Marc A. Pitman discusses what makes a great fundraiser

Episode aired Jan. 27, 2021: Great Fundraisers

After 25 years in the sector, fundraising expert Marc A. Pitman has seen the good, the bad and the ugly. It’s not easy but anyone can become a successful fundraiser. In this episode Marc discusses

  • the danger in making decisions for donors 
  • what an ask MUST include or otherwise it’s not an ask  
  • the Get R.E.A.L. approach to fundraising
  • the importance of research and practicing and
  • why failure and taking risks will benefit your organization.  

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 really happy to have with us a fundraising and nonprofit expert, Marc A. Pitman. Mark how you doing today?

Marc: I’m thrilled to be here.

Ephraim: Excellent. Let’s introduce you to our listeners, watchers and readers.

Concord Leadership Group founder Marc A. Pitman helps leaders, especially in the context of fundraising, lead their teams with more effectiveness and less stress. His latest book is ‘The Surprising Gift of Doubt: Use uncertainty to become the exceptional leader you are meant to be.’ He is also the author of the popular fundraising book ‘Ask Without Fear.’ Additionally, he’s the executive director of the and an advisory panel member of Rogare, a prestigious international fundraising think tank. Marc’s expertise and enthusiasm engages audiences around the world both in person and with online presentations. He’s the husband to his best friend and the father to three amazing children and if  you drive by him on the road, he’ll be singing 80s tunes loud enough to embarrass his family. I like that part a lot.

Can Anyone Be A Fundraiser?

In today’s episode, we’re going to discuss what makes a great fundraiser. Let’s dive right in. Marc, can anyone be a fundraiser or does it take a certain type of person or characteristics to be successful?

Marc: Anyone. I firmly believe anyone can ask. We grow up as kids asking for things that we need and I don’t think there’s a lot of difference in fundraising. Although there’s a lot of complexity and…well I’m a firm believer that we can we all do whatever we’re required to do. We don’t have to like it necessarily but we can do things. Some people may be more skilled but one of the biggest problems I’ve seen is that people think extroverts make better askers when they don’t. They just make better… more louder speakers but introverts can be some of the best askers because they actually shut up and let the donor listen. So I definitely think anyone can be a great fundraiser.

One of the tools… can I share a tool that everybody can go? Okay great. So one tool that, if you google Eric Berne, b-e-r-n-e, transactional analysis. He had this whole concept of, we have different ego states when we come to an interaction with another human. With the parent ego state, the child, the adult ego state and the child ego state and I found over the years, in the recent years, I’ve started incorporating this in my Ask Without Fear training because we have to keep centering ourselves. 

I think when it comes to money in particular with our adult ego state, we are rational adults who are doing amazing work and we are attempting to reach the rational adults in the other person. We’re not parents “shoulding” on the donor: you should do this, you should do that, shame on you for giving that way, shame on you for giving that the other way. And we’re not kids throwing a tantrum in the middle of Walmart to get our money. We’re adults that have… we’re doing amazing things and we want to invite other people into that and so I love that parent, adult, parent child adult kind of thought process with the ego states just to remind ourselves because I don’t know about you but for me, 25 years in at this, I still get call reluctance and so I still have to just kind of recenter. I’ve got a good thing here and I’m trying to reach that part of the person that understands that I can’t control the response but I can attempt. 

What Not To Do When Making An Ask

Ephraim: I like that. Besides doing asking, you also train and coach fundraisers. What’s the one thing you tell them not to do when making an ask, whether in person or virtually?

