How to Respond When a Major Gifts Prospect Says ‘No’ to Making a Gift

No matter how well your major gifts conversation goes, sometimes the prospect still turns down the opportunity to make a transformational gift. The question for today is, how do you respond? What do you say when the prospect says ‘no’?

We’ll get to a specific response plan in just a bit.

But first, it’s important to be clear that when your offer gets turned down, most of the time the reason is because you or your organization rushed the ask and could have done more to draw out the call to adventure that is at the heart of major gifts fundraising. See 13 reasons why major gifts prospects say ‘no’.

When you can grip their emotions and deliver a giving experience that enhances their identity – which is what they desire deep in their heart – you don’t get turned down nearly as often.

In other words, when you know they’re ready, and they know they’re ready, the answer is ‘yes.’

That said, sometimes even the best laid plans still don’t pan out.

So, let’s walk through what to do when a major gifts prospect says ‘no.’

The 3-Step Initial Response
Be prepared in case you get turned down so you can move without effort into this three step response plan. This should be your natural reaction to being told ‘no’.

1. Be Silent – Create Space for the Donor to Explain

Don’t be silent for five minutes. That’s far too long.

But give enough time for the donor to feel a need to break the silence and elaborate on why they decided not to give. Most people feel awkward in a prolonged silence in any conversation. But especially after you have asked for a transformational gift and been turned down, silence is uncomfortable.

And what do most people do in that situation? They start talking.

So give a few moments of silence and see if the prospect starts talking. More than likely, you will hear some type of external processing that attempts to explain why they chose not to give. This is good, because you want to understand what drove their decision.

2. Make a Reflective Statement

Next, make a statement that helps the donor feel understood, respected, and appreciated. After all, they did give up their time for this conversation. Help them feel valued and heard.

Reflective statements sound something like this:

  • “I can appreciate that…”
  • “It sounds like you…”
  • “So you feel…”
  • “So for you, it’s like…”
  • “It sounds like you’re wondering if…”

In other words, you are reflecting back to them what they said, with an attempt to show you understand what’s holding them back from giving. This approach validates their decision, as opposed to making them feel guilty for not giving. It allows for a healthy and potentially rewarding conversation to still happen.

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3. Ask for Permission to Restart the Conversation

You don’t want this to end with ‘no.’ Even if you don’t end up securing a gift today, you want the donor to agree to continue the conversation now, on another day, or both.

You can do this by simply asking, “Can I ask you a question?”

Or, a more reflective and guarded response might be:

“Thank you for responding so clearly to my request. And I did hear what you said. I don’t mean to press you on the matter, but I feel I must ask you a question. Please bear with me.”

We’ll get to what question to ask in a moment.

You’d want to use something like that second version in situations where you detect a bit more resistance. But no matter how you phrase it, the goal is simply to get them to agree to keep talking.

Resume the Story Cycle
Even though many donors aren’t aware of it, what they really want – deep down – is to find meaning and fulfillment by giving big, transformational, legacy-defining gifts. They want to advance their own personal hero story. They want to achieve a newly enhanced identity, and they believe giving will help them get there.

If they didn’t care about any of that, it’s unlikely they would have made it to this meeting in the first place.

Once you get turned down, your job is to get back to helping them figure out how to advance their life story and achieve an enhanced identity. See the 6 core elements of a well-told donor fundraising story.

Discover the Story Blockage
As you re-engage the donor around their personal story, what you’re looking for is the blockage. Something is holding them back from giving.

There must be a part of them that is open to giving, or they wouldn’t have taken this meeting. Something is in the way – preventing them from taking up the challenge to make a transformational gift. The ‘challenge’ is a key story component.

Some good questions to ask here are:

  • “Can you tell me more about why you don’t think you can do this?”
  • “What are your concerns?”
  • “What factors are you weighing?”

These work for a ‘maybe’ as well as a ‘no.’ The idea here is to get the donor talking about whatever they feel uncertain about.

This is helpful because it may give you an opportunity to solve the problem that’s holding them back from giving. Often, donors don’t think there’s a way around whatever they perceive to be preventing them from giving. When you can suggest solutions, they will be receptive.

