major donor resistance

Sometimes when working with major donor prospects they say “yes” right away. More often, they don’t. You may not get an outright “no” (in fact, usually you won’t), yet you’ll get a hesitation or what we call major donor resistance. As in:

  • No, not now.
  • No, not you.
  • No, not this amount.
  • No, not this project.
  • No, not this timing.

As a fundraiser, you’re likely going to be faced with objections. 

It’s human nature to push back a bit, especially when the donor is a bit unclear on the concept. This is not a crisis. Rather, it’s an opportunity.

Take time to consider your donor prospect’s perspective. 

  • If someone is encountering you for the first time, they may simply need to learn more about you. 
  • If someone is being asked for a major increase, they may want to get clarity on what their dollars will specifically fund. 
  • If the gift is one that is a bit of a stretch, they may want to consider it within the context of other financial obligations.  

And so forth.

There’s no reason to be afraid of donor hesitations or major donor resistance. 

They’re par for the course. And, actually, they are opportunities to get to know your donor even better:  

  • Show them you’re listening to them. 
  • Demonstrate to them that their best interest is also your best interest
  • Express to them, by how you listen and what you say, that they can trust you. 

Just because a donor-prospect might be resisting now does not mean they don’t want to ultimately make a philanthropic gift.  

Most of the folks you talk with would love to be able to make a gift that will enable them to enact their values. A gift that will give them a warm rush of dopamine, and help them become the person they want to see when they look in the mirror. They’re just having a little difficulty in this moment seeing how they can become this person they’d love to become.

Don’t deny would-be donors the opportunity to become a hero. When they say “I’d love to, but…,” it’s your job to address that “but.” Most people really do want to make an outsize impact on the world when given half a chance. They often want you to make it possible for them to overcome their hesitancy, by showing them a way they can participate with confidence. 

Your job is to be a philanthropy facilitator.  

Don’t be a fundraising arm twister. Your goal should not be to inflict pain! Rather, you want to gently take folks by the hand and walk them down a pathway towards joyfully enacting their passions.  

Okay. Sometimes folks’ passions won’t mesh with yours. That’s perfectly okay. For these folks, “no” means “not a good fit.” Move on. However, many of your prospects can still be worked with.

Often people just need some help reframing their decision making process. They may just be thinking out loud, and looking for a way to be convinced this would be a good decision. This means you must put yourself in their shoes, listen carefully, empathize and show them ways they might feel comfortable proceeding with a gift.

You’re in the happiness delivery business. 

You must approach major gift fundraising firmly convinced that giving to your cause will make people happy. Often, built into a donor’s objection, there’s a kernel of worry that giving to you will make them unhappy. Whether they’re worried about the (1) amount of the gift, (2) timing, (3) purpose, (4) urgency, (5) priority, or (6) whether you’re a worthy recipient, your job is to show them how much you want them to feel good about their decision.

So, how do you overcome objections and leave donors happy?  

We’re going to walk through a process for dealing with objections generally, as well as some specific suggestions for handling common objections. 

Even if you don’t end up changing your prospect’s mind right away, over time you may win their trust and support by demonstrating you have their best interest at heart.   

You’re also in the sales business – in a good way.

We overcome objections every day. This is the premise of Daniel Pink’s book, To Sell Is Human, where he talks about ‘sales’ skills we all need because we’re all in the business of ‘sales’ – aka, endeavoring to persuade folks (whether prospective donors, buyers, employees, bosses, children, parents or friends) to part with something of value (e.g., time, attention, point of view, or resources). We spend a majority of our time trying to move others. So we may as well embrace our role as salespeople.

We erroneously think “selling” is bad. In fact, it’s probably even more of a taboo word in nonprofits than the word “fundraising.” People just don’t like it. They find it annoying, manipulative, pushy and even sleazy. Sound like how many people feel about fundraising

Our view of sales and fundraising as sleazy and manipulative is a relic. It comes from an outdated mindset of caveat emptor, where the buyer – and prospective donor – must beware of those who might trick them to part with their hard-earned money. How could such trickery occur? From an information imbalance that no longer exists. Remember the old adage that “information is power?” Well, now information is readily available to everyone. That’s why the digital revolution has so fundamentally changed ‘business as usual.’ 

