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[ASK AN EXPERT] What To Do When A Donor Says “No”

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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 what to do after a donor says “no” to a meeting. 

Dear Charity Clairity,

I’ve been getting a lot of resistance from donors saying “no” when I ask them if they’d like to get together. I’m a firm believer in “no means no,” and I hate to be rude, so I generally take them at their word. But I feel I’m not doing my job. If I never meet, how can I build relationships? That’s what I’m good at! Can you suggest another approach?

— Feeling like a Failure

Dear Feeling like a Failure,

You’re not a failure! It’s good you’re reaching out and asking folks to meet with you. It’s definitely the right first step. Ask, then deal with the consequences. If it goes well, great. If it doesn’t go well, then … time for Plan B.

First, remember every answer is a learning opportunity, and resistance can actually be better than acquiescence. Because sometimes people just say yes to make you go away. Or because they don’t want to be rude. Not every “yes” means the donor is passionate. In fact, an instant “yes” can yield a lot less than your donor would have given if you’d engaged in a more in-depth dialogue that answered all of their questions.

When they say “no,” you’ve received an invitation to help solve a problem: Why are they saying no?

Folks say “no” for all sorts of reasons.

Underneath, a “no” may be something masquerading as a “maybe” or a “yes.” It’s just not there yet. Further information is required.

“No” can be a transitional response, uttered when confusion exists, defenses are being sorted out, or a vague feeling of discomfort prevents an affirmative reply at this time.  

If you don’t know what’s making your prospect say “no,” it’s difficult to move on to Plan B. “No” quite often does not mean NO, period, end of discussion.

Here’s what “NO” may mean—if you listen for it

NO = I’m not used to people being so direct with me.

That’s okay. I support you. I don’t need to meet with you.

TIP: Be patient, friendly, understanding, and open. People who are taken aback are not necessarily turning you down. They’re just surprised to be asked. This is new to them. They haven’t thought about it. They may be quite open to being convinced.

NO = I’m not ready to commit.

I’m just not prepared to get this involved. I’m not really sure what you folks do. It’s all a bit vague to me.

TIP: Invite this prospect to get to know you. This ask is premature. Ask them to attend a cultivation event to learn more. Or perhaps there’s a volunteer committee or activity that may interest them. Ask if they have specific questions; then offer to get back to them with more information. Or offer to have a staff person call them or meet with them.

NO = What you have to say doesn’t really excite me.

I may not understand this fully. I’m not cutting off all conversation, but I’m neutral right now.

TIP: Invite this prospect to see for themselves what you’re doing. Firsthand exposure can be a turnaround experience. Ask them to take a tour. Invite them to meet with the staff person in charge of this project. It can’t hurt to issue an invitation—even more than once. Keep communication flowing but in a gentle way.

NO = I don’t understand what you want

Are you trying to tie me down to a one-time gift or a continuing commitment? If I do agree to give now, what will that mean? Will you be coming back for other projects?

TIP: Be specific regarding both the purpose and amount of your ask. Lack of clarity triggers excuses. Sometimes askers beat around the bush and hem and haw due to discomfort. This makes the donor uncomfortable too. If you don’t make a specific request, your donor has to work too hard to figure out what will make you happy. It’s a courtesy to offer prospects a clear invitation to consider.

NO = Why me? Aren’t there others who can do more?

I’m probably not the right person. I’m not really a major donor type.

TIP: Explain why you’ve chosen your prospect for this philanthropic opportunity. Flatter them by calling them a “community leader” or “loyal supporter.” Explain what their gift will mean at this point in time. Try “Your leadership now is key, as it will inspire others to follow.” Most donors want to be leaders. Explain that others will be asked, based on this donor’s leadership. Also, recognize that some prefer to be “joiners.” Let them know others have already given, and more are prepared to pledge. Often donors don’t want to be out there on their own.

NO = You don’t have the clout to ask me. Someone might.

Who are you? No, I don’t think so. My calendar is busy.

TIP: If at first you don’t succeed, try again. This is a “no harm, no foul” response. The right person asking can make a difference. Usually, it’s someone the prospect respects and around whom they feel comfortable. It doesn’t have to be a social/financial peer. It could be the executive director, another key program staffer, or the board president.

NO = Not on your terms. I’ll decide when and how much.

That doesn’t really interest me, and now is not a good time.

TIP: Offer options so people have the opportunity to select something that’s meaningful to them. Donors like to be in control. They want to make up their own minds about what to fund. Listen to your donor closely to ensure that what you’re about to ask for is something that interests them. Is it children? Offer an opportunity to name a child therapy room or to fund an endowment for at-risk children. Is it seniors? Offer some other relevant alternatives.

NO = You didn’t listen to me.

I tried to share why I was uncomfortable, but you argued the point.

TIP: Don’t argue. You may believe you’re being persuasive, but when you try to overcome objections with arguments you’ll fail unless you first demonstrate you’ve heard and understood your prospect’s concerns. Begin with empathy.“I understand exactly how you feel, and … I’ve felt that way myself … and what I’ve often found is … (offer an alternative way to look at or  manage the situation).”

NO = Not this organization, project, amount, or time.

No. This isn’t for me now. You caught me at a bad time. Best of luck.

TIP: Jerold Panas suggests asking four magic questions to tease out the reasons for your donor’s hesitation and make it easy to provide responses that satisfy their concerns.

  1. Is it the organization?
  2. Is it this project?
  3. Is it the amount I asked for?
  4. Is it the timing?

Now that you know all the things “NO” may mean, listen carefully to discern what you might say next to keep the conversation open. One of my favorite things to do is simply to ask for advice, rather than a gift. Try: “You are someone who knows [our organization … this cause … our community …] so well, and you have an invaluable outside perspective. Would you be willing to meet for just 20 minutes to give me some advice as to [how you’d handle this … what projects are most needed … who needs to be involved …]?”

Your Plan B is right around the corner!

— Charity Clairity

Please use a pseudonym, like “Feeling like a Failure” did, if you prefer to be anonymous.

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