If you have been raising money for any length of time, surely by now you will have been told ‘no.’  Sometimes a ‘no’ can be a major setback, especially if there is no Plan B in place.  Was it something I said?  Was it something I didn’t say?  What will happen to the project?  How will we continue the program?  Will I lose my job?  All of these thoughts and more can swirl through our head when we are processing a ‘no.’


One important thing that we must do when a donor says ‘no’ is to recognize that the world will go on.  Sometimes it seems like the end of the world, but it really isn’t.  Additionally, often times a ‘no’ is not really a ‘no,’ it is a ‘not right now.’  Or it can be a ‘not at that amount.’  Or perhaps a ‘not for that purpose.’  So, as you can see, for such a short word, ‘no’ can be very complex and multifaceted.
There are many things that we must do when a donor says ‘no’, but today I am going to focus on just a few of them.  To keep it simple, if you follow these three steps, you will be better prepared to move forward after the ‘no.’


First of all, when a donor says ‘no’, you must seek to find out why.
This can seem irrelevant on the surface, and I realize that.  In a sense, ‘no’ is ‘no’ – regardless of the reason, we don’t have the money.  That is one way to look at it but it is a short-sighted view.  Remember, ‘no’ is complex – it can mean many different things.  Understanding the reason for the ‘no’ will put you in a better position to work towards a ‘yes.’  It can be a little scary, though, because when we ask ‘why,’ we run the risk that the donor may tell us.  If we have thin skin, this may hurt a little.


I once had a donor say ‘no’, and not only did he say ‘no’ to the major gift proposal, he reduced his annual gift as well.  This was painful, but I got the point.  The reason was that he felt that the board and management was straying into areas that were not prudent for the organization.  As a donor and volunteer, he was concerned.  I fully understood his concerns, and they were valid.  But I was still in a predicament.  I needed to convey his concerns up the ladder, and also needed to backfill the funds lost by his reduced annual donation.  It wasn’t fun.  The upside, though, is that by understanding the donor’s concerns, I knew what needed to happen to address them so that we could go back to him for a larger gift in the future.  Knowing the ‘why’ was of critical importance.


The next thing you should do when a donor says ‘no’ is to take inventory.
Sometimes the donor is right to say ‘no.’  If we don’t have our proverbial act together, why would a donor use her hard-earned money to further a bad idea?  In the example above, my donor had some valid concerns over the project upon which we were working.  His words caused some difficult conversations to take place.  In a sense, saying ‘no’ was better than if he had said ‘yes,’ in retrospect.  Other times, the donor could be misinformed.  This can be due to our failing to develop a suitable case for support, or perhaps our messaging is off in some way.  Having a conversation to fix the misperceptions could quickly turn the ‘no’ into a ‘yes.’  To do this, we must be willing and able to look critically at ourselves.


Lastly, when a donor says ‘no’ it is important to take action.
After we take inventory, we must do something with the information that we discover.  We can’t just put it on a shelf like a strategic plan from 1998.  If our project needs work, then we must make the necessary adjustments so that this particular donor and future donors will be in a position to say ‘yes’.  If our case for support is weak, then we must do what it takes to strengthen it so that it will be more compelling.  Perhaps more education is in order, so that people understand the need that is being addressed.  The fact is that donors often talk to each other.  If a particular major donor has an issue with the strategy, chances are that she will have occasion to speak to other prospects who may share her concern.  It is important that we act on the information that we have so that we have the best chance at moving the project forward.


Trust me, I know how it feels to hear the word ‘no.’  I don’t like it anymore than you do. But it is a fact of life as we seek to raise money to improve our communities, and if we use it to sharpen our focus and make our projects more effective, ‘no’ can be a catalyst for change.  When we seek to understand others, we become more effective at building support and seeing progress.  When we look introspectively, we can often see opportunities to fix flaws.  And when we are willing to adopt change rather than shy from it, we are more likely to achieve the impact that we seek.


Remember this so that you can turn your future ‘no’ into a ‘yes’.


Have a great week and Happy New Year,


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4 Thoughts on “What to Do When the Donor Says “No.”

  1. Well stated and factual. So often a major or mega-gift emerges following one or more premature or poorly-timed asks!

  2. These are great points. Thanks Kevin.

    A while back I tried to come up with reasons why donors say no and what to do about it. I had a similar but slightly different take on it. I hope your readers like the list here:

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