5 Things To Do When a Donor Says "No"

You did your research. You invested your time and attention to develop a meaningful connection with people who care about your cause. You presented an opportunity that achieves the desired impact of your donor.

And yet, the answer is “no” to your funding request.

This scenario plays out all the time, every day, for many development professionals and is rarely a reflection of the abilities or preparation of the person asking.

While seasoned gift officers have likely developed their own personal strategies for dealing with disappointment – or have just grown thicker skin! – there are five actions that can help fundraisers maintain resilience for their mission.

1. Think about the situation from the donor’s vantage point. What’s going on in their lives that might mean “not now” instead of “not ever?” I know a fundraiser who was working with a prospective donor and had developed a strong bond, identified the perfect giving opportunity that the donor cared about, and presented a well-thought-out proposal for a gift. The donor quickly responded, “oh no, that just won’t be possible.” After a little more conversation, the fundraiser learned that the donor’s daughter had recently been diagnosed with a serious illness, and the family would be focusing their philanthropy on finding a cure. The fundraiser continued to stay in touch with this donor, and, a couple years later, the donor came back to happily report that their daughter had overcome her health challenges, they were moving on from that cause, and it was time to talk about the proposal again. The gift came through once the priorities and life situation of the donor changed. The fundraiser realized that “no” meant “not now,” instead of “not ever.”

2. Focus on the next meeting of the day. Realize that there is more potential out there. Move on. Having a mindset that there is an abundance of opportunity for a cause will not only change the way development professionals treat prospecting new opportunities, but it will also help them move on from rejected proposals without too much heartache. Compartmentalize different fundraising discussions; a “no” from one donor does not influence the answer of the next donor. Some of the most successful fundraisers take a few minutes to analyze what happened in the solicitation, learn what they can from the experience, and then keep working toward their goals. Sounds easy, right? Perhaps easier said than done, but getting mentally prepared and using the rejected proposal to refine and improve the next proposal or conversation will help gift officers think through making minor adjustments, and ultimately, moving forward with boldness.

3. Be mindful of internal dialogue. Human beings are prone to second guess themselves in the wake of disappointment – and fundraisers are no different. Despite that nature, fundraisers will likely receive rejection more than a few times in the course of their work with a cause; it’s just a part of the job! Realizing that hearing “no” is normal and not necessarily a personal reflection on capability or competence helps. A fundraiser I know who raises hundreds of thousands of dollars for her organization keeps positive mantras visible on Post-It notes and dry-erase boards around her home and office. She stays rooted in affirming internal speech, even when donors decide not to commit to giving opportunities. The “no” is not personal, even though the connection to the donors and the cause often feels very personal. Gift officers cannot control the timing and propensity of the donor to give, but they can control the messages they internalize.

4. Own up to the experience if a solicitation missed the mark. Admit it to the prospect. Find a win-win solution. Sometimes, despite the best research and effort spent laboring over the specific details of an ask, the data were wrong and the proposal was unrealistic. A fundraiser will usually find this out when the donor’s eyes grow large and round, and their mouth drops open. The best fundraisers don’t panic when this happens! After allowing some silence while the donor processes the proposal, a major gift officer I know asks some targeted questions to assess what was shocking to the donor. Was the amount unexpected? Is the project not the right fit? Did the timing not match up with the donor’s timeline? Or perhaps the recognition piece wasn’t what they hoped for? The point is, don’t run from the rejection without learning more about the obstacles – and whether or not you can clear them. There is nothing wrong with asking for a gift that would stretch a donor beyond their comfort zone a little. However, sometimes that stretch is just too much, so being genuine about that overreach and following up with a revised proposal can save the solicitation.

5. Breathe. Remember, a “no” is not fatal. When I first started in philanthropy, I experienced self-pressure to get a closed gift from every proposal. I found myself waiting to ask, sometimes several months, until I felt I knew 100% that the answer would be “yes.” I had feelings of failure when that didn’t happen every time. It wasn’t until a mentor of mine put things in perspective that I changed my approach. He said, “it’s not up to you to make sure every prospect gives; it’s your job to give every prospect the opportunity to give.” Now, that doesn’t mean that a fundraiser can shirk the responsibility to qualify and work with good prospects, or that they should avoid giving themselves the best chance at getting a gift in the door… but it did give me the freedom to stop being so afraid of the “no.” I cannot force a donor – even ones that have the capacity and the love of my cause – to give. But I do owe them, and my cause, the chance to consider it. So just breathe and ask.