The salesperson’s ABC no longer means ‘Always Be Closing.’  

This made sense in a world where the seller had the information advantage. No more. 

You and your donor are on an even playing field. You need each other to make meaningful things happen.

Pink tells us that today ABC stands for:

  • Attunement (perspective taking)
  • Buoyancy (staying afloat in an ocean of rejection)
  • Clarity (synthesizing and curating information that helps folks identify and resolve their problems). 

Attunement, buoyancy and clarity are requisite skills for overcoming donor resistance.  

Fundraising (nonprofit) and sales (for profit) truly are similar processes. Yet it turns out, if done right, neither is about the business of pushing useless, unwanted stuff on others. 

Those who will be most successful will understand their real business is serving their customers’ needs. Effective selling — fundamentally human selling — understands the need to provide something of authentic value. If you’re not providing something of value to prospective donors, you’re going to go out of business.

There’s nothing to fear but fear itself.

Though we all encounter resistance on a daily basis — and usually, we manage to overcome it – for some reason we’re terrified of encountering donor objections. Our innate skillset shuts down as soon as we hear: “But…” A voice in the back of our head tells us:

“Oh, no! I’m encountering resistance! Better back off!”

That’s your lizard brain speaking. The lizard is a physical part of your brain (the amygdala), the pre-historic lump near the brain stem that is responsible for fear and rage and reproductive drive. Your lizard brain had a larger purpose in the days where exercising extreme caution was key to survival, but it tends to be kneejerk and irrational. In fundraising, you need to figure out a way to ignore it or at least quiet it.

Your donors are not in a war with you. You don’t have to be afraid of losing. Or turning them against you. If they resist, it’s not because they want to defeat you. It’s because they have lizard brains too. They are naturally skeptical, especially if they don’t really know enough about you to make a thoughtful major gift. Which is why, in the world of nonprofit, objections are common. 

People are, unsurprisingly, reticent to part with hard-earned cash and careful with how they spend their money (one might say “lizard-like”). This has always been the case, but today folks have lots more information than they had before the digital revolution. So they have more questions. Not just about you, but about how you differentiate yourself from others in your space. People can easily find your competitors, and they want to know what makes you a better choice as a repository of their philanthropy.

You’re not engaged in a win/lose proposition. 

Objections are no fun, but they’re normal. May as well embrace them and look for ways to turn the encounter into win/win. In the rest of this article we’ll look at ways to approach the major gift solicitation a bit differently. First, I want to go through the basics of objection handling. Afterwards, we’ll get into the nitty-gritty and go through the most common objections and exactly how to handle them like a pro – and close more gifts, of course.  

Instead of walking in afraid they’ll say “no” or “but,” consider whatever they say to be the opening up of a conversation. One in which they’re waiting for you to persuade them you’re offering them a worthwhile investment.

In Part 2 of this two-part series on handling major donor resistance we’ll look at practical steps you can take, including sample scripts you can use.

Want to delve deeper into how to be a more successful major gift fundraiser?

Enroll yourself and your team (up to six people per organization at no extra cost) in Claire’s dynamic 8-week Winning Major Gifts Strategies e-Course. The 2020 course begins January 21st. Grab your spot NOW — before registration ends January 18th. Contact directly with any questions.

Major gift fundraising

Claire Axelrad

Claire Axelrad

Fundraising Coach at Bloomerang
Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE is a fundraising visionary with 30+ years frontline development work helping organizations raise millions in support. Her award-winning blog showcases her practical approach, which earned her the AFP “Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year” award. Claire runs “Clairification School” online, teaches the CFRE course that certifies professional fundraisers, and is a regular contributor to Guidestar, NonProfit PRO and Maximize Social Business.