A friend of mine was babysitting her niece for the weekend. When the child awoke, my friend asked her what she wanted for breakfast. The little girl said, “ice cream,” without batting an eye. My friend said, “Would your mommy let you have ice cream for breakfast?”

Sheepishly, the girl replied, “Noooooo …” then quickly added, “but ice cream is healthy because it’s made from milk and milk makes me grow big and strong.” Who could resist such a request… especially when supported by such compelling reasoning?

Without saying another word, my friend proceeded to scoop out a dish of ice cream and put it in front of her niece. The look of absolute delight in the little girl’s eyes was priceless.

Have I ever given ice cream to my nieces or nephews for breakfast? No. But, they’ve never asked!

How does this relate to giving? In order to get something, you have to ask — and ask in the right way. In the niece’s case, her timing was perfect. She didn’t ask for ice cream in the middle of the night, but rather, when it was time to eat a meal. And she didn’t ask when her own mother was around, who would have certainly vetoed it. In addition, the amount she asked for was right. She didn’t ask for ice cream as well as three candy bars and a soda. She simply asked for ice cream.

Of course, the strategies a charitable organization uses to request financial support from donors are far more complicated. But just as in the example of my friend’s niece, the timing and the nature of the ask itself make all the difference in the outcome.

Get the scoop on strategy

When is the right time to ask supporters for money? And how do you do so? To understand correct timing for the ask, it’s important to recognize the five stages of the donor giving cycle. Everyone begins as a non-supporter — but with the right appeals and encouragement, they can become early-stage supporters, then mid-stage supporters, supporters, and finally, advocates.

You can move people through this donation cycle with different styles of engagement: educating, inspiring, reassuring, thanking and community building. Along the way, you can provide support and materials that are appropriate to where individuals are in the cycle to keep them moving toward action. Here’s how these engagement processes work to move people along the donor giving cycle.

1) Education

In the first stage, a potential donor may never have heard about your organization, mission, or cause. These non-supporters may not even be aware of you or your cause — let alone connect your cause to their faith. People in this stage need educational materials that give them the big picture as well as details about your organization and how you address the issues. The content should be decidedly non-sales in tone. A simple direct mail piece is one good way to provide such an introduction. Hosting a small party is another. Such an event should be fun, low pressure, and no-ask. The goal in either case is to develop a relationship with the person, encourage them to visit your website to learn more about your organization, and connect their faith with your cause.

That leads us to your website, a critical tool for providing education to donors. Make your stories inviting and engaging, using good story-telling techniques and compelling images. Make it easy for non-supporters to learn about your mission and cause — and do it right on your home page. Information on your site needs to be inviting to skim and easy to find.

2) Inspiration

After a person learns about your mission, the next stage is inspiration. These early-stage supporters need to be inspired. The materials you share with these donors should have content that is uplifting and brief. Examples of effective vehicles for this communication include postcards or email updates that are light on content, with a clear connection to faith. Since early-stage supporters already know about your organization, you don’t need to overwhelm them with a lot of text. This is also an area where communicating via social media can be highly effective; engaging stories on your Facebook page can help to inspire — and hopefully lead to a two-way conversation.

3) Reassurance

Inspired people are ready to take action and need reassurance to become mid-stage supporters. Make it is easy for them to donate, whether by writing a check or donating online. Assure these donors that they have convenient, secure choices for giving. This is where you need to communicate via all appropriate channels to reassure them that they are making the right move, and that they’ve chosen a worthy cause.

4) Gratitude

After mid-stage supporters donate, they become supporters. When their check is received or the online donation is made, send thank-you letters or notes, and provide follow-up information about how their money made an impact. Thank them, and be accountable. That’s the best way to make them want to donate again.

5) Community Building

Naturally, after individuals become donors, you want to keep them. In the last stage of the donation cycle, the donor becomes an advocate. These donors are closely aligned with your cause, see it as part of their value system, and will tell others. This is where you want to build community.

Advocates are prime candidates for moving up the pyramid of giving and becoming annual givers and lifetime supporters. Stay in touch. Invite them to volunteer, if applicable. Call your advocates and thank them for their support. Go deeper with the content of your communications. Give them specific opportunities to connect. And never stop saying thank you to them.  

The process isn’t complicated — educate early, inspire the interested, reassure, thank and lastly, continue to build community. The timing and content must be right for each ask.

Are you ready to ask for ice cream?

My friend’s niece knew by instinct how and when to make her request. She also knew her audience, and asked when the moment was right. Instinct plays a major role for us as well, but it’s equally important to understand the stages of donor giving — from education to community building.

Inspiration: This model for the stages of donor giving is based on James Prochaska’s transtheoretical model of change described in his book, Changing for Good. David Chapin brought this to my attention in his book, Making the Complex Compelling.