A Major Gifts Rite of Passage: Getting Turned Down

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.”  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.

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.  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.

In my attempt to never be caught off guard by a “no” again, I read 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 curb the dreaded no.  You pull them out when needed, turn them into an open-ended question, and utilize your prospect’s answer to get closer to a yes.  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.  I’d like to put a twist on it.  My advice is to marry these questions with what you know about the prospect and which of the Seven Faces of Philanthropy the prospect might most identify with.  This will truly get you to the why.

Is it the institution?  This question, asked in open-ended form, allows you to hear the deepest connection to the institution right from the donor’s mouth.  After any hesitation or a “not sure,” you might ask the prospect to share with you his or her favorite memory of the institution.  For the Socialite, you might twist the question to include favorite special event memory.  For the Altruist, consider asking the prospect for his or her most impactful, mission-centered moment with the organization.

Is it the program? As you begin to drill down into the ask, especially if it is for restricted funding, you might encourage the prospect to talk about any concerns with the specific program or explore any experiences s/he might have in approaching the challenge the fund addresses (feeding the hungry, emergency relief, exposing kids to the performing arts, etc.).  For the Repayer, you might ask the prospect to reminisce and share with you the experience that s/he most appreciates from the institution.

Is it the amount?  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 and how it might free up some funds to ensure every dollar is stretched.

Is it the timing? This 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 get 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 year or two to make payments, would that help 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!

About Mary Hackett

Mary is a fundraiser & operations strategist who specialized in helping development offices create deep, meaningful experiences for their donors.

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