Why “Ask”?

At Michael Rosen Says…, I listen to my readers. And, I even sometimes take requests.

Recently, I received an email from Anton Wishik, a professional editor who recently transitioned to the development world. I thank him for the message. He wanted to know why I insist on using the word “ask” as a noun.

The inquiry caught my attention for a number reasons:

1. As a former newspaper editor, the proper use of language continues to matter to me.

2. According to the good folks at Merriam-Webster, the word “ask” is indeed a verb, not a noun. So, Mr. Wishik has a valid point.

3. Mr. Wishik’s inquiry gives me the chance to write about one of my favorite topics: The “ask.” (Ooops, there I go again.)

With his permission, here is the email I received from Mr. Wishik:

As a longtime editor who just recently started working in the planned giving industry, I cringe at the use of the word ‘ask’ as a noun, which I had never seen/heard before. So do many other writing professionals; here’s one comment made at Merriam-Webster’s site: Marianna Zhabokritsky · Court Reporter at Ministry of the Attorney General (Ontario), ‘So ‘ask’ is now being used as a noun? ….  Please tell me that it is still considered to be an improper use of the English language! Highly irritating!’

I’m not a stuffy editor and I realize fully that the language is constantly evolving, with new words joining the lexicon almost daily. I’m not even saying that ‘ask’ shouldn’t officially join the language as a noun, much like ‘tell’ has come into wide usage as a noun from poker. Maybe the words ‘request,’ ‘query,’ or ‘solicitation’ don’t quite describe the action taken by a [Planned Giving Officer].

I see that you use ‘ask’ as a noun, and I’m sure you have an opinion on the subject — and thought you might want to blog about it!”

Well, as I’ve said, I’m happy to take requests from time to time.

To help me explore the issue of “ask” as a noun, I’ve enlisted my good friend Laura Fredricks, author of the best-selling book The Ask and the new e-book Winning Words for Raising Money. Here is what Laura had to say:

It is so common that when anyone wants anything in life…they ‘ask.’ We have grown up to ask, politely, for what we want. We don’t ‘request’ we ‘ask.’

Taking this to our professional fundraising level, we have taken the ‘ASK’ to a sophisticated level. Asking for money takes organization, structure, focus and follow up. Comparing our ‘ask’ to a ‘request,’ ‘ask’ wins hands down because it has more impact and meaning. A ‘request’ is fleeting but an ‘ask’ has presence and attention. The person being asked knows that an important decision is about to be made.”

Click here to see The Ask at The Nonprofit BookstoreI agree with Laura. When a development or sales professional puts forth an “ask,” he or she has already done a great deal of work. The prospect has been identified, educated and cultivated. The professional has evaluated the prospect’s situation and has determined the most appropriate thing to ask for.

For their part, prospects usually understand that the “ask” will likely lead to some type of negotiation rather than a simple yes/no conclusion.

The noun “ask” implies more than just the sentence making the “ask.” It refers to the sentence and everything that has led up to it.

In development, we ask for donations. So, it seems silly to me to use a word that is different from the verb when we need a noun. When we talk about the act of asking for a donation, we are talking about the “ask” not the “request” or the “query.”

In a professional context, the word “request” does not imply the same sort of process that “ask” does. To me, a “request” is simple, in the moment and, usually, with a binary outcome.

For example, if I visit a prospect’s home, I might request a glass of water. The request is extremely simple. The request is in the moment; I didn’t know I was going to be thirsty; I am now thirsty. The request has two possible outcomes: 1) My host can agree to provide me with a glass of water. Or, 2) my host can decline to provide me with a glass of water.

By contrast, a “query” generally seeks information. In the development context, an “ask” generally seeks a commitment and/or donation.

As for the word “solicitation,” I admit that I still use it from time to time. However, I always kick myself for doing so. That’s because I know from experience that eventually someone will once again remind me that prostitutes solicit, development professionals facilitate philanthropy.

