Changing places

Having worked as a fundraiser, and now as a philanthropy researcher, I’ve done a fair bit of asking, and an awful lot of thinking about asking. But as I’m not wealthy myself, I’m never on the receiving end of a personal, direct ask. So it’s been fascinating to find myself in the shoes of the asked not just once but twice in recent weeks. And both experiences gave me tiny insights into what it must be like to be courted by causes wanting your cash, and how easy it is to get the asking wrong.

The first experience was a result of mistaken identity. I was visiting a major charity to present some research and my host – a senior member of the fundraising team – very kindly offered to give a me a tour of the building. Presumably this person would usually be giving tours to well-heeled potential donors or senior decision-makers from charitable foundations, so it’s not surprising that her colleagues assumed I had access to big bucks (though my shabby shoes ought to have given me away as a decidedly poorly-heeled academic). Towards the end of the tour I spotted something on the wall that I wanted to ask about, yet suddenly found myself being lectured, at length, about an aspect of their work that she thought I wanted to know about. Time stood still as the long-winded explanation went on and on, and  I began to appreciate visiting dignitaries’ ability to feign interest in things they never expressed any desire to know. Suddenly our time was up and I was bustled out of the room, slightly annoyed and no wiser about my unasked question. As I am not a potential mega-donor no harm was done, but I wonder how often we talk at, rather than to, potential donors, and make unwarranted assumptions about what will inspire them.

The second experience concerned an acquaintance who phoned out of the blue and asked me to join a committee to help a cause that she cares passionately about. As it happens I don’t share her interest in this cause, but have often shared what knowledge I have about charities and fundraising with people I know who are committed to things that don’t rock my boat. But the speed at which this ask came and the lack of groundwork in warming me up for an ask – albeit for a contribution of time and knowledge rather than money – was another case study in how not to inspire and motivate a potential donor. What’s worse, I felt terrible for saying no as I felt judged for my lack of interest in the cause.

Being a student of philanthropy is the best job in the world. It’s a subject I find endlessly fascinating and hopefully the findings will do some good at some point. But I’ve always been aware that my life experience is so very far removed from those I try to study. Thanks to an over-enthusiastic staffer and a clumsy request for help, I’ve had a tiny taste of what it must be like to be have something that other people want, and a tiny insight into why the answer might be no.

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