You’ve completed thorough prospect research, cultivated and provided a site visit, prepared a first-rate proposal and secured a meeting to make a solicitation, but the major donor prospect responds with a “no.” This scenario occurs every day. Winning fundraisers know how to handle it.
Bottom line: Fundraisers typically hear one out of three responses to an ask: Yes, No, or Maybe. With the exception of Yes, the other two responses can be nuanced and convey different meanings. It’s up to nonprofit leaders to be tuned in and sensitive to the complexity of donor words and feelings.
After a fundraising career of making solicitations for three different institutions of higher education and now serving as a trainer/consultant for a wide range of nonprofits, I’d like to share several fundraising lessons on what to do after your major gift ask is turned down.
Mastering the Art of Navigating Donor Rejections in Fundraising
1. First and foremost, hearing no is all part of the fundraising business.
In baseball if a player gets a hit one out of three appearances at the plate, they could be headed to the Hall of Fame. You can apply the same rationale to fundraisers. You are going to hear no even when taking all the right steps, and if you make frequent solicitations you are going to hear it often. You’ll come to understand that it isn’t a personal rejection because you’re not asking for yourself, but for a grander cause — a mission that touches, improves, and saves more lives. To successfully secure gifts of time and money you have to be ready to hear no. And if you hear no, I promise it’s not the end of the world. Let’s face it we hear no all the time in our personal and business lives.
2. Typically donors, especially when being asked for major gifts (think at least $10,000 or more) don’t respond favorably right out of the gate.
It takes tact, homework, and most importantly, persistence, to follow-up and bring closure to major gift asks.
3. Very often donor prospects will ask for more time.
They might want to confer with family members, financial advisors, or others to gain the benefit of their advice and counsel on readiness to take on new financial commitments. Now this part is crucial: when a donor asks for more time, mutually set a convenient date, time, and place to continue discussion of the request. Not setting a specific date and time can place you in a Bermuda Triangle of sorts, with all sense of urgency lost.
4. When you hear no, be thoughtful and sensitive, but try to find out the donor’s motivation in declining.
Is the amount too much? Is it a bad time for the donor to make a new financial commitment? Or is there a lack of understanding and/or interest in the challenges being addressed by the nonprofit? I actually think it works to our advantage when the donor prospect has questions or information that they want researched. This provides an ideal rationale for getting back together and resuming discussion.
5. If the reluctance is based on gift size, a natural response is to ask what amount would be appropriate?
Unlike others, I’m not afraid of under-asking. Receiving a gift in any amount provides the perfect opportunity to steward the donor and share information on progress achieving the mission. If the donor is pleased with these results, you always can go back later to ask for another or larger gift.
6. If timing is a problem, you always can explore a payment schedule over a mutually agreed period.
Large capital campaign gifts are often paid out over three to five years. A best practice is getting the donor prospect to sign a letter of intent pledging when payments will be made. Such letters are not legally binding but when executed usually result in gift fulfillment.
7. Another strategy to empower donor prospects to contribute in larger amounts are gifts structured with both current and deferred payment components.
The most popular deferred or planned giving options are charitable bequests, retirement plans, and life insurance policies that postpone out of pocket expenditures. Most people can be much more generous giving from their estates than from their income.
8. To obtain a major gift, you need to genuinely tap the donor prospect’s passion.
Is the project the best fit with the donor prospect? If not, you might want to discuss other funding priorities that might provide a better fit.
9. Do the personalities of the donor and solicitor click?
A tricky problem can be when the donor prospect simply doesn’t get along with the CEO, executive director, or board chairperson. In this case the ask will be more fruitful if leadership steps aside and lets the request be made by the director of development or another board member who gets along better with the donor prospect.
10. If information is difficult to obtain, it’s worth the effort to ask a friend of the nonprofit who is close to the donor prospect to discreetly inquire what might be holding up the gift.
Of course, it makes sense to have that individual engaged in the solicitation process.
11. Asking for gift upgrades from current donors can be a slippery slope.
You want to be genuinely grateful for their current gift, but be sure they’re enthusiastic about the nonprofit’s momentum and are aware of the growing needs to be met.
12. If possible, always leave doors open.
If you’re turned down, thank the prospect for their time and ask for permission to share communications about future opportunities and challenges facing the nonprofit. With change being the only constant in the world, a year or two later the donor prospect might be in a very different position to consider a request from your nonprofit.
Finally, it could be possible that your nonprofit won’t receive any support from this individual. Think of it this way: your current donors aren’t going to be receptive to every other good cause.
There’s nothing wrong with being turned down, especially if you understand the donor prospect’s rationale for doing so. It’s very difficult to be a donor who has to make choices about their finite resources, not between the good and the bad, but between the good and the good. Fundraisers can’t control outcomes. The best we can do is nurture friendships, engage donor prospects, and make our best efforts in asking for gifts of time and money. If we consistently apply the principles of the art and science of fundraising, present a compelling case, follow through on best practices — and ask — our solicitations will succeed enough of the time to move our nonprofits’ mission forward.