Marc: One of the most frustrating things I see people do- and of course I’ve never done this myself- no, three fingers pointing back at me, but one of the most frustrating things I see people do is making decisions for the donor. I’m getting back to that ego state thing. It most likely manifests this way. I called, left a message and I texted them and they didn’t get back to me, so they must not want to give. We also have seen this in the pandemic, where when the shutdown happened in the spring, entire Boards and nonprofits said, this is not the respectful time to ask. We made a decision for donors or many organizations made decisions for donors, without even the respect of asking the donors. We have to get out of the way. A donor hasn’t said no to us until the donor has said no to us and that is incredibly vulnerable for us as askers because that might mean it may take six or seven or eight or ten attempts to make the appointment and we have all the negative thoughts going through our head of, oh we’re probably bugging them, it’s probably a bad time. Amazing how we go right to negativity. What I try to do is… those are all lies. It’s not true. It may be a possibility but it may not be.

So I try to lie to myself positively. I might be hitting them at the greatest time. They may be looking to give away money. I might be bringing joy to their lives and I start laughing at myself, which helps get me back into the asking and the persistence. But there’s a story that illustrates this. One nonprofit I was working for that… doing a capital campaign with and I called or texted a donor prospect every week for six months. Once in a while I’d leave off but I was there two days a week on site with this group and with this organization and this was a person who’d grown himself from a few hundred-dollar donor to a few thousand-dollar donor without ever being asked to grow. That wasn’t part of their process yet. They hadn’t thought about upgrading donors. They just asked annually and he kept giving more and I kept wondering, am I bugging him? Am I overdoing it? This is too much. Is this too much? Six months in he picked up the phone and he said, oh Marc, I am so sorry I’ve been so rude to you. And then he said words that are dreams to a fundraiser. I was calling from Boston but he said, I’m standing outside of my chateau in France right now. Could I give you a call when I get back to Boston? Yes sir, absolutely sir. But he ended up giving $25,000 just like that, when he had never done that before. So that was proof to me that pleasant persistence is really what it takes to be a good fundraiser.

Preparing To Make An Ask

Ephraim: Excellent. I really like that  story. So following up to that, today’s actionable item. A lot of the work fundraisers do relates to preparation. So please tell us three to four things a fundraiser has to get ready before making that ask of an individual donor?

Marc: That is so true. So I teach fundraising. As I’m a Gen Xer as well and I used the term get real because I heard that growing up a lot. So R stands for research, E stands for engage, A stands for ask and L stands for love. So the prep is… it kind of spans the spectrum because as you’re loving on other donors, you’re learning about how to interact with new donors. It’s kind of a virtuous circle.

But for the actions for this would be, first do your research and not that you have to know the name of the dog that died three years ago. It’s not that kind of weird security surveillance research but one of the things that you should do is know at least your own organization well enough to know how much you need to ask them for. I don’t think an ask is an ask unless there’s a specific dollar amount. I would say have a dollar amount that you’d like to ask them for. That crystallizes the whole ask and it respects the donor because you’re not asking them to read their mind. So having a clear dollar amount, even if it’s way… even if you have any basis, at least it’s from your budget. Maybe you have a gift range calculator chart for your organization. Your ask could be, hey Ephraim, I don’t know if this is even in the ballpark but would a ten-thousand-dollar gift be something that you consider this year? And that way I’m honoring you by having that specific dollar amount. 

The second step would be to engage them as human beings. So many nonprofits are so afraid of asking and so ashamed of money that they start treating donors like ATM’s or wallets and so we kind of just go for their back pocket, as opposed to treating them like a whole person, finding out what their values are. Because we’re not asking them to give to us as much as we’re asking them to invest in their values and so we’re looking to see what they value and what aspects of our organization match those values and then we’re inviting them to make that a reality. 

The third thing I mentioned earlier is to set up the appointment. It’s a little different if we’re in stay at home, work from home, just socially distance. You can just call. But if you’re setting up an appointment, do the due respect of giving them six or seven or eight attempts and you might want to keep check marks on like, I tried, I tried, I tried, just so you don’t get weary in doing the good.

