The Art of Asking is the title of the must-have fundraising book by the late Terry Murray (founding partner of Downes Murray International). It is also the title of a remarkable memoir by Amanda Palmer, who rose to fame in 2012 when she raised $1.2 million to make her music album using the crowdfunding platform, Kickstarter.
At the time it was the biggest music project in crowdfunding history. What fascinated me most about Amanda’s story is how right from day one, when she started work as a human statue in Boston (she called herself ‘TheBride’), she instinctively knew that it wasn’t so much about her performance but rather about connecting with and acknowledging each person who dropped a coin or dollar bill into her hat.
She did this by lovingly looking each person directly in the eye and then handing them a flower. In so doing, she made every person feel noticed, special and appreciated for the gift they had given her. She writes: ‘Sometimes people would hold my gaze and try to give the flower back to The Bride, as if to somehow repay me for the flower I had just given them. And I would gesture: No, no . . . it’s yours to keep.’
Amanda gave up working as a human statue when she formed the indie rock band The Dresden Dolls with Brian Viglione. Just as she’d done as The Bride, Amanda connected personally with her audience, only this time she did it by replying personally to fan mail (first by post and email and then through Facebook and Twitter) and being available to meet and chat to fans after their concerts (with sometimes the after-concert meet-and-greet lasting longer than the performance).
Through these relationships she asked for help and her fans and friends responded generously. In her book she describes colourfully how they crowd-sourced a place to stay each night (a.k.a couch-surfing) while touring; secured venues, musicians, opening acts and food.
She shares: ‘Like all real relationships, my “special relationship” with my fans wasn’t some shtick that I came up with at a marketing meeting. Throughout my career, the fan base has been like one big significant other to me, a thousand-headed friend with whom I have a real, committed partnership.
‘I don’t take vacations from communicating without warning. We share our art with one another. They help me run the business by feeding me constant information. I cop to my mistakes. They ask for explanations. We talk about how we feel. I tweet to say good night and good morning, the way I would with a lover. We trust one another. Occasionally, I’ve broken up with fans. Some have broken up with me.’
What amazes me about Amanda is that unlike other artists, especially the famous ones who build walls (invisible and real) around themselves to protect themselves from their fans, she embraced her crowd. And in so doing she built a loyal fan-base, who were at the heart of her crowdfunding success. She also learnt to not be afraid to ask.
‘Asking is, in itself the fundamental building block of any relationship. Constantly and usually indirectly, often wordlessly, we ask each other – our bosses, our spouses, our friends, our employees – in order to build and maintain our relationships with one another.’
After Amanda’s crowd-funding success she was invited to give a 12-minute TED talk in which she describes her journey from The Bride to Crowdfunding Superstar. It resonated very powerfully with the audience with one person saying: ‘Your talk unlocked something really profound for me. Why the hell do we find it so hard to ask, especially if others are so willing to give?’
Within a day of the talk being posted to YouTube, it had over 100 000 views; and today, more than 4,5 million people have watched it. I have – and I encourage you to do so, too – and then read her book. Besides being thoroughly entertaining, it’s a wonderful reminder of what’s at the heart of successful fundraising: building relationships and not being afraid to ask.
P.S.: Amanda Palmer was the opening plenary speaker at the 2016 International Fundraising Congress in the Netherlands. Visit www.resource-alliance.org to find out more.Sarah Scarth is a consultant at Downes Murray International, and is the Resource Alliance’s Southern Africa area representative.