I’ve been thinking about the concept of help a lot lately. Both about needing help and asking for help. And it’s making me wonder if asking our donors to “help” our organizations is sending the right message.
Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.
One beautiful, perfect morning this past summer, while jumping down from the deck of a friend’s boat onto the dock below, I tripped, landed badly, and twisted my knee. The pain was sudden and intense and I couldn’t walk. Quite literally, I needed help—lots of it and in different ways.
From the first moment, I quickly relied on the kindness—and help—of the strangers sunning themselves on the boat in the next slip. They very quickly offered ice packs and ibuprofen, and a wry but admittedly funny joke or two.
My friend, whose reputation on the marina I hopefully did not permanently sully by my clumsy spectacle, ran up to the harbor master’s station clear on the far end of the pier to ask about getting EMTs to carry me up the two levels of docks to the main entrance. (You just have to let go of the embarrassment at some point and ignore all the young children standing on the upper level looking down at you and pointing.)
And then came the ask of all asks for help in this whole affair: Because my spouse was in another state at the time, I needed to ask a friend to come to the pier, give up a gorgeous day of his vacation, and drive me 90 minutes to the hospital. And he did. But first, he stopped by my house to walk the dog, pick up my bag, and stoically help me hobble to the bathroom.
Asking for help is hard. Asking for help might even be embarrassing. Asking for help, I think, should only be done when help is really needed. Not being able to walk is one of those times.
Will you be my partner?
Several years ago, I signed up for a charity bike ride from Boston to New York. Far from being an avid cyclist—I actually had to buy a bike right after I sent in my application—I knew I would need a training partner in order to be able to do the ride.
Luckily, the ride sponsors organized training rides for novices like me, and I soon got connected to a group of people who were riding at my level. I asked one of them, Gary, to be my training partner—and I offered to be his.
Every weekend we went on longer and longer distance rides. Every Wednesday evening, we challenged one another on hills.
Three months after first meeting one another, Gary and I rode every mile of the full three days of the ride, watching as one by one, others gave up along the side of the road.
We rolled into Manhattan—on our bikes!—strong, confident, and all the way to the finish line, the glorious skyline at our backs.
Gary and I pushed and supported one another from very beginning. And both of us made our goal. We each accomplished something incredible that neither of us could have done on our own.
We were partners.
What do we want to ask for?
What do we want our donors to do for us? What do we want from them?
I see organizations with appeals that say “Please help us” or “Please help” or even the more urgent: “Help us!”
But does a gift donation help? Do donors believe they are “helping” in the same way they help someone by physically offering their hand?
Asking for help implies an urgent need. So, in that way, yes, the help message may resonate with donors: We cannot do this research, educate these medical students, or care for these patients without your help,
But does asking for help also communicate a lack of ability or strength to do something well on your own? Are you also saying that without help, you can’t do what you want to do at all? After my fall, without help, I would still be sitting on that pier.
Do you want to walk or cross the finish line?
Does asking our donors for their help build trust and make them feel proud, or does it make them feel burdened? Do they feel like they are contributing to progress and success, or that they are needed just to keep something from failing?
And why, they may wonder, has it become their responsibility to do something for us that we cannot do on our own? At the end of the day, do our donors feel good about giving, or just less guilty?
We need to ask ourselves: do we want our donors to enable our organizations to hobble along while we watch everyone else pass swiftly by, waiting wistfully for the day we can walk on our own?
Or do we want our donors to be our partners, empowering our organizations—and our donors–to accomplish something grand that neither of us can do alone?