And then the fourth thing I would say is to practice your ask at least a dozen times before you get in front of the donor. I like to say the full dollar amount. One of my dear friends John Donovan likes to break it down for donors. So I would say, would you consider giving a thousand dollars this year? John is totally comfortable with saying, would you consider giving $84 a month? I don’t think donors do math that quickly and I want them to prioritize, so I say a thousand but and then I come back to 84 as a sort of way of de-escalating the tension because you know, trying to make them see how they can do it. But if you just practice because you just never know as you’re practicing, two things happen. One, you can keep thinking about the person. What would be the right phrasing for that particular person? So you get out of your own head and you’re thinking about them. The other thing is when you get into the ask, it flows much more naturally and if you’re nervous during the ask, that’ll send off a little warning, intuitive warning signs to them that something’s wrong. So the smoother you can do it, the fewer red flags you put up for the donor.

Don’t Be Scared To Make The Ask!

Ephraim: Okay, all four of those, any fundraisers or people who do asks in the organization who are listening, that answer- perfect and gives you everything you need to do in advance to make a successful ask or at least get to the point of asking for the money. So let’s piggyback on that. You’re the author of the book ‘Ask Without Fear.’ Why are fundraisers so scared to make an ask?

Marc: I think it’s because they think they’re taking. I don’t think they think they’re giving. Most situations with money that we have, we go to the store, we give money and we get something tangible in return. I had a software engineer tell me, Marc, you’ve got the toughest job in the world. You’re asking me for money and you don’t give anything in return except maybe the feeling good. I hope that I’ll feel good about it. At least I give a box. I’m selling code but I give a box to kind of symbolize that there’s code in here, there’s something tangible. So I think that that feeling of taking is so opposed to why people get into nonprofit work. They want to solve problems, they want to help the world, they want to help the environment, history, animals. They want to fix things and so they’re doing the wanting to fix things and then they feel like they’re being a totally opposite person when they’re talking to donors and that doesn’t… as we get better at it, we start realizing that donors really like giving. They really, really enjoy it and they get a lot out of it. I think if we start saying… I know that we as we’ve worked with donors, with nonprofit leaders, they start realizing donor work is part of my service. It’s sort of like, I just didn’t realize that that was part of the mission. But it is and it’s really enjoyable. They’re fun people and they kind of like what we’re doing which is really nice to get that affirmation too.

Take Risks!

Ephraim: I like that answer. That was a good answer. It’s good stuff. The idea of fear is there with fundraising a lot. So if you can, like your book, ask without fear, if you can teach that… if you can teach that to somebody, you’ll have a much better fundraising overall apparatus. Let’s put it that way. On one of your websites, you talk about risk taking and you write on the site, “the old adage nobody ever got fired for doing the same thing as last year seems to be the rule.” Why are nonprofit leaders and fundraisers so risk-averse and how can we flip that script? 

Marc: It’s so frustrating. I think it’s because the stories we tell ourselves about nonprofits. There’s a really well worn story script of nonprofits are supposed to be do-gooders that are living in poverty and scarcity and so when you’re living with no margin, making a mistake could be catastrophic to the operation. When you’re living paycheck to paycheck, which a lot of nonprofits are, I got to meet payroll. Even big nonprofits. I was working with one head of school that had to make $250,000 payroll every two weeks. So we started looking at what about with the month, let’s look at fundraising for the month and let’s look at fundraising for the next six months and we started pushing it back for him. But when you’re living with that fear of I just had the sleepless nights that come with leadership, taking risks can seem like moral failures. Also, because you’re in the nonprofit sector, it’s not just like you’re playing. You’re dealing with serious issues. So I think that’s part of why doing the same thing as before, it doesn’t get done.

