THE MEANING OF “NO” — Is It Really the Worst Thing a Donor Can Say?

9448022_V2There’s a correlation between the depth of relationship with a donor and the size of an appropriate appeal. When a fundraiser makes an appeal that a donor could not, or would not, seriously consider, the lack of understanding and the lack of relationship becomes a glaring issue. The “no” becomes a big, fat elephant sitting in the room.

Appealing for Old Money
Early in my fundraising career I called on a lady who lived in one of the “old-money” neighborhoods of Nashville. She was probably in her mid- to late-70’s, and I quickly got the impression that she and her late husband had done very well financially. I was two years out of grad school with barely two pennies to rub together. Everyone looked fabulously wealthy in comparison to me. I was clearly out of my depth, still learning how to talk “high-affluence.” Having no idea what to ask, I just took a shot in the dark.

“As long as I am asking,” I said to myself, “might as well ask big. What do I have to lose?”

My question was answered pretty quickly as I began to realize that there was indeed a lot to lose. Having presented my appeal for a large gift, the elderly lady’s countenance immediately fell. I think her jaw literally dropped open. It was as if I had reached across the table and slapped her on the face.

“There is no way in this world I could do that, “she gasped in astonishment. “I cannot believe you would ask me for that much money.”

It was pretty embarrassing, and I was actually ashamed of my presumption. No matter how hard I tried to backpedal from the request, it was no use. In following years, I would call and leave messages about an annual gift—calls she never returned.

It was as if I had reached across the table and slapped her on the face.

The Problem with “No”
One fundraiser tries to encourage the other by saying, “The worst that can happen is that the donor can say no.” That statement can imply two different meanings, depending on how one says it.

  • Meaning A: The worst that can happen is that they can say, “No.” So, what do you have to lose? Be bold and ask away because you never know what might happen.
  • Meaning B: The worst that can happen is that they do say, “No,” and that’s definitely not what you want to hear. So, if that’s what you think they will say, don’t ask!

To some fundraisers, getting a “No” is of little consequence. They just move onto the next potential donor. The odds are that if they give the pitch enough times, they’ll eventually get a “Yes.” It’s more of a hunter-gatherer approach rather than a relationship-cultivation approach to fundraising (see INSTITUTIONAL SUSTAINABILITY: Transitioning from “Hunter Gatherer” to a Cultivation-Based Fund Development Strategy).

Rejection-Then-Retreat
Some fundraisers use a Rejection-Then-Retreat tactic. If a donor balks at a $5,000 gift, then the fundraiser retreats to a $1,000 request. And if $1,000 gets no response, then — “Would you consider a gift of $100?” And so on until the donor is digging in his/her pocket for change. Rejection-Then-Retreat is indeed an effective sales technique. In many cases, however, the tactic confirms the fact that fundraisers really don’t care to know very much about that donor. They are just fishing for the biggest gift they can hook.

You may get a gift by retreating to a smaller and smaller appeal, but every rejection and every retreat deflates a donor’s enthusiasm a little more. Going through a series of “no’s” to get to a “yes” also can leave the donor feeling a little manipulated. It’s hard to underestimate how much people (in general) and donors (in particular) hate being manipulated. It makes them feel very bad about themselves and even about the gift they have made. In the end, a fundraiser may get the gift but lose the donor.

 In the end, a fundraiser may get the gift but lose the donor.

Asking too Quickly
Even with donors I know pretty well, sometimes it’s been hard to figure out what kind of appeal it would take to get a “Yes.” Eventually, I just come straight out with it and ask HOW, WHY, and WHAT: “How interested are you in this endeavor; why are you interested; and what is the range of gift(s) you would consider?”

That kind “pre-ask probing” is what I should have done many years ago when I visited an attorney who had been giving $1,000 annually. When I sat down in his office, I saw the envelope on his desk with my name on it. I imagined the $1,000 check inside but again said to myself, “The worst thing he can say is “No.’” So I mustarded up my courage and suggested a $5,000 gift to the capital campaign. He took his checkbook, wrote out another check for $5,000, and handed it to me.

My boldness to “ask big” had really paid off… or so I thought.

As I was leaving with the $5,000 check in hand, patting myself on the back for a successful visit, the attorney said, “Just a second Eddie. I want to show you something.” He went back and picked up the envelope and said, “This is what I had intended to give” and pulled out a check for $50,000.

You might think the attorney just laughed and gave me the $50,000 check anyway, but he didn’t. He kept that check and gave me some advice (without the laughing). “Eddie,” he said, “Show me the opportunity, but don’t ever tell me what I am supposed to give.” On that visit, I got a “Yes” to the $5,000 appeal but a definitive “No” to the $50,000 possibility.

To put it quite simply, I don’t ask until I have a good reason to think I will get a yes.

Learning How to Get to “Yes”
There is a joke that goes around our office. It begins, “The success of Thompson & Associates has been built on the fundraising mistakes of Eddie Thompson, for instance…” I have to admit that there is a lot of truth to the joke. However, I’ve really tried to learn something from every “No” and every “Yes.”

Over the years I have had my share of “no’s.” However, as I have gained more perspective on asking and giving, the number of “no’s” has greatly declined. It’s not that I am more persuasive than I was years ago. In fact, I am probably less persuasive. It has more to do with two things: 1) taking time to understand a donor’s giving style, habits, and capacity; (see Primary Donor Motivations) and 2) appealing to donors based on what they want to give, not on what the organization needs to get. (See “Fred the Kind-Hearted” in The Greatest Fundraiser of All).

I am still surprised occasionally by what people give or what they decline to give… but not that often. Usually, I know (or at least, have a pretty good idea) of the size and type of gift organizational donors will seriously consider long before I ask. And the bigger the gift, the more confidence I would like to have. Otherwise, I just continue asking questions, telling stories, and reciting metrics. To put it quite simply, I don’t ask until I have a good reason to think I will get a yes.

Eddie Thompson, Ed.D.

Copyright 2013, R. Edward Thompson
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