Isolate the Specific Barrier
As the blockage gets revealed, you then want to isolate that from everything else, and put it in its own little box. Then, if you can break it out of that box and solve the problem, the donor will be more receptive to making the gift they actually do want to make.

Say something like this:

“You want to make a gift, but right now you can’t see how it would work, is that right?”

Work with them to find out what’s in the way. For instance, what if their specific barrier is that their accountant won’t like this idea to give away so much money?

You can reinforce their desire to give by saying:

“We can work on the other issues, but for now, what’s important is that you would like this gift to happen.”

This plants the idea in their mind that there is a solution to the barrier. Once they realize this, and they agree they would give if not for this one problem, you can begin proposing solutions.

Help Overcome Their Barrier
This part depends on whatever their barrier is. But this is where you can make suggestions such as asking for a pledge instead of a gift.

If they’re facing some uncertainty in their near-term finances, a pledge lets them delay or spread out payments and reduces the ‘sticker shock’ of making a big gift all at once, today.

A $25,000 gift spread out over five years feels a lot different than all at once.

They may still resist because of a big financial commitment this year. You can say:

“I understand. Let me remind you that you have a three-to-five year window to pay off this gift.”

To recap the strategy so far, it goes like this:

  1. Silence
  2. Reflective statement
  3. Ask for permission to restart the conversation
  4. Discover the donor story blockage
  5. Isolate the barrier
  6. Propose solutions to overcome the barrier

To be clear – you will use steps 1-3 just about every time.

But somewhere after that, perhaps right after step 3, or perhaps in a later step that seems like it’s faltering, you can inject this next strategy.

Keep this one in your back pocket and bring it out when you need a different approach. It’s called Feel, Felt, Found.

Feel, Felt, Found: Another Approach
This strategy incorporates some of the components of the previous strategy, but in a different way.

First, you communicate that you understand how they feel by using a reflective statement.

Then, you show empathy and let them realize they are not alone in feeling this way, and that others have had similar struggles with deciding to give. You say, “Others like you have felt this way.”

Then, you suggest that there are ways around this barrier, and you ask for permission to discuss options, again referring to the “others” who have felt this way. You can say, “Here are some solutions they have found that worked for them.”

Now, the prospect will be curious what other people like them have done to work through a similar situation so they can still give – which deep down, they want to do.

For example, the donor might say:

“Sorry but I just don’t feel much excitement about your leadership or organization.”

You would respond by saying:

“I understand how you feel. Others who have felt the same way have found it’s a good idea to include specific instructions with their gift. That way, they know exactly what their money is accomplishing. Would a permanent endowment funding the domestic violence outreach be of more interest to you?”

In that case, the solution is a restricted gift.

What about donors who say they’re saving for retirement or are on a fixed income? You could say:

“I understand how you feel. Many of our donors have felt the same way. They have found that they can make a gift that pays them income for life. Or they can add a gift in a will that costs them nothing today. What are your thoughts about that?”

What about a donor whose wealth consists mostly of assets instead of cash?

This is actually the norm, not the exception. Most wealthy people and major donors have far more wealth in assets than in cash. But they often aren’t aware of the mechanisms available for giving some of those assets to charity. So, they might say that all their assets are tied up and the cash isn’t available.

You could say:

“I understand. We work with many donors like you in this same position. It’s actually the perfect situation. The tax benefits are much better if you give before you’ve sold the asset. Would you mind if I put together some options for you? I think you might be surprised at what the numbers look like.”

In all three of these scenarios, note the consistent ending.

You must finish with a request to follow up so you can share options and solutions. This keeps their fundraising story going as you overcome obstacles and challenges to giving. It also gives you time to plan your next meeting and come with specific solutions to their challenges.

Use these methods in the context of each conversation you have with a major donor prospect, and you will turn more no’s and maybe’s into YES.

What’s Next?

Maybe you need to land more appointments so you get a chance to try out these tips. If so, check out this free report titled: How To Land More Meetings With Major Donor Prospects.


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