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[ASK AN EXPERT] How To Handle Donor Rejection

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Our Ask An Expert series features real questions answered by Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE, our very own Fundraising Coach, also known as Charity Clairity.

Today’s question comes from a nonprofit employee who wants advice on how to handle donor rejection. 

Dear Charity Clairity,

How do I get a donor? I have requested for funds several times but only get regrets!!

— Living in No-Man’s Land

Dear Living in No-Man’s Land,

You’ve asked a huge question, the answer to which is no doubt suitable for an entire book! So, I’m going to answer by fleshing out a number of actions you can take when someone says “No.”

“No” can mean multiple things. One thing it generally does not mean is “No, never.” “No” is more often than not a maybe. Maybe, if you:

  • Asked for another project
  • Asked for a different amount
  • Allowed me to pay over a period of years
  • Had someone else ask me

Turn a “No” into a follow-up question. A teaching moment.

  • “Claire, can you tell me more about why you’re saying ‘no’ today?”
  • “Is it something I didn’t explain well?”
  • “Can I ask if your answer relates to a concern you have about whether the program will come to fruition?”
  • “Is this just not a good time for you?”

Don’t take the first “no” for an answer. There’s a graceful way to do this, just by being genuinely interested. You really do want to know their reasoning, right? Is it your case for support? Your leadership? Their funding guidelines or areas of interest? The amount you asked for? Just the fact that they’re overcommitted right now? Let the funder know it will help you with other community fundraising if you can learn about what they didn’t find persuasive. Take it all in, but don’t argue. Handle their response with innocence and interest. “Hmmn… what an interesting perspective. That’s really useful to hear. I’m going to pass that on and get back to you, if that’s okay.”

Don’t push them to change their answer right now. Be gentle, both with yourself and your donor. It’s the best way to live another day!

“No” is not personal. Jim Shapiro, a fundraising colleague, says “You’re just the messenger.” Your offer is a message about the problem, solution, and how the donor can help. Your offer is a specific example of how the donor can seize an opportunity to make a difference. If they take a shot at you, let it roll off your back. You can’t be shot down – because… you’re just the messenger!

It’s not so bad to live in “No-Man’s Land” once you understand a large part of your job is warmly endeavoring to figure out why your particular donor prospect is sending their regrets at this point in time. Successful fundraising is built on relationships, and it takes appreciative inquiry to build them. The more you take the time to build these relationships, and are open to donor feedback, the more likely your next request will be greeted with a “Yes.”

–Charity Clairity

Have a question for our Fundraising Coach?
Please submit your question here. Remember, there are no stupid questions! If you need an answer, it’s likely someone else does too. So help your colleagues by asking away. Please use a pseudonym, like “Living in No-Man’s Land” did, if you prefer to be anonymous.

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