Knowing how much to request

Professional fundraiser Katherine Wertheim discusses determining how big a gift to request from a prospective donor.

Katherine Wertheim
Katherine Wertheim

Katherine Wertheim

It’s the magic moment. You’re sitting across from the donor, and you’re about to make “The Ask.” How do you know how much to request?

It’s important to ask for a specific amount, because people want to know what your organization’s plan is and how they fit into it.

One way to pick an amount is to figure out what their gift can buy. If your organization has a budget of $500,000 and helps 500 people a year, then it costs $1,000 per person you help. You can then say to the donor, “It costs $1,000 to help one person for one year. We’re asking you to sponsor our assistance to five people for the next year.”

It’s easier to ask a former donor, of course. If you’re asking a donor who has given only through direct mail, a safe request is for five to ten times their highest gift. A $100 donor through the mail might be able to give $1,000. A $1,000 donor can be asked for $5,000 to $10,000.

One way to know what to request from a prospect is to tell them what their peers give. If you can say, “Your friend Mike gives us $5,000,” they’ll find that influential. Of course, in an ideal world, Mike would be there to make the request, but fundraising doesn’t always adhere to ideals.

When we ask for money, we’re often limited by our own finances. If you only give $100, it’s harder to ask someone for $100,000, because that amount seems unimaginable. That’s why it’s important that you make your own gift, and stretch to do it, before you ask someone else.

I once ran an exercise at a board training where I had each board member ask another board member for a gift. Then I had the board president ask the executive director, who ended up making a thousand-dollar pledge.

A few weeks later, the executive director called to thank me. In the past, she had done things like paying to go to conferences and calling that a contribution to the organization, but once she actually wrote a check to her own organization, asking for money became easier.

She now could go into a meeting with a major donor and say, “I give $1,000 a year and I make $70,000 a year, so certainly you can give at least as much as I do.” It’s hard to argue with that.

We often ask for too little money. If you’re thinking of an amount, try thinking of a figure that’s two to three times larger. If you’re thinking of $1,000, try asking for $2,500. If you’re thinking of $10,000, try asking for $25,000. Donors are not insulted if you ask for too much money.

Donors tend to have three reactions when you ask for money. They often say either “That’s a lot of money,” “That’s too much money,” or “That’s fine, I can do that.”

If they say “That’s a lot of money,” generally they’re not negotiating yet. They just want affirmation that you also think it’s a lot of money. So, you should agree and say, “You’re right; it’s a lot of money. It will do a lot of good.”

If they say “That’s too much money,” you can reply: “You can pay it off over time. How much time would you like?”

If they say “That’s fine, I can do that,” then you should say, “We’d like you to consider donating that amount each year for the next five years,” because if they think it’s a fine amount, you’ve clearly asked for too little.

Katherine Wertheim, CFRE, is a professional fundraiser and consultant with more than 20 years of experience in teaching board members how to ask for money. She can be reached at or

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