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Guide

How to ask for what you need

A guide to getting over your fear of asking for support by The Void Academy, with illustrations by Qiong Li.
Prelude

Learning how to ask for emotional and financial support for your art is a crucial skill to build as you work to develop a sustainable creative practice. We at The Void Academy know that asking for what you need can be daunting, so we’ve put together this guide to help you overcome this common fear with confidence and grace.

The Void Academy is an educational platform for artists. We offer online courses, teach workshops, and consult with artists about the financial aspects of their creative practices. Through all of our work, we’ve seen how effective asking for support can be when done in a thoughtful, honest way (proof: we’ve helped artists raise over $1.6 million for their projects). So much of the work we do is therapeutic—helping artists to overcome internal hold-ups related to money, vulnerability, and failure. In this guide we’ll talk through the pragmatic and emotional strategies that can help you have positive asking experiences.

— Karina, Siena, and Noah at The Void Academy

Sections
Guide

Getting over your fear of asking

If you’re afraid of asking for what you need, you are not alone. In some ways, this fear is what we’re all conditioned to feel in a capitalist society managed by a scarcity-model market. These two factors create competition. Feeling like you have to constantly fight for your space in the world can make you believe that since everyone else is fighting the same fight, people will be unwilling to help you. This fear can be further exacerbated by institutional marginalization of folks other than those privileged within the white-supremacist-racist-ableist-transphobic heteropatriarchy.

There are a few factors that are crucial to shifting this endless cycle of fear and alienation so you can get on with asking for what you need. The first is being able to recognize that this fear is not innate, but rather conditioned; that fear is a symptom and that we do indeed live in a world in which many humans want to help other humans.

The second factor to overcoming the fear of asking for support is by recognizing and naming your own needs. What resources or skills do you lack? Where are you struggling? Nobody exists in a vacuum and everyone needs support sometimes. By naming your needs, you can let go of unreasonable expectations you might be holding onto in relation to handling everything yourself.

A third factor to overcoming your fear of asking for support is learning to ask directly for what you need, rather than waiting around for someone to ask if you need anything. When you name your needs and proactively ask others to help you, you allow the ask to do work on your behalf. And, by asking for support, your vulnerability allows a person to make a choice to play a positive part in your creative journey. This kind of exchange opens doors and enables a kind of positive worldbuilding to take place.

Let’s do a quick mental exercise to help sweep this fear of asking out of the way.

Make a space where you can write some things down.

Now ask yourself: How does the idea of asking someone for something you need make you feel?

You can answer this question in a few words, or with full sentences.

Now, answer this question: What does it feel like to give?

Think about yourself as a giver. How do you give to the people, causes, and institutions you love? What does it feel like when you support an artist or person who you care about?

When we work with artists, we do this exercise often. That’s because most people don’t realize that when you ask, you’re not just creating an opportunity for yourself—you’re also giving your supporters an opportunity to engage more deeply with you and your work. Asking gives a person the opportunity to experience all of the positive feelings and thoughts that can come along with giving.

Remember: if you make art that resonates with people, they’ll want you to keep making it. But until you clarify what you need to keep making it, you’ll be the only one who knows what you need to keep going.

Figuring out who to ask & what to ask for

Asks can range from small to large, and from general to specific. Here are a few examples of asks you could make:

  • Ask a supporter to purchase a work
  • Ask a trusted expert for feedback on an idea
  • Ask your community for financial support through a micropayment platform like Drip or Patreon
  • Ask to have your work featured or written about
  • Ask an artist you admire to collaborate on a project
  • Ask to do a skillshare or other kind of trade/barter
  • Ask for friends and supporters to come to your opening
  • Ask your network to support a new project through a crowdfunding campaign
  • Ask a curator to do a studio visit
  • …the list goes on!

There are many ways we can feel supported, and not all of them are related to money. The first step to asking for support is knowing what you need help with, be it access to rehearsal or studio space, someone to provide constructive feedback, or simply emotional support to keep you motivated.

Let’s do another exercise to help you get clear about where you need support. Answer these questions:

  • Which of my projects are at a point where they need outside support?
  • In the short term, what do I need to take my project to the next stage? Where am I stuck?
  • What does this project need to be sustainable? What kind of help will set me up for long-term success?

