Fundraising Q&A: When a donor turns down a major gift opportunity

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A major gift prospect recently refused our request — what do you recommend we do now?

It's always disheartening when a proposal is refused but I like to remind people that "gifts" cannot be taken for granted. Most of my articles include practical instruction on how to properly cultivate your charity's relationship with donors. It is a courtship that needs to be nurtured.

If you have truly done all the necessary prospect research and preparation and still had your request turned down then don't give up. What we don't know is their side of the story. Provided you have identified Linkage, Ability and Interest you just need to determine why this request didn't fly. That said, Ann Rosenfield CFRE, Executive Director, Woodgreen Foundation reminded me that "information is a privilege not a right".

Nine fundraising no's

In Bernard Ross and Clare Segal's The Influential Fundraiser, they outline nine different ways people may reject your proposal. The challenge is how do we know which one is motivating the response? Your goal is to continue the dialogue...sensitively and respectfully. Here are their possibilities:

  1. No (not for this project)
  2. No (not you the canvasser)
  3. No (not me — I don't make the decisions)
  4. No (not unless you offer me more in return)
  5. No (not in this way — cash is not an option)
  6. No (not now — bad timing)
  7. No (too much — ask me for less)
  8. No (too little — I want something bigger and more important)
  9. No (go away — your project doesn't fit what I support)

Go to their website linked above for some helpful downloads including a broader explanation of how you can respond to these reactions. Even given the last point, one fundraiser's reply was, "Is the door closed, or what might have to change for there to be a possibility to re-establish the relationship?"

Don't let the tail wag the dog

While I appreciate the above-mentioned canvasser's tenacity, don't forget that ALL your fundraising efforts must fall within your organization's strategic priorities. It's important to protect the integrity of your charity's brand and not chase funds that don't fit the mission.

Large gifts are seductive. Don't get pulled in a direction where the organization hasn't adequately considered all the ramifications. The organization's leaders shouldn't launch a program that hasn't got a viable sustainability plan once the seed money is spent. A situation like this requires a fundraising policy to help board members make difficult and timely decisions that might include rejecting a gift that is inappropriate.

Advice from the pros

Along with Ann Rosenfield I also contacted Julie Davis, CFRE, and president and CEO of the Peterborough Regional Health Centre Foundation and Gay Harper who is now retired.

Julie shared the following with me:

"Don't ask until you know you will get a yes. I was with a superb volunteer recently who "tested" the ask before he made it: i.e., "John, from what we’ve discussed, you are very interested in this project." "Yes, I am." "Is it ok if we talk about a gift to the campaign today?" "Yes, it is." "A substantial gift?" "Go ahead." And the volunteer smartly asked for twice what we had discussed. Now, he knew this donor on a business level and had insight into a particular business deal that he had just done and had lots of cash — but the point is, he set us up for a yes by requesting permission to ask!"

When things don't go this smoothly, Ann recommended determining if there IS a next step. Similar to Ross and Segal's advice you want to keep the door open. If they didn't like your project, one question you could pose is, "Can you give me an example of something you did fund that's more appropriate?" She's also found that sometimes it's external factors that have dictated the rejection even if the potential donor loves your organization. Perhaps the market has adversely affected their investments and they really can't make a gift due to other commitments.

In my fundraising days I always sent a thank you letter to major prospects or donors who refused my proposals. It was part of my ongoing cultivation strategy because I trusted my research . My response would say we appreciated the time they took to consider our request and would look forward to keeping them informed of our progress. I then put their names on the newsletter list so reports were automatically sent. In many cases, unsolicited donations were made later or significant gifts followed a later, more responsive request.

No doesn't always mean no

I've heard numerous examples from my colleagues of success stories that have blossomed from an initial refusal. One case included a charitable foundation that got asked for a gift. They said no but by asking the right questions, they later opened the door to a business that provided pro bono work and subsequently adopted the charity.

Optimistic and respectful persistence pays dividends. Other examples I was given of turning around a refusal included listening intently to the potential donor's interests. Donated funds aren't always the immediate answer. Some corporate donors want their employees to get involved in activities.

The more you engage people in your charity, the greater the chance of investment. Help donors see the tangible benefits of your good work. Report to them promptly, even if they don't ask for feedback.

Don't take it personally

The more we ask for support the greater the chance for rejection...but it's not an attack on the canvasser or the cause. Help your paid and volunteer fundraisers accept that the worst someone can say is "no". Remember, there are at least nine different kinds of "no" and the majority of them still leave the door open to negotiate. It's even more thrilling finding that magic spot when the planets align and you eventually get the gift!

Additional Resources:

Tackling Rejection

How Rejection Can Strengthen Fundraising Resolve

Proposal Rejection: Saying Thank You is Critical

Cynthia Armour is a freelance specialist in fundraising and governance. A Certified FundRaising Executive (CFRE) since 1995, she volunteers as a subject matter expert with CFRE International. She works with boards and senior staff to ensure that strong leadership will enhance organizational capacity to govern and fundraise effectively. Contact Cynthia directly at 705-799-0636, e-mail, follow her on Twitter at @CynthiaJArmour, or visit for more information about her services.

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