Why Are People Afraid to Ask?

Posted by Sharon Danosky | Posted in The Philanthropy Therapist | Posted on 24-03-2011


I have to confess, I really don’t know the answer to that question.  In all my experience, when you use five magic words … “Will you please help me?”  People say yes – with a smile.

I remember the first time I went to Paris.  Everyone told me to be prepared for how rude the Parisians are.   Then I read a travel book someone recommended: “Friend or Faux?” And I followed their advice.  Try to speak French, but if you can only remember one phrase, learn how to say “aidez-moi s’il vous plaît?” (Translation: will you please help me?”) It worked.  I had a fabulous time and found every person I met to be most accommodating.  I think the book I read simply articulated a universal truth.  When you ask, people are willing to help.

So, why can’t we ask for help when our goal is to extend our hand to people in need? It makes absolutely no sense to me.  Yet, I find it to be the case time and time again.  Most frequently I find the leaders of non-profit organizations (presidents, CEO’s, executive directors) are the most uncomfortable asking potential donors for help for the non-profits they run.  This is the same organization where they spend many hours, forego pay increases, fight like mad with state legislators, but cower at the thought of asking a donor – often a person waiting to be asked – for help.

The oddest thing is that it is most prevalent among founders – those who actually started the organization.   The people who have the greatest vision, an incredible amount of energy and enough passion for their cause that they could fill a small ocean are reluctant and even averse to asking for help.

I’ve decided to call it the Herculean theory —  the willingness to take on an enormous, daunting, extremely difficult task and feeling you have to do it all yourself.  Therefore, you can’t ask for help because your duty is to take on that task.  The truth is that when you ask, people take on the weight you have borne by yourself happily and willingly.  And rather than feeling like a by-stander, they begin to feel like a part of the team you are building with a sense of purpose.  I have literally watched donors melt when their non-profit leader went to them for help.  It means that much.

It is true that there is a bit more to it than simply asking.  But not much.  It is being honest, sincere and forthright.  That’s all.  And if you approach asking someone with that intent – they will offer whatever help they are able .  You never offend anyone by asking for help.

Don’t be afraid – go ahead ask.  And watch the weight of the world melt away.

“Aidez-moi s’il vous plait.”

Board Governance & Policies … “I’d rather have a root canal.”

Posted by Sharon Danosky | Posted in The Philanthropy Therapist | Posted on 03-03-2011


That is a direct quote from a Board member when the issue of developing policies was brought up.  I am sure there are a few board members who feel the same way.  Lately, I’ve been finding myself advising quite a bit on Board governance issues – and the discussion always turns to policies at one point.  That is about the same point everyone’s eyes glaze over – then some brave soul asks “Isn’t there any organization like ours where we can ‘borrow’ their policies?”   Well … as attractive as that may sound, it’s not exactly a good idea.

Besides, would you believe me if I told you that developing policies can actually be the foundation for a really good discussion about how your Board works, what it sees its role to be and moving toward a healthy, more highly functioning governing body?  Best of all, it reignites the passion of why you are serving on this Board in the first place.

The reasons for policies begin as a legal and fiduciary requirement.  As the organization that provides outstanding guidance for Boards (BoardSource, www.boardsource.org) states:  “nonprofit corporations are governed by boards of directors with legal and ethical responsibilities that cannot be delegated. The board’s responsibilities fall into the following broad categories: legal and fiduciary, oversight, financial resources and representation of constituencies and viewpoints.” To carry out this work consistently, objectively and transparently, Boards need to develop guidelines that they adhere to and these guidelines are translated into policies through which they govern the organization they are passionate about.

So, why not just “borrow” the policies of an organization like yours?   Because you will miss the opportunity for a rich discussion about the inherent values, mission, purpose and – even joy – of being a member of the Board.

To begin the discussion of policy development, someone on the Board should be assigned the responsibility to coordinate the process which should also include an annual review.  Often the Vice Chair is a good candidate because it is an excellent training opportunity to move into the role as Chairman.   They might Chair a Governance Committee that can also be responsible for nominating new Board members.

The first step is to identify the types of policies you might need.  This, indeed, can be borrowed.  I have done work with several environmental groups and the national organization, The Land Trust Alliance, has developed a manual for their member organizations that defines 12 Standards and Practices that member organizations may follow – and these serve as the basis for developing policies.  It is interesting to note that the first 7 Standards relate to any non-profit with the remaining specific to land trusts.

Once the policies have been identified, the next step is to assign the responsibility for each policy to the appropriate subcommittee.  That is where the discussions are held.  How do you want to acknowledge donors?  What constitutes a conflict of interest?   How do you delegate the decision-making process? And, what are the core values that should be adhered to in any or all instances?   While the topics may not sound the most exciting … you would be surprised by the different opinions.  And, once you start discussing your core business – whether it be the protection of land, children’s services, homelessness, the arts, etc. – then the real fireworks start.  And, that is when you re-ignite the passion.

So, if your policies are not up to date – or you don’t have any – now is the time to start.  The expectation of accountability and transparency is growing stronger – and will continue.  So, it is not optional.  My point is that is can be engaging and empowering.  As the same Board member who complained that he’d rather have a root canal said after the process was done,  “I hated the thought of it – but it was actually pretty enjoyable going through it.”

Ahhh, the sweet sound of success…