To help you think about your own needs in a rational way, review these example situations:

  • Let’s say you’re a painter and you require more materials to continue making paintings. Materials cost money, so in this case, the articulated need is money. With this situation, it could make good sense for you to re-invest in yourself by selling an older work or two. Therefore, a direct way to ask for what you need would be to ask one or more of your supporters to purchase a painting.
  • As another example, let’s say you’re a digital artist with a substantial community of supporters, and in order to keep making the art that all these people love, you need to have a more predictable monthly cash flow. In this case, your articulated need is probably generating monthly income. A good solution here might be to ask your community to support you in an ongoing way through a micropayment platform like Drip or Patreon.
  • As a non-monetary example, let’s say you’re a writer and website designer who just finished your first manuscript. In order to publish your book, you need it edited, but you don’t have the money to hire someone. Here, your articulated need could be money, but it could also be finding an editor who you could do a skill-share with. You might be surprised how many editors out there need new websites, so why not ask for what you need and see what comes back?

When you understand your own needs, it becomes much easier to find direct solutions to getting those needs met. And once you know what to ask for, you can to go forth and advocate for yourself with those who are able to help.

Now is a good time to talk about the importance of actively seeking out and sustaining genuine connections with individuals whose friendship and support will be beneficial in your asking pursuits. Surrounding yourself with people who you genuinely respect—folks who you yourself would want to help and support, and folks who are building a world for themselves just like you are—goes a long way in feeling more comfortable with asking. That’s because when you nurture and grow supportive relationships, you also become a passionate giver.

So how does giving play into the asking equation? Let’s do another mental exercise to suss this out:

Think about a time you were recently asked for something and gave it.

Ask yourself: What enabled that to happen? What factors encouraged or convinced you to give? How did that feel?

Hang on to the positive examples that come to your mind. Humans are all very different, but we do share some commonalities when it comes to positive communication and helping each other out. Chances are what felt good to you will feel good to the people with whom you already have relationships, i.e. the people who, down the road, you might want to ask something of.

How to ask for what you need

Having helped many artists learn how to ask for what they need, we’ve noticed there are a few key qualities that make an effective ask. An “effective” ask is one which opens a door for two people or a group of people to connect, and for an exchange of some sort to take place.

The first quality to an effective ask is trust. Trust is something that has to be in place before you can ask someone for anything effectively. You build trust over time by authentically nurturing and growing a relationship. For example, if you’re an artist, you might build trust with your audiences by consistently putting out work that resonates with them and by being an active, engaged member of your community. You might also build trust over time by being helpful, respectful, responsive, and an overall uplifting person in the lives of others.

The next quality of an effective ask is timing. Before you seek out support, make sure it’s an appropriate time to ask for what you are asking for. This means being aware of external factors which may affect the headspace and receptiveness of the person / people whose attention you are trying to capture. You do not want to set yourself up for not being heard by asking at a time when your audience is unable to process and think about what you’re asking for.

Keep in mind that the best asks happen in a one-on-one environment and feel personal. Even if you’re using the internet to make your ask, try and make it feel as intimate as possible. For example, don’t ask someone to collaborate with you when you run into them at a loud party and they’re clearly on their way out the door. Likewise, don’t ask people to join you on Drip or Patreon on a widely celebrated holiday when everyone is too busy doing their own thing to seriously consider your ask. And, consider what might be going on in a person’s life before you ask them for something. If you know they’re busy traveling, or are gearing up for a big life event, it’s probably not a good time to add one more thing to their plate.

The next quality to focus on is the clarity of your ask. The number one reason folks might have a less-than-pleasant experience with asking for support is when their ask is not direct and clear.

Always make sure your ask answers the following questions:

  • What, specifically, are you asking for?
  • By when do you need this specific support to come through?
  • How exactly can this person or group of people help you?
  • Why now? Is this matter urgent? (i.e is it a crowdfunding campaign with a timeline?)
  • Why should they care about giving you what you’re asking for?
  • What, if anything, will they get in exchange?

Keep in mind that what makes an ask authentic is the same thing that makes you an authentic person and artist: your honesty, enthusiasm, and belief in your vision. It’s common for the fear of asking to override the genuine excitement you might have about whatever it is you’re hoping to accomplish by asking. Try not to let that happen! Know your worth and the worth of what you’re asking for, and don’t be afraid of getting a “no.” Always remember that the validity of what you’re doing is in no way contingent on getting a “yes” to every ask you make.

The next thing to consider is the format of your ask. There will be asks that happen in person, between you and one other individual. There will also be asks that happen over the internet, between you and a whole group of people. What version is best depends on the nature of your relationship to the person or group of people you’re asking, as well as what you’re hoping the end result will be.

When thinking about the format of your ask, it’s useful to reflect on the following questions: Under what circumstances do you communicate best? What platforms and/or mediums feel the most authentic to your communication style?