What I would love to think about is asking your Board, hey, would you run your business that way? We’ll just do the same thing that we did last year or we won’t listen to the experts. We’ll have a bake sale, even though the experts say we should write letters and talk to donors face to face. Yeah, we’ll sell t-shirts to fund our $1.2 million operation budget. Okay, that’s great. The reason I say that is I was working at a hospital and a Board member asked me to do a wealth screening on our database. He said, you haven’t done that yet? I’m a financial planner. If I were just sending direct mail blindly, the same letter to all 17,000 people in my database because we had 17,000 in ours, I’ve got a business. I know who my niche is, I know who my top donor is and I need my top customer and I need to only put work myself where I’m in front of her. And so then the rest of the Board were all business people and I said, oh yeah, that totally makes sense. Sure, do the wealth screening on us. But I think there’s just the stories we tell ourselves about nonprofits often don’t allow us to take risks.

But the riskiest thing we could do is to not take risks. We’ve got to keep testing things and changing and knowing that failing is falling forward. It’s okay if we test a fundraising campaign or we try Giving Tuesday and it doesn’t work. That’s not a moral failing. Good, that doesn’t communicate to our donors. We found out another thing that doesn’t work and we’re going to keep iterating and trying and experimenting. So I call most of my programs and publications and everything beta tests because that way nobody owns it. I mean people own it but it doesn’t feel like we’re failing morally. No it was just a test and it didn’t work. You know we’re beta testing this thing. It seems to take some of the pressure off.

Let’s Learn More About Marc

Ephraim: Fantastic answer. Lightning round Marc. Let’s learn more about you. What got you started on your nonprofit career path?

Marc: I got hungry. I did the two things out of college that I made fun of people for. I got married right out of college which I thought I was going to have a decade of kind of making myself a better person so that I’d be safer to be a spouse. And then I got a job at the college I graduated from. I used to think of college like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off after the credits roll. Ferris Bueller pokes his head through and says, go home, it’s over. I felt like that about college. But Starbucks wasn’t paying the bills. I didn’t realize 80% of my income wasn’t supposed to be going to rent. So I got married a week after college, did Starbucks for awhile and then finally got a job in admissions at the college I graduated from. Fell in love with the whole character building and life planning aspect of it and was told in fundraising I could do it all year long and for years with people. So I kind of fell into development and loved it.

Ephraim: Excellent. So in your quarter century plus in the field, in the nonprofit sector, if there’s one thing you could shake up in the nonprofit world, what would it be?

Marc: I think it’s probably the victim mentality that I’ve seen in a lot of nonprofits. You do this for free because we’re do-gooders. You’re just in it for profit.  So there’s this weird relationship that we have with the structure of nonprofits. Nonprofits are not… they need to produce revenue and that is okay to produce revenue because we need to pay our bills and pay and invest in the people and the things that are solving the problems that we created to solve. But it’s also it’s not the donor’s fault that we have to do fundraising. The model of a nonprofit is to have community support and so it is not… so if we don’t like the fact that we chose that model, that we chose a nonprofit model and we have to give up our direction to a Board that is supposed to run oversight instead of being the owner of it. We’re not the owner of the nonprofit. Just the same way, we can’t get upset with donors for not understanding that we’re the center of the universe and we should… we need to learn to speak their dialect. So I think as we learn that, as we start kind of owning our own role in this different sector, this different type of organization, this wonderful space in our world, that would be the shift, the shake-up I’d really like to help people do.

Ephraim: Okay. Maine or South Carolina?

Marc: I would say purpose. When you know the purpose of your life, where you live isn’t bad, it doesn’t matter and can be the best of places. We loved Maine. We moved to South Carolina because we wanted more diversity and we wanted our kids to see us exposed to a different culture and grow up with other thought processes, other folk, mores and ethnicities. It’s been a great great move for us. So we really love the Greenville area. You should visit the next time when you’re able to travel again.

Ephraim: When I’m able to travel, I would love to.

Marc: Even have a Red Sox affiliate here.

Ephraim: Aha. Okay, you’ve sweetened the jackpot just a little bit. Good job. You know how to ask without fear but in your day-to-day, what are you most afraid of?  

