It strikes fear in the hearts of fundraisers everywhere.
In some organizations, it’s just not done – especially when it comes to major donors.
But at some point in your fundraising career, you’re going to have to bite the bullet, and say the not-so-magic word:
There’s a right and a wrong way to say no to a big donor – and here are four steps to follow so you can say no in the best possible way to your donor.
1. Understand the motivation behind the gift or offer
If you have an existing relationship with your donor, and you use your time together well, chances are you know what makes them tick – why they support your cause, what areas of your work really resonate with them, and ultimately, what change they want to achieve in the world with their giving.
Understanding what’s motivating the donor is an important first step in sensitively saying no to a gift that’s not quite aligned with your mission or future direction.
If this is a gap for you, think about how you can prioritize getting to know your top donors in a more meaningful way – and look for ways to use your major donor meetings effectively.
2. See if you can redirect or realign
Knowing what you do about your donor’s motivation, is there a way you can realign the gift within your existing priorities?
Let’s say you’re an organization serving teens, and you have to say no to Jane.
You know from past conversations that she supports you because she wants to give young people the kind of mentoring experience she had at the beginning of her career, and she chose your organization because of your youth-centred approach.
It might sound something like this:
"Jane, I know how important it is to you to help provide kids with the same kind of opportunities you had when you were starting out.
We’ve been having lots of great conversations with our mentors group, and we’re hearing back from the youth that there’s a huge unmet need for continued support after high school.
It’s such a great opportunity, and something we could look into, with your help – is that an idea you could see exploring? I think it has potential to have a huge impact on the kids’ career opportunities over the long term…”
You get the gist.
There’s no guarantee Jane is going to say yes – but you have seen, heard and reflected back her values, motivations, and laid the groundwork for a no (even though you haven’t actually said no yet!)
3. Make a final assessment on organizational impact.
We’ll stick with Jane’s example for sec – if Jane is really wed to supporting a new program idea that is not aligned with your priorities, you may need to bring this conversation to the leadership table for your ED’s (and possibly your board’s) input.
There is no right answer here – you have to weigh the risk, and understand the pros and cons of losing support, vs accepting a gift that may cause significant mission drift.
If you decide to decline, don’t overlook the opportunity to introduce this donor to another organization in your community already doing the work they want to support.
What an incredible message of collaboration and community spirit could a selfless act like that send about your organization’s values?
4. Deliver the answer with the right people at the table.
I once had to say no to a big, BIG gift – after extensive discussion at the leadership table, we decided this opportunity just wasn’t aligned with our long-term vision for the organization.
We knew it was a big deal, so the CEO and board chair were both at the table to deliver the news as gently as possible – and to send the message that we were a united front on this difficult decision.
Sometimes, as in this case, saying no means you lose a donor.
But I’ve also seen cases in which a big donor has been so impressed by an organization’s integrity in saying no, they’ve come back later with an equal or even larger investment.
Even though I’m focusing on major donors above, this process can be adapted to saying no to smaller donors as well.
I hope this helps you next time you have the tough job of saying no to a donor, no matter how big or small their gift. Remember, even though it’s difficult, sometimes no is the best possible answer.
Emma Lewzey, CFRE is an award-winning fundraiser who has been helping great causes like yours build and grow successful fundraising programs since 1995. She’s the President-Elect of the world’s largest Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) Chapter in Toronto, and the National Chair of AFP’s Fellowship in Inclusion and Philanthropy. Contact Emma to book your free discovery session, and find out how you can work together to strategically focus your precious resources on the fundraising initiatives that truly work.