When possible, focus on creating those circumstances and using those platforms and/or mediums for your ask. Of course, compromises sometimes have to be made. For example, if you’re reaching out to a large number of people to back your crowdfunding campaign, chances are you will have to use online communication. However, if you feel you are best at speaking from your heart through spoken word, you can always record a video of you making your ask. In fact, that’s why crowdfunding platforms have both a section for written text and a video—having both methods enables you to communicate your ask in a style that works best for you.

As with anything scary, the best way to confront your fear is by facing it, little by little, and building confidence through practice.

To help you along, try this in-person exercise, which you can do with a trusted friend:

To complete this exercise, you’ll need a real dollar.

Now, ask your friend to play the role of a potential financial supporter. Using the qualities of an effective ask we already talked about, ask your friend for support.

Allow your friend to decide whether they will give you the dollar or not, and then ask them to explain the decision they made.

Switch roles.

Afterwards, discuss how it felt to be the one asking versus the one giving. What felt better? What made you each want to give?

Taking the leap and making the ask

Now that you’ve figured out what you need and who you’re going to ask, it’s time to take the leap.

When you finally make your ask, there will be a moment (or perhaps several moments, or even days) where you feel the uncertainty swelling around you. But then, in most cases, you will have your answer. The answer, when it boils down to it, will either be a “yes” or a “no.” If you get a yes, woohoo! Make sure to thank the person immediately and don’t be afraid to express your excitement.

If your ask receives a “no,” don’t panic. “No’s” are not the end of the world—in fact, they can be both liberating and educational. And often, a “no” does not mean “no forever,” it just means “not right now.” Even if you prepare to ask and check off qualities of an effective ask from the previous section, there are still so many factors you cannot foresee that can prevent someone from giving you a “yes.”

If you get a “no,” try and unpack it so that you can learn from it. Were all of the qualities of an effective ask in place? Try not to take it as a reflection on the quality of your art, or on you as a person. If it seems that your “no” is a “not right now,” ask to make sure it’s okay for you to ask again in the future. And feel free to ask other questions about the “no,” depending on the context and your relationship with the person. The more information you get about a “no,” the better and more prepared for the future you will feel.

What to keep in mind after you ask

If your ask received a “yes,” you are now receiving some kind of support that will help you to continue making art. Take a moment to let that sink in. It feels good to be supported, doesn’t it?

Now is a good time to think about ways you can ensure that your supporter / supportee relationship will be positive, since every relationship has conditions under which it feels good. When you asked for support, you may have offered to give something in exchange to the folks who supported you. Depending on the conditions you set up here, this can be as simple as sharing progress on the work they’re supporting, or it could be something more elaborate. Either way, you want to make good on whatever conditions you’ve set forth, and if things change, you must be transparent and honest. Always strive to hold up your end of the relationship, and communicate proactively if you are unable to show up for some part of your responsibility.

Keep in mind: making an ask is just one moment in your relationship with a person or group of people. It’s what you do afterwards that makes or breaks your relationship with your community of supporters. Therefore, it is valuable to you as both an artist and as a person to be diligent in keeping your word.

Another important thing to do once you’ve asked for and received support is keep people updated. Imagine being asked to give something, and then having given it, never finding out how your support was put to use. It’s not a very satisfying experience! You can continue to build trust with your supporters by expressing gratitude, documenting what their contribution enabled you to do, and delivering on promises. Then, when it comes time to ask again, this trust will help you to continue the positive cycle of asking for and receiving support.

As a last exercise, we’d like to suggest that you keep an asking log.

Jot down notes about each time you ask or are asked for something.

Was the ask effective? Why or why not? What was the end result? Did both parties leave feeling positive about the interaction? Why or why not?

This log doesn’t have to be super detailed, but taking notice and reflecting on times when you ask and receive, or are asked and give, can help you to process these moments and reduce anxiety for your future asks.

In summary…

We hope that this guide will help you to feel more comfortable with the idea of asking for what you need, and that as you build this skill, a world of opportunities and possibilities will unfold. Remember to treat others with respect, know that one ‘no’ does not define you, and that when you ask, you are actually giving someone an opportunity to help you create something beautiful.

Editor's note: This guide is part of a series on overcoming creative anxiety.

About the Author

The Void Academy

Artist Consultants, Educators

The Void Academy helps artists of all kinds build their communities and make a living. We believe that artists—and arts participation overall—benefits from an ecosystem that encourages direct exchange between artist and audience. We offer online courses, consultations, and interviews with independent creators on DIY arts business topics. Over the last few years, we’ve helped artists raise a total of 1.6 million dollars (and counting) towards their crowdfunding projects. Co-Founders Siena Oristaglio, Karina Vahitova, and Noah Blumenson-Cook have a combined 30 years of experience in art-making, communications, web strategy, online fundraising, education, and media production for the arts.