Language is important. The words we choose matter. While the noun “ask” does not exist in the broader world, I share Laura’s belief that it most certainly and appropriately does exist in the fundraising and sales worlds.

As have many others, I’ve used “ask” as a noun for decades, and I will continue to do so in my professional life.

Now, having said all that, let me just add that I really do not care all that much what noun you use to describe the act of asking. Please choose whatever noun makes you happiest.

My primary concern is not what you call it. Instead, I’m more concerned that you actually do more of it and do it in the right way.

As I cite in my book Donor-Centered Planned Gift Marketing, among US residents over age 30, only 22 percent say they have been approached by a nonprofit organization to consider a planned gift, according to a study by The Stelter Company.

However, according to a survey conducted by Adrian Sargeant and Elaine Jay, 88.7 percent of donors to nonprofit organizations “indicated they believe it is appropriate for nonprofits to ask for legacy gifts.”

So, if the vast majority of folks think it’s fine for a nonprofit to ask for planned gifts, why do so few charities ask so few people to make a planned gift?

When it comes to major gift fundraising, most nonprofits are pretty good at asking their very best prospects for a major gift. A great many nonprofits are also fairly good at asking for grassroots support. However, very few charities do a solid job of appropriately asking for support from lower-level major gift prospects.

Call it what you will. But, if you want to raise more money from more people, make a promise to your organization to do more of it and to do it in a better way.

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?


[Publisher’s Note: If you have any suggestions for future blog topics, please feel free to contact me. In addition to this blog, I also speak internationally. If you would like to consider me to be a presenter for your organization or professional association, I invite you to contact me, or you can learn about some of my past speaking engagements here.]

5 Responses to “Why “Ask”?”

  1. We could have some fun compiling a list of verbs we use as nouns; the ask, the throw, etc. Looking forward to hearing your presentation at PPPGP next week.


    • Chuck, thank you for commenting and for mentioning my upcoming seminar for the Partnership for Philanthropic Planning of Greater Philadelphia. For my readers in the Philly area, you can come to my PPPGP seminar for FREE. You can learn more about “Avoid Pitfalls and Become a Planned Giving Superstar” by visiting: http://pppgp.org/event/76.

  2. Michael,

    Enjoyed today’s post, as I usually do. It made me smile because, as someone who writes his own blog, I realize words do have specific meanings and definitions.

    Our society and profession has changed the meanings of words over the years. It can irk me sometimes, too. As you know, I have written several times about nonprofits that have become dependent on government money. When you look at the definition of charity or philanthropy, you do not find the term “government supported organization” anywhere. I have always believed that charities are funded by private individuals and organizations which is why Congress created the charitable tax deduction almost a century ago. Now, because so many charitable organizations seek government assistance, the Federal and state governments are proposing a cap or eliminating the charitable deduction. If organizations returned to putting an emphasis on the actual definition of those words and went to individuals again, the deduction might not be endangered.

    • Richard, thank you for sharing my interest in the power of language. You are correct. “Philanthropy” has nothing at all to do with government funding. When speaking with my clients, I find it revealing to discover whether or not they include government funding in their fundraising totals. My belief is that they should not. Government funding should be recognized as its own separate revenue stream. Over the years, when some organizations I’ve been involved with have begun to separate government dollars from philanthropic dollars, they quickly realize the need to ramp-up their fundraising efforts.

      As for your assertion that the Federal government might be less inclined to cap or eliminate the charitable deduction if nonprofits would demand fewer government dollars, I’m less optimistic than you. I think the attack on the charitable deduction is nothing less than a simple money grab by the government. Whenever I’ve talked to members of Congress about the charitable deduction or the IRA Rollover or other giving incentives, policy issues have NEVER come up. All that members of Congress have been concerned about has been revenue in and revenue out. The only exceptions were former Senators Rick Santorum and Joe Lieberman. The government, at any level, is a machine with an insatiable appetite for money.


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