5 Tips for Surviving the Fund-Raising Minefield

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Sites like JustGiving.com have made fundraising around the holidays a whole lot easier.

In the old days it was easy. A hasty triple tap of the close-elevator button and a speedy 5 p.m. getaway were it all took to stop Bill in accounts from guilting you into sponsoring his half-marathon for the 15th time that year. But websites like justgiving.com — a Facebook-style sponsorship site where each fund-raiser has a donation page — and send-to-all email options mean that Bill can now collar 500 of his “closest friends” in an instant.

Slightly annoying? Yes. But really that big a deal? A 2010 Ipsos Public Affairs-Ranstad survey that asked employees what annoyed them most about e-mail put personal sponsorship requests at No. 4 on the list. And despite these times of austerity, the fund-raising economy continues to boom. JustGiving recently gained its 13 millionth user and has raised more than $1.2 billion for worthy causes in its 10-year history.

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Now, you’re not a bad person and probably do a reasonable amount for charity already, but let’s face it, you’d need Trumpian-sized pockets and a distant blood link to Mother Teresa in order to satisfy the deluge of sponsorship requests the modern worker faces. So for those drowning in a sea of guilt trips and puppy-dog eyes, here are five tips for keeping your friendships (and wallet) afloat.

1. It’s O.K. to Say No!

It’s important to remember that e-mails and links are only requests, not court orders. You are well within your rights to ignore them, and if you see that the e-mail has been sent to a large group of people, then your lack of reply might not even be noticed. You certainly won’t be the only one. If, on the other hand, you want to do the right thing and tell them straight, make sure you’re firm but try to find a positive that might cushion the blow. “One polite way is to say something like, ‘Jim, this seems very worthwhile, but I’ve decided not to do any sponsorships this year due to unforeseen financial obligations,'” suggests Jacqueline Whitmore, etiquette expert and author of Poised for Success. “Or you can say, ‘I’m not able to help out right now, but keep me in mind for next year.'”

2. Come Up with a Game Plan

By this we mean get methodical and work out a clear set of guidelines that will help you decide whether this is something you want to sponsor. Experienced campaigners like Bill are adept at persuading the undecided, which is why you need a rock-solid personal policy to ensure you don’t end up out of pocket. “Give yourself a budget per donation and set out the causes you’re willing to get behind,” recommends “Britain’s Leading Etiquette Expert” William Hanson. “Then you can use your social intelligence to treat things on a case-by-case basis.” And don’t be suckered in by the league tables on some websites that rank people by size of donation. Flashing cash you don’t have may come back to haunt you the next time someone asks you for sponsorship, as you’ll have raised expectations.

3. Sometimes You May Need to Break the Rules

As we’ve said, digging deep can set a dangerous precedent, but there are certain circumstances where you may want to consider it. If that promotion-touting boss / big-spending client / future in-law (delete as applicable) comes calling, then it can be a good idea to pull out the stops. As a friend of mine recalls, “I was making headway at work and started getting invites to Sunday golf rounds with the boss. But during a tight month, I had to skimp on my donation for his triathlon and ever since I’ve been cast out into the cold.” It doesn’t seem fair — and yes, the boss does sound like a bit of a baby — but these are the things you need to take into consideration.

4. How to Deal with Hagglers

So you’ve taken the plunge, but they’re still trying to shake you for more? This is a particularly cunning type of fund-raiser who needs to be taught the definition of gratitude. Before they lay it on extra thick with tales of how generous the sales team has been, make it clear you’re not the type of cookie to crumble. “Say quite politely, yet firmly, that you have a rule not to donate more than a set amount and you hope they are O.K. with this,” says Hanson. And if you do start to question your donation, bear in mind that these fund-raisers are generally the fitness fanatics for whom climbing a mountain is more like a treat than a trial. Maybe save that extra 20 bucks for the day they pledge to eat their weight in Krispy Kremes – then you’ll see them suffer.

5. For Those Seeking Sponsorship – How to Ask

If you happen to be on the other end of the charity equation and are asking for money, it’s important to bear in mind that your targets receive dozens of these e-mails each month, so it’s vital to make yours stand out. Go for the personal touch – outline why you’re raising money and what the cause means to you on a personal level. By all means be emotive, but make sure your message doesn’t become shrill. As Whitmore writes in her book, “Stories are the most basic tool for connecting us to one another and have a unique power to move people’s hearts, minds, feet, and wallets in the storyteller’s intended direction.”

Another trick for standing out from the crowd can be the nature of your request. Instead of money, ask people to donate things you can auction, or profitable recycling goods like old mobile phones. People are reluctant to part with hard cash, but give them the chance to get rid of that bike in the garage and they’ll bite your hand off.

Having sealed the deal, make sure you show gratitude, not only because it’s the polite thing to do but also because you may need to ask again in the future. Over to Hanson for the proper way to give props. “Preferably by [sending a] letter, but at least by telephone,” he says. “You can phone people but it will take a lot more time; a nicely penned thank you letter takes about two minutes to write and is the best way, in my opinion.” You heard the man: shut down the laptop if you really to want to give thanks. Keep it classy and they’re bound to keep you in mind for future donations.

Jak Phillips is a contributor at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @JakPhillips. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.