Why I said YES to Jack ‘Mr Toilet’ Sim

From IFC 2017, two crucial things to remember when ‘asking’

Every day, you and I are on the receiving end of many requests. Sometimes we willingly say yes, and sometimes we refuse or only comply grudgingly. What makes the difference?

At this years’ magnificent and inspiring International Fundraising Congress, I was fascinated to find myself on the receiving end of two very different asks. Given that I go to IFC every year to learn (as well to teach), this was great news. If you were there, you may have reacted differently, but today I want to share with you what I learned from the way I reacted.

The first request was that I take a seemingly small action, that would cost me nothing and was for a cause which matches my values. It was about solidarity against racial injustice and Trump’s agenda in the US. Not only this, but I had heard the issue of NFL players ‘bending the knee’ in protest at least a dozen times through the UK media over the last month.

The second request was that we help in the mission for proper sanitation for the worlds’ poorest people. Though if you had asked me if I was in broadly in favour a week ago, I would have said yes, I would not have spontaneously put it into my top 10 causes. Unprompted, would you? And I don’t remember the issue being reported in the UK media at all in the last few months.

Just as we were about to go to our first workshop…

The first request came following a fantastic opening plenary session from Jeremy Heimans about the nature of power in the twenty first century. In the dying seconds of the session, a member of the audience raised his hand and asked that, in solidarity with the NFL players’ protests, we the thousand-strong IFC audience should kneel for a few moments.

The second request came at the end of an inspiring and very funny talk by Jack Sim, aka Mr Toilet of the World Toilet Organisation (WTO!). He asked anyone in the audience who was able to help his mission, to get in touch with him. This required more effort.

I said YES to Mr Toilet…

Why is it, I wondered, that I felt reluctant to comply with the first request and kneel, (as did some other people in the thousand-strong audience), even though I am fully supportive of what they’re doing, and to do so would have taken little time and energy?

In contrast, why was it that, the moment Jack finished his talk about this far less famous cause, I found myself hurrying to the front of the room to offer help?

After some thought, here are the two biggest reasons, and both are instructive if part of your job is to help people willingly choose to support your charity.

Tone is crucial.

Exactly 365 days earlier in this very room, the rock-star / best-selling author / asking-expert Amanda Palmer gave us a range of invaluable insights into the art of asking. Amanda knows what she’s talking about, not least because long before she set a record for generating over $1million in 24 hours through Kickstarter, she had spent more than 6 years as a street performer, which she told us, ‘gives you asking balls of steel’. She certainly told us that courage, a willingness to not feel ashamed of asking for help, is important. But just as important, she said, was the importance of using a respectful tone, one which is appreciative of the other person’s situation. She told us that ‘when you leave room for a no, people can feel this respect, and are more likely to say yes’.

This year, the request from the back of the room that we kneel in solidarity came after we had been hearing about ‘new power’ and the need to be brave. The timing of the request put Usher Menon, the excellent IFC facilitator in a tricky spot. To decline the request could have appeared hypocritical.

I appreciate that this was probably not the intention of the man who made the request – he was probably especially fired up because of how well Jeremy had just spoken – but to my ears the tone of his request left little room for manoeuvre for Usher and indeed for we in the audience who were being asked to do it. In that moment I (and several other people I spoke to afterwards) felt uncomfortable. We felt there was little room left for us to say no.

Never under-estimate the importance of context.

One of the most pertinent fundraising tweets from the IFC sessions stated ‘Don’t tell me what to do…help me feel something.’

The reason many people sitting near me, either did not kneel, or did so reluctantly, was that the request came out of the blue. Because we were being asked to do something without context, it felt like we were being told to do something. One very experienced fundraiser tweeted that the request felt contrived, and later explained that done this way activism risks being seen ‘band-wagoning’…

Believe me, it’s not that this audience disagrees with the cause in question. It’s just that in that moment, of the more than 300 causes, and presumably at least 40 countries’ issues represented in the room, some people were not then in the mode of caring about this particular cause ahead of the other 299 represented.

In fact, there was another equally valid cause which we had just been provoked to feel very strongly about. Moments before, many of us had been moved to tears by a film showing the selfless efforts of a volunteer saving a babies’ life, as he pulled him from the rubble following a barrel bomb attack on a building in Syria. Had someone given me the opportunity to help that cause, saying yes would have felt entirely natural. But when the request to kneel came, it was out of context because currently we were not focused on that problem.

Understand our world, then help us care

In contrast, in his talk Jack Sim helped us associate to the tragedy that one million children a year die of diarrhoea because billions round the world have no access to a toilet of any kind. Over 2.5 billion people are forced to ‘shit by the side of the road’. He helped us realise that every day this lack of toilets causes children to die; others will be at risk of abuse and women will be at greater risk of rape. Also, he took the trouble to tune into our point of view as an audience (varying points of view, and initially unaware of the issues).

So with warmth, humour and stories, he took the trouble to show us that this problem is solvable, and that progress is already being made (including the commitment now made by the Indian Government to build 110 million toilets). Having authentically evoked the problem and given us a sense that to join this mission would make an impact, Jack simply and respectfully asked for help from anyone in the audience. I willingly said YES.

The story of how these two asks made me feel reminded me that of course being fired up about our mission is a vital ingredient in our fundraising. But however right and important we believe our cause to be, passion alone is not the answer.

For maximum chance of success, we need to temper our passion with a genuine desire to understand our (potential) supporters’ world. Curiosity here helps us with what we say before we ask for help, and it should also help us choose the best situations in which to ask in the first place.

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