How to Ask for Money
Our Nicole has a piece in Scratch today called How Writers (Actually) Get Paid, which is interesting and informative.
If the editor dodges your questions about payment terms, she might not know the answer herself. If she can’t or won’t find out for you, think twice about taking the job; you’re probably dealing with a publication that doesn’t have a defined process or system for dealing with freelance payment. When working for individuals rather than businesses, ask for payments in installments (including an upfront installment) to ensure the intention and capability of payment. You might also add a late fee to your contract to indicate that you’re serious about getting paid in a timely fashion. However, this isn’t possible when working with most publications, and won’t necessarily make a payment appear that wasn’t going to appear already.
She quotes a bunch of smart people, including Kima Jones and Lord High Internet Commissioner Michael P. Dang, and then oh hey, she quotes me too, being kind of blunt.
“If you can’t ask for the money you think you deserve, and if you can’t ask repeatedly, if necessary, you should probably be in a different line of work. Unfortunately, the way the system is set up is so essential to the endeavor that if you can’t ask for more money, or if you can’t ask ‘Where is my money?’ you should probably do something else.”
The thing is, this advice isn’t just for freelancers; it’s kind of for everyone. We should all know how to ask for money. (First tip: don’t get your info from WikiHow.) And yet. AND YET. It is so stressful for most of us. Here is how I learned to do it.
At my most recent job, an arts non-profit, I was doing pretty well working in Programs and Communications, toodling along, you know, and then my boss was like, “How would you feel about switching over to Development?”
I laughed heartily and and went back to my spreadsheet. Then she asked again. Apparently she was serious. “We need a grantwriter,” she said. “You’re a writer. That’s halfway there.”
The kicking and screaming lasted for a while, and then the echoes died down, and I was a Development Manager, and I had to figure out how to approach rich people. It wasn’t long before I realized what my boss had intuited, that I was reasonably good at this strange task. Here is what I learned that helped:
1. Donors expect to be approached. That eliminates some of the awkwardness. It’s your job, as the petitioner, to provide a clear-cut, straightforward, and if possible emotionally compelling case for why their money should go to your lemonade stand rather than to someone else’s or the Audi dealership. What can you do with it that will make them happier, in the long run, than a new car?
1a. As we know, experiences are more meaningful than things. How can you help the donor have a memorable experience? Part of this has to do specifically with you: help make their dealings with you as pleasant and frictionless as possible, so that they retain positive associations with you. See 5 and 7.
1b. Your real enthusiasm for something is contagious. Donors want to feel that same enthusiasm, they want to share that with you. It’s like with public speaking. Maybe people are scared to get up in front of crowds because they assume audiences are hostile, but audiences want you to succeed; they want to be entertained. Donors are often the same way. They’re looking for opportunities to do good, to get in on something in the early exciting stages, to invest wisely, and so on. I know it sounds crazy but you’re helping them too. You’re not a servant crawling up to a king. You’re an individual broaching an idea to another individual that will be ultimately benefit you both.
2. The money is merely the means. It’s representative. What you’re asking for is support in a broader sense, a short- or long-term emotional as well as a practical investment. Asking for money feels awkward when you focus too hard on the individual dollars. What you’re really asking for is engagement in a good cause: you believe in your good cause, presumably, and you’re inviting them to believe in it too.
3. Believe in your good cause. See 1b. You can’t fake this, so don’t try. Don’t ask for money for anything you wouldn’t spend money on yourself. In the case of asking for a raise at work, that means that you have to recognize your own value — either on the market or under your specific circumstances. That’s why it’s such a good idea to know what other people make.
4. Go in well-informed. Know everything you can about the field, the donors, their competitors, your competitors. Go in armed with information and you won’t feel alone. Also, when the donor says “Why this?” or “Why you?” you’ll have an answer.
5. People give to people (they like). I hadn’t worked in Development very long before someone shared with me this Development truism. Sure, abstract causes are nice. (End World Hunger!) But relationships are paramount. Everyone resents being used; donors want to be seen as people, not purses, and good petitioners will treat them that way. Good petitioners will likewise make sure they are seen as people and not merely black holes of need.
6. Have a story. People are wired to respond to narrative. The kid selling candy bars on the train to stay out of trouble or because he wants to go to college is going to move more product than a silent kid with a bunch of M&Ms. No one cares about the M&Ms, not really; they care momentarily about that child and want to feel good about helping him, in however small a way.
7. Be respectful. Don’t take up too much of a donor’s time or energy. Show that you are sensitive to their needs, and that, if told “no,” you will not make of yourself a pain in the ass. Write thank you notes. Make calls. Show up on time, prepared, and act like a professional.
8. Have courage. My people would call this “chutzpah.” Not a lot — like I said, you can’t fake it. And you don’t want to come off as a snake-oil salesman, anyway. You need just enough confidence to smile, to look someone in the eye, to shake hands. All of the above should help with this but so will practicing, especially in real life but low-stakes situations. So practice. Practice asking for things. Often you will be rewarded by getting things. This is exciting! Do it more.
9. Don’t take “no” personally. It’s not about you, really; you’re the conduit. Besides, a “no” now doesn’t preclude the possibility of a “yes” later, especially if you are gracious about it and incorporate any feedback you are given.
And: Listen when other people request things of you and pay attention to what makes that person’s ask convincing or not. If you feel moved to give, ask yourself why. Odds are you’ll learn something that you can turn around and use yourself.