8 Tips Fundraisers Can Learn From Street Beggars



Your money can become my sandwich

What I learned from a street beggar* (see “Note” below).

Last week a street beggaraka panhandler asked me for money and I gave it to her.  I don’t usually do this because I wonder how the money may be used and tend to give, instead, to philanthropic organizations that help the homeless and marginally employed population.  This time was different, and I want to share with you the lessons learned.  Here’s her pitch:
Can you please give me $2.00 so I can buy a sandwich? Maybe a little later for lunch?
This amazingly simple request – and everything about her approach and follow-up –works on multiple levels.  And the principles apply not just to street beggars but also to nonprofit fundraising:

  1. Specific ask
  2. Reasonable amount
  3. Clear compelling purpose I can visualize
  4. Humble and honest approach
  5. Different than competition
  6. Offer has value
  7. Good location
  8. Everybody gets thanked
1. SPECIFIC:  Tell me precisely what size gift you’d like me to consider.
cardboard beggars sign with dollar symbol and question mark
Vague requests > token gifts  Image by Gamma Man

A person is more likely to give if they know how much is expected of them. Ask for a specific dollar amount. Don’t be vague, as in “any amount helps.” Don’t be passive. This beggar didn’t just sit on the sidewalk with a cup in front of her. I didn’t have to decide how much money she might appreciate. She told me specifically.  She wasn’t aggressive.  I didn’t feel “hit up”.  And I didn’t feel apprehensive that the amount I gave would be too little or too much. I knew exactly what was being asked of me.

2. REASONABLE:  Make the amount something within my ability to give.
A person is more likely to give if the amount asked is related to a tangible goal and is an amount they can reasonably consider.  Two bucks might be more than I’d give if there was just a cup sitting on the street, so in this regard it could be considered a “stretch” gift.  It’s still completely within my ability to consider however, so it’s reasonable.  And I’ll end up feeling really good if I do it, because I know it’s enough to get the job accomplished.  So it’s not just “a drop in the bucket.”
3.  CLEAR:  Use words, stories or images that help me visualize the need and/or solution.
Photo of homeless veteran with panhandling sign
Picture tells a story

A person is more likely to help someone if they feel their contribution will make a significant difference in that person’s situation.When you ask, help me picture what the money will be used for. Ideally, it should be something I can visualize. Use words that immediately bring a picture to mind – like you, or the people helped by your organization, eating a sandwich. Or tell me a story – like a beggar’s sign informing me you’ve served your country. And don’t despair if you’re not a direct service organization. Show me a picture – like a cross burning on someone’s lawn (advocacy organization)… wide-eyed children being inspired at a museum (arts organization)… that helps me feel what the people you’re trying to help might be feeling.  I’ve got to be able to perceive the unfolding drama – and the happy ending – that will come about as a result of my contribution. See ONE Incredibly Dramatic Way to Create Winning Content.



4.  HUMBLE:  Take an honest approach so I don’t feel manipulated.
A person is more likely to help someone if they can identify with the person being helped. I could imagine being in her situation. And she wasn’t asking for money just for the sake of money.  She wanted – and needed – some nourishing food. And that’s all she was asking for.  Just two bucks for a sandwich. And she asked politely. The impression I got from this panhandler was that she was not apologetic, just down on her luck and hungry. It pays to be humble, honest and respectful. An old Japanese proverb holds: It is a beggar’s pride that he is not a thief. We are not asking for ourselves.  We’re not asking so we can buy Mazzeratis.  We’re asking because there are needs to be filled and people to be helped. See The Secret of Donor-Centered Fundraising: No Money Involved .
5.  DIFFERENT: Stand out from the competition. 
Panhandler with sign "Will eat for food"
Fresh, direct approach

A person is more likely to pay attention if your approach is fresh and different from everyone else.  This beggar was neither passive nor aggressive.  There was nothing slick, sleazy or manipulative about her (at least from my perspective).  Sometimes it pays to look at what others are doing; then do the opposite. Of course, this isn’t always the case.  There’s a reason the tried-and-true is tried-and-true.  But it bears consideration. Could you stand out more? Could you fix something that isn’t exactly broken, but that could function more effectively? There may be a different way you can ask, or a different place you can use as a platform for your message. SeeWhy If It’s Not Broke Don’t Fix It No Longer Applies.  

