I will never forget my very first face-to-face solicitation out on my own.  I was raising money for an incredible children’s museum that made tremendous impact in my community, and it was my first job as a fundraiser.  I think back to that day and cringe!  The solicitation was made too early and without enough cultivation, the ask was clunky and breathy (I may have even skipped a few words), and I was ill-prepared on several levels.  Yet, I was surprised when I got a “no.” As a 23-year-old, there were elements of gallantry in wanting a win for myself and my organization, yet timidity and apprehension in saying the words “would you consider a gift of $10,000.”  It took me a while to get over that ‘no,’ and I think back and realize how it forever changed my course.  Today, I am grateful for it.

Rejection in fundraising can be painful and awkward but don’t avoid it

That experience helped me realize that asking for a gift puts you in a vulnerable place because you might get rejected. Rejection can be painful and awkward, and those are the situations we all tend to avoid. (That first “no” turned me into a scaredy cat for the next two months!) The key in managing that vulnerability in fundraising is to be prepared and understand how to turn a no into a maybe and a maybe into a yes.  Once you are prepared in that way, you are no longer scared of the rejection.  Of course, there are many other ingredients to add to your formula for success like proper cultivation, meaningful communication and engagement leading up to the solicitation, the right person asking, and many other strategies and tactics to implement.  But, for today’s post, we’ll assume you’ve strategically positioned the prospect and you are about to ask.

4 questions to ask when your request is rejected

In my attempt to never be caught off guard by a “no” again, I read dozens of books but was particularly moved by Asking by Jerry Panas, who I personally believe to be a fundraising genius.  Jerry poses four questions to keep in your toolbox to help you gracefully manage the dreaded no.  You pull them out when needed, turn them into an open-ended question, and listen to the answer. At a minimum, you’ll understand why the donor said no and you can go back to the donor after you address his/her concerns.  Here are the questions:

  • Is it the institution?
  • Is it the program?
  • Is it the amount?
  • Is it the timing?

Remember, you can’t ask any of those questions ‘as is,’ you have to get to the answer using an open-ended version of the question.   And, I like to put a twist on it.  My advice is to marry these questions with what you have learned throughout the cultivation process and which of the Seven Faces of Philanthropy the prospect might most identify with.  This truly gets you to the why.

The questions, posed correctly, will allow you to uncover the deepest connection and/or biggest concern about making the gift right from the donor’s mouth.  For the Socialite who is hesitant, you might ask him/her to brainstorm with you about how to acquire needed funding through events and other engagement tactics with the right people, with his/her gift as a kick-off. 

If you are asking for restricted funding, you might encourage the prospect to talk about any concerns with the program or explore any experiences s/he might have in approaching the challenge the fund specifically addresses (feeding the hungry, emergency relief, exposing more kids to the performing arts, etc.).  For the Repayer (possibly an alumni who you hope will make a gift to her engineering school), you might ask the prospect to reminisce and share with you the one class or professor that inspired her so much that there was no other major for her. 

We all have monetary obligations to manage like student loans and mortgages.  When working through the solicitation amount, consider asking the prospect to dream about what they do if they didn’t have the extra expenses.  Although they feel like they never end, tuition payments do end and this will get the prospect thinking long term.  For the Investor, you might explore the tax benefits to giving today and how it might free up some funds tomorrow to ensure every dollar is stretched.

The timing is a universal question for all seven faces and it should only be pulled out if the prospect is still apprehensive of the gift amount.  Pledges are a beautiful thing because the donor gets the recognition and perks of a large gift and the convenience of paying it over a handful of years.  Consider asking, “If you had a two or three to make payments, would that change your decision?”

When soliciting gifts, objections are tough, and handling them in a savvy way will not only deepen your relationship with the prospect, it will increase your odds of getting the gift.  Practice variations of these four questions and next time you get a no, you’ll be ready!