July 18, 2024
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When ‘No’ Doesn’t Mean ‘No!’

One of the challenges facing fundraisers in the Jewish nonprofit world, and for that matter anywhere, is rejection. No one likes rejection, especially a professional fundraiser. But, it’s an inevitability. Some studies show that only one in 20 solicitations is successful. Not a good batting average for a baseball player, but often reality for those raising funds.

I have often found, however, that some rejection is not what you think it is. It takes skill, intuition, understanding of human behavior and sometimes just dumb luck to read the signs. Sometimes the telltale signs are staring you in the face, but you have to be perceptive enough to read them. Let’s illustrate.

One donor I once visited greeted me with a non-customary grunt instead of his usual cordial greeting. We went back a long way and it wasn’t like him to be less than friendly. After some prodding, I learned that he hadn’t experienced a good day, at the least. That day, his financial portfolio was tanking in the markets, he had a dispute with a business associate and he had banged up his knee on his way in to work. That’s enough to put a dour face on anyone. It was clear that his response to my solicitation for a favorite project wasn’t going to yield a favorable result that day, so my “Plan B” sprang into action.

Instead of pushing for a gift that I felt, instinctively, would end in a “no,” the meeting turned into a brief, but informative, progress report on the project. This was not the right time to ask for a major gift. There would be other opportunities. At the end of the conversation, the donor appreciated my sensitivity to his day of turmoil and thanked me for coming by not to solicit money, but to brief him on our progress and also seek his advice on a related matter. The meeting ended well, albeit with no donation.

When I returned to try again about six weeks later, he was in a cheery mood and a generous gift was the result of our get-together. No confluence of bad news that day.

I use this story to make a point. There simply are times when it’s best to back off and try another approach or visit at another time. ‘No’ that day wasn’t a definitive ‘no’ forever. Just that day. The seasoned professional, and the up-and-coming volunteer or lay leader, should learn to recognize when ‘no’ doesn’t mean “no!”

Mitigating circumstances can wreak havoc on a solicitors’ dream. Keep these thoughts in mind when reaching out to your donor for a pledge or contribution.

Part of entering into a dialogue with a contributor is his frame of mind, body language and activities happening around him or her. Judge the mood. Is the donor friendly, happy, receptive and not distracted?

Keep in mind that circumstances beyond your control will affect your success that day. Did the donor have a spat with his or her spouse? Was there a business setback that day or recently? Did a family member or close friend come down with an illness? Did the dog eat the homework or chew up a favorite shoe? The list is endless. So here are some pointers to consider when facing possible rejection by a donor:

  1. 1. “No” may mean “not today or now.” Find out whether you might revisit the subject some other time.
  2. 2. “No” may mean “I am not interested in this project.” This means it’s time to recalibrate and come back another time with a different proposal.
  3. 3. “No” may mean that you are asking too much from this donor. Perhaps a more modest “ask” is in order.
  4. 4. “No” may mean that the donor wants to consult with his or her spouse and then will be in a position to respond.
  5. 5. “No” may mean that you’re using the wrong approach for this project. Rethink what you are doing and see if there is a better way.
  6. 6. “No” may mean you have bad chemistry with the donor. Perhaps another solicitor is necessary.
  7. 7. “No” may mean absolutely “No” and will require research to understand what’s bothering your donor.

There may be a myriad of reasons why the donor declined your proposal. What is important is to discern whether “No” is a temporary setback or a permanent response.

The real question is this: Are you prepared for rejection and can you bounce back?

By Norman B. Gildin


Norman B. Gildin has fundraised for nonprofits for more than three decades and has raised upwards of $92 million in the process. He is the president of Strategic Fundraising Group whose singular mission is to assist nonprofits raise critical funds for their organization. He can be reached at [email protected].

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