6.  OFFER:  Know what I may value. 
A person is more likely to give when they get something of value in return. And it doesn’t need to be tangible. This beggar understood an essential truth underlying most charity:  giving makes people feel good. Underlying motivations may vary – religious obligations; guilt at having so much more than others; desire to give back or pay it forward, etc. – but the bottom line is that there’s a value-for-value exchange that occurs.  The asker has an “offer” and the giver “accepts” that offer by giving.  The more we understand the reasons people give, the more likely we are to be recipients of their philanthropy. See Psychology of Giving: Influence Your Affluence by Using the Science of Persuasion.
7.  LOCATION:  Position yourself for success by choosing a media channel frequented by your prospective supporters. 
A person is more likely to give when you find them where they are. This beggar was at an ATM located in a laid-back, uptown neighborhood shopping area with a fair amount of foot traffic. Everyone going there was getting money. And they were likely already in a bit of a spending mood. They weren’t downtown, stressed, and likely to be in too much of a hurry to even consider the offer. Where do your donors hang out?  See Lost in Translation: When Email Hits Mobile, Then What?  Are you fishing where the fish are apt to be biting? See What Fishing Can Teach Us About Fundraising. If your constituents hang out on social media, you’ve got to be there. See Social Media for Small Organizations: Why a little dab won’t do ya .   If they read your communications on a cell phone, you’ve got to be optimized for mobile. If they give primarily online, you need a user-friendly donation landing page and a big “donate” button. See Button, Button, Who’s Got the Button? One Huge Year-End Tip to Increase Donations
8.  THANK EVERYBODY:  Always thank people for their time and attention, even if they don’t give today.
Most panhandlers know to show appreciation if someone gives them money. Truly successful panhandlers know to show appreciation even when people don’t give them money. They say thank you, and wish folks a good day.  My panhandler thanked everyone and said “God bless”. Why? Doing so may make folks think twice about refusing their request the next time they pass by.  When someone says “no” to your request for a contribution, remember that’s not the end of the story.  You want to build relationships with folks over time.  So… thank non-donors too. See It’s the Relationships, Stupid: Making Friends of our Donors.
*NOTE: I want to apologize up front for use of the term beggar, which may be jarring to some.  Whenever I talk to volunteers about fundraising I exhort folks to retire the tin cup.  We aren’t beggars, I say.  But real beggars can’t be choosers.  And we can learn something from them about how to raise money when your very life depends on it.  Because for most nonprofits, that’s actually the case. If your prospects think you don’t really need their support – perhaps they believe you get plenty from other funders… you have a big endowment… you earn your own through fees or sales… you won’t spend their contribution wisely – then they won’t feel your case is particularly compelling.  Maybe they’ll make a token gift, but… a quarter isn’t enough to buy a sandwich. Which is why, in this regard, having a bit of a beggar mindset is not such a bad thing.


Are there other tips you would add?


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  1. Nice approach to an important topic. Succinctly done, and extremely good advice.

  2. This was a terrific re-framing for me – really made me slow down and think through all of your points (instead of speeding through, figuring I had heard it before). And compelling story-telling – I could really visualize the setting and the individual all the way through. Great modeling exactly what you are talking about – very helpful!

  3. Thanks Julia. Glad I could help. :-)

  4. Hi Claire, I am working on a project and researching the psychology of giving. I have read several studies that suggest that people experience an activation in the pleasure centers of the brain from charitable giving. I have also read that telling them this, when asking them to give may have an adverse affect.

    What I am wondering is how publicizing their gift affects them. (example – you donate to a charity and then share that information on Facebook or with a similar audience) Does it increase or decrease the pleasure that they get. Have you read any studies on this?

    • Hi Celeste,

      I can’t say that I’ve ready studies specifically on point, however I’d commend to you The Greater Good Institute at U.C. Berkeley and the work of Dacher Keltner on the subject. Also the work of Robert Cialdini.

      Anecdotally, I don’t believe you can ‘lecture’ people into philanthropy by telling them it’s good for them or that it will make them happy. As to whether or not it makes them feel better/worse if their gift is publicized, I truly find that to be case by case. I try to let folks know that they are doing a DOUBLE good deed by inspiring others to follow in their footsteps. This works for many, and they do end up feeling quite proud of being able to help; then continue to help through inspiration. At the same time, some folks are too shy, or simply believe this is impolite. I don’t push them.

      Hope this helped in some small way. Feel free to contact me directly if you’d like to discuss more.

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