The stakes are high. Emotions are exposed. And anything can happen.
You are meeting with a donor, and you have just asked for a gift.
The answer is no.
Now it’s your turn. You have two options. First, you can exit as quickly as possible, in a cloud of confusion, self-blame, and disappointment. Or you can see what you can learn about the donor, her other commitments, her feelings about your organization, how she likes to be treated by the organizations she cares about, and whether she might be interested in continuing the conversation.
If your brain turns into a snow cone, then you are headed towards the first option. So let’s keep your brain out of the snow cone zone by speculating about some of the possible reasons for no. Ask yourself before the meeting, “If the donor declines, what might the possible reasons be?”
These six questions cover most of the scenarios that I have encountered in twenty-five years of fundraising. If you think them though ahead of time, it will make your solicitation stronger, and will give you some dexterity when you hear NO.
- Is the amount of the ask proportionate with the donor’s ability to give? It’s an axiom of fundraisers that you can’t ask people for too much. But if you ask for an amount that is within the donor’s realm of possibility, that leads to a more fruitful response than, “I can’t”.
- Is the amount of the ask proportionate with the donor’s commitment to your organization? Most of a donor’s largest gifts go to organizations that have had a big impact on their lives. Or organizations that they have been supporting forever. Or organizations where they have formal ties (such as board membership). So if you discover that one of your $100 donors has given million dollar gifts to her alma mater, it’s probably better to ask for or four or five figure gift than a seven figure gift.
- Is the project in sync with the donor’s philanthropic aspirations? Why is the donor committed to your organization? Whatever that motivation is, if you can you capture it in a proposal, the chances of a Yes are much better.
- Is the logic model in sync with the donor’s way of thinking? Giving is an act of transformation. No one gives because they want things to stay the same. Solicitation is a story about potential impact. Is your story plausible? Does the donor believe that, if she gives $X, situation Y will be transformed into Z?
- Does the donor believe that you can raise the money? No one wants to invest in a dud.
- Are the inducements to give compelling to the donor? The ideal scenario is a solicitation by someone the donor has a hard time saying no to. With the kind of public recognition that feels authentic and proportionate to the donor. And the appropriate levels of engagement with recipients throughout the lifespan of the gift. And with the right role for the donor – does she want to inaugurate the project, or jump on the bandwagon after success is assured?
- Did you catch the donor at the right time? You want to talk to the donor when she is feeling prosperous, and generous. Family crises or business upheaval will often prevent people from making commitments.
- Is the donor at liberty to say yes? Affluence comes in lots of different flavors. I have met people who want to give away money, but can’t because their wealth is tied up in trusts managed by family members with very different values. Every married couple has its own style of communality and autonomy regarding giving. Some donors want to honor the parents from whom they inherited their wealth, and that limits the scope of their generosity. Think about your own family’s quirks, and imagine philanthropic decisions being filtered through those screens.
The perfect solicitation does not require a donor to say yes. And it doesn’t require that you get all of these variables lined up in your favor. A solicitation is an exchange. The important thing is to stay in the conversation.