Marc: I think one of the things that I’m most afraid of is not having done enough research. I grew up listening to motivational speakers and I’m honored that people call me one. But a lot of the things motivational speakers were teaching were lies. They made up stories to illustrate a point but they taught them as though they were truth. Like a bamboo that takes three years to grow and is it growing in the… grows six feet in two months. Is it growing in the two months, in the three years? All those stories weren’t true and so I’ve committed myself to being the nerd that does the research that busy professionals aren’t able to do necessarily because they’re just trying to keep the plate spinning. I always fear that will have read the research wrong, so I go over into my own study so that I can back up what I say when I say it.

Ephraim: Yeah, I like that, I like that. For those who are watching, you’ll notice that Marc is wearing a bowtie. What’s the origin story of your obsession and love of bowties?

Marc: My business cards are bowtie shaped also. I don’t know what the origin story is except I thought it was kindergarten. First day of kindergarten I’m going to school which is my work, my dad’s going to the hospital which is his work. He must have been in a kind of 70s bowtie phase at that time. But I my mom found a picture of me when I was three years old with one. I went through a short necktie phase in college or I think it was early in college but I grew out of it and came back to the bowties. I just love it. Was so easy as a fundraiser to say hey, I’ll be the guy with glasses, beard and a bowtie because usually that’s that limits the group of people that a prospect is looking at. But I love bowties and I love the way they hang at the end. Like you can untie them and just be kind of cool hanging out there like the Rat Pack or something.

Ephraim: I love it. Let’s turn the table. Last question. You get to ask me one surprise question. I have no clue what’s coming. Bring it on.

Marc: I am so excited for this  question. If you could live in any science fiction universe, what would it be? Star Wars? Star Trek? Dark Matter? The Expanse? Continuum? Eureka? Any of them.  

Ephraim: Honestly it would be Star Wars and… see you just had an origin story about going back to age three or five with the bowtie. I’m gonna go back to June 1977. Sorry July 1977.

Marc: I was in the back of a pickup  truck at a drive-in theater where…  

Ephraim: That would have been funny. But it’s I’m in Cleveland, Ohio. I’m sorry. It’s August because we would go July or August. Summer of ’77, I’m 5 and Star Wars has just come out and my dad takes me to see it and i was a five-year-old. If I tell you I fell in love… I’m not a Star Wars nerd. I’m not one of those. I don’t know every single character. I didn’t have all the toys and the action figures but i just fell in love with the idea of what was happening on the screen as a five-year-old. And I remember the experience till right now, of that feeling. So for me it’s Star Wars. And the other thing I remember, it’s one of those things that just sticks out in my mind is we walked out of the movie theater. We’re walking across the street. I’m holding my dad’s hand to the parking lot and I turn around and there’s this long line of people standing outside the theater and I said my dad, the movie’s over. What are they doing there? And he said, there’s a 10 o’clock showing and they’re lining up to go see it. I said, can we go see it again? He goes, no it’s too late, it’s too late. In my head it’s one of those moments from childhood. So I watched Star Trek. I did see a couple of the movies but for me, Star Wars just has that power and magic of… answer your question, Star Wars.

Marc: I love it. Have you seen the specialized versions? There’s a crowdfunding, there’s a crowd project to de-specialize the original trilogy so it’s back to what we have seen, because Lucasfilms doesn’t release what we saw in the theater. I was five also and so my son bought me a version of the de-specialized ones. It’s all… I mean, it’s probably violating… I probably shouldn’t even be saying this. It’s probably violating all sorts of IP law but it was interesting to see without the all the different animations and stuff just to have that same… and you can appreciate both better. But I’m with you. I remember that. Fond memories of seeing that.

Ephraim: That to me is just… that memory is stuck in here and it’s not going anywhere. So yeah, Star Wars. Not even a question.

Thank you very much for appearing on the podcast. You can learn more about Marc’s work at, and  I also strongly urge you to connect and  engage with Marc on Twitter. His handle is @marcapitman. Marc, have a great day and thanks for being here.

Marc: Thanks so much.

Ephraim: Have a good one.