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What to do when a donor says no, when you thought it was a yes!

Teisha Archer,
12 August 2019
We have all been there!

Months of research and planning. Strategising down to the finest detail. Where the meeting will take place. Who will be there to ask. How much we will ask for and how it will be used.

We have used every resource available to us. Databases, networks, consultants and so much more. We have played it through in our heads and role played, it is going to work. It is going to be big.

Then the day arrives. Everyone and everything is where it needs to be. The conversation is flowing and the passion is palpable. The moment arrives. The ask. It is made with perfection. You sit, and wait, as you have done many times before. The answer arrives. A clear and resounding no.

WAIT, WHAT?!? 
But… but… but…

Ok. Reasons are given. Thanks are offered and the meeting is over. You all walk away. 
So where do you go from here?

No matter the planning and preparation, we can never know the full reason why someone will give or not give. It is human nature that we change our minds very quickly, just as quickly as our circumstances change.

Therefore understanding ‘no’ is important. By understanding ‘no’ we can make a plan to get a ‘yes’. 
There are many types of no, and more often than not you have not just received the worst kind – the ‘no, I will never give to you’ no. Basically, there are (at least) five versions of no to be aware of.

NO! the ‘NO, NOT TO YOU' NO. 

It is so important for a donor to trust that you are the right people to achieve the outcome you say you will achieve. To combat this no from every happening, you need to demonstrate that you have the brightest people working on the need you will be addressing.

Are your CEO and Board trustworthy, passionate and informed? Are they influencers in the field? How can you best position them in the future to be THE people philanthropists want to support.

Consider if you had the right person asking. Too often fundraisers are tasked with making an ask, mostly to make someone else feel more comfortable. But this is often not the best option. In saying this, sometimes the CEO or Chair of the Board are also not the right person. Rather than job role or job title as the reason someone might ask, also consider who has the most influence in relation to the prospect. It may be someone who does not work for your organisation, but who loves what you do. An advocate who will ask on your behalf. It must be someone that the prospect would not want to say no to.

If this is your no, take some time to find the right person to ask and double check everything else is in line and make preparations to ask again when the time is right. 

NO! the ‘No, THE TIME IS NOT RIGHT' NO. 

But what if the time is not right?

I have just given a major gift to…, the market is not in a good position right now…, ask me again later in the year… 
These are all common reasons for saying no to an ask. All are legitimate, but must be recognised as a timing issue rather than a direct no.

If this is the response, it is appropriate to follow-up immediately in conversation regarding when a better time might be to come back to them. At the end of the meeting, it should be reiterated that you will be in contact again at that time. It is important that you follow the reason for the timing in the leadup to making contact again to ensure that the situation has indeed improved so that when you arrange the next meeting the answer is yes!

NO! the ‘NO, NOT THAT MUCH' NO. 

On occasion our vision for that BIG gift is more ambitious than realistic. Sometimes, even with all of our research, we will ask for too much. This is sometimes flattering to the prospective donor, and sometimes it is seen as not understanding them. Either way, the ‘No, not that much’ response should be dealt with immediately if possible.

At the time of the no, a simple question or what they might see as more appropriate would be. Ensuring that you have made it clear that you want this to be a significant gift for them, one that they can be proud of.

If it is not possible to ask more detail, then it is important to go back and do more research. Take a look again at their giving to other organisations and try to better understand their financial position, including their liquid wealth.

Once you have a better understanding of their giving capacity, make contact and arrange to discuss an alternative where the level of support they are capable of giving can have the greatest impact.

NO! the ‘NO, NOT FOR THAT THING' NO. 

Our need is not always what a prospective donor wants to support. Positioning your need through the donor’s eye is so important to the success of an ask. 
Telling your story in a way that has impact on the life of the donor makes for a successful ask strategy. How will the world be better for them (and all) if you do what you say you will do. 

Sometimes, your storytelling will hit the mark but other factors (such as No number 1 and No number 2) will result in a No, not for that thing. They may have recently supported another organisation in that space. 

So, if you get the ‘thing’ wrong, what do you do? Ideally, be flexible in the meeting. Listen to what they are saying and change your direction (strategically!). If you are there asking for a salary for a key position and you hear them mention how much they love a particular program you run, perhaps it is worthwhile speaking about opportunities with that program – otherwise following your plan for the meeting.

Be careful not to jump around, seeming like you are guessing what they might want to support and diminishing your need. Instead, be sure to have 2-3 options in mind which you have positioned as the key priorities of your organisation prior to and at the beginning of the meeting. 

If this is not possible, or the opportunity not realised, at the meeting. Go away, undertake further research into their past giving and engagement with your organisation, and develop your next ask, noting what they demonstrated interest in. 

NO! the 'NO, NOT TO YOU, NOT FOR THAT, NOT THAT MUCH, NOT EVER' NO.

This is no. Walk away. If a person becomes upset, walk away. If a person says no in all of the above ways in one meeting, walk away. 

You don’t have to walk away forever (unless they explicitly tell you to!). But you need to take some time. Some significant time to consider your position, respect their wishes and rebuild the relationship.  

So, they said no. It is not the end of the world. No does not always mean no to everything forever. Recoup. Refresh and Rebuild. So much of fundraising is relationship based and with a good close prospective donor, great communication, mutual respect and time you will see many a no become a yes.

The Xfactor Collective is a community of pre-vetted specialist consultants who help social change makers achieve their social mission. We have a diverse range of specialists across 300+ areas of specialisation, and this article was written by our Specialist Consultant Teisha Archer. To find out more about working with Teisha, or how the Collective can help you, please email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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