’s the thing. There are a couple of hobbies that I have. One of them is cooking and I have never had dreams of becoming a master chef. That was never an aspiration of mine. But I have spent the last 20 years- and I actually did some math last week- in the last 20 years, I’ve tried about a thousand new recipes. Everything across the board. I would love to be able to cook for others. I don’t need… if I could just go into somebody’s house and they need food for a meal, I would do that. If I could… mind you, if I could… if money really wasn’t an object, I would open a restaurant. But something a little bit different, because I’m not into these restaurants that have fancy food. I like regular food like my grandmother served me, like my mother served me. That’s it. Traditional stuff and I don’t need to charge an arm and a leg for it. I’ve never been a fan of that kind of food.

However, having done a little research into this, this must be about six seven years ago, I met a world famous- of course I don’t remember his name- a world famous person who knows about the restaurant business globally and I asked them straight up, what percentage of restaurants make a profit? And he looks at me like I fell off another planet, because he says, they don’t. I said what? They don’t. So it was somewhere in the area of 97, 98 percent, it was really high. And I said, wait, so the other 2%? He said, they break even. It is not something you make money on, it is a passion. So if you’re saying money’s no object, I’m opening a restaurant. That’s what I’m doing, because I’m not losing money on it. I’ll open a restaurant.

Clay: So what I love about that is what you just described. It’s not the restaurant. It’s the connection, it’s the bringing people together and the talking and the energy and all of that, that you’re saying that you love and doing that through food. I mean the great thing is, those of us that talk about you- which we do- that’s what you do! You’re the great connector, right? You bring everybody together and encourage conversation. So in a way you’re kind of doing that.

Ephraim: That is what I like to do. So that totally… that would be something I would do. Again if money was no object. If money is an object, there’s zero chance.

Clay: By the way, I need your recipe for that Italian chicken.

Ephraim: Oh the one I made last week? Clay: Yeah. Ephraim: That’s an easy easy one. It’s in fact a mixture… it’s a marinade of 1/4 cup of balsamic vinegar, quarter cup olive oil, some salt, garlic and what am I missing in there? I’ll get back to you, there’s one more ingredient that I’m missing. That was it.

Clay: Probably oregano or basil.

Ephraim: Maybe it was. Maybe it was oregano or basil. One or the other. That’s all it was. Marinate for an hour. Grill it. Done, finished.

Clay: Chicken breasts or chicken thighs?

 Ephraim: Chicken breasts.

Clay: So look, fundraising advice, connection and a recipe. This is perfect!

Ephraim: Exactly the way we should end off. Thank you very very much for appearing on the podcast. If you want to connect with Clay, he is an amazing person, separate from his work but B, he is a sector expert and authority that you should follow. You can follow him on Twitter or you can go learn more on his website, Clay, as always, a pleasure to speak with you. Thank you for appearing on the podcast.

Clay: Thank you my friend. Of course.

Ephraim: Thanks very much. Have a good day.

Clay: You too.

Ephraim: Okay. Bye.