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What Did Your Donor's "No" Really Mean?


You asked a donor for money, and they said no. But what did they really say?


Every donor conversation you have comes with a chance that your donor says no to your request. This can be intimidating for those less comfortable with hearing “no.” But “no” can be a really important answer to get, and it always comes with a map for what to do next.


The question is, what “no” did you get from your donor? And what do you do about it?

“No, not now.” You made your ask, but the timing isn’t quite right for you donor. They aren’t telling you “no, not ever,” they are telling you that another time, under different circumstances, would work better.


Next steps: Make sure you walk away from this conversation with a clear answer as to when timing will be better. What needs to happen or change in your donor’s life to make the timing right? That way, as you follow up, you know exactly what you’re listening for to determine the right time to revisit your ask.

“No, not this.” You asked for a gift, but where the gift is being directed isn’t a direction that speaks to your donor. This isn’t “no, not you,” it’s “no, not this program” or “no, not this direction.”


Next steps: Make sure you are clear on the impact your donor is looking for in their philanthropy. If you missed the mark with the program you asked them to fund, you need to go back to the drawing board to make sure you understand exactly what your donor is looking to support. Then come back with a program that better fits their interests.


This could take a few iterations, and that’s just fine as long as you eventually get to something that is meaningful for your donor. If you find yourself going in circles, you need to determine if your organization has the impact this donor is looking to invest in.

“No, not that amount. (But this amount instead.)” You’ve made your ask and you swung for the fences. Great job! It can be scary to make the big ask and even scarier to hear “no,” but this is my favorite “no” to hear.


Work with your donor to find the amount that the donor is comfortable with, if they haven’t offered it in response. Then you know you didn’t leave any money on the table. And the donor didn’t walk away thinking that they would have given you more had you just asked for it.


Next steps: You’ve done your very best for your organization, and you should celebrate.

"No, not your organization anymore." There is always a chance that your organization has done something to upset a donor, and this is the hardest "no" conversation to have. The key is to learn exactly what the offense was, and the best way to figure that out is to ask respectfully and directly. You don't want to misunderstand the problem.


Next steps: If your organization cannot fix the problem, or it's an incompatibility of values, then you know that this donor is not someone you should invest your time in moving forward. If the offense is something that can be fixed over time, then you have a chance to rebuild the relationship with concerted effort. It's important to be clear on whether this is a potentially fixable offense before continueing to invest time in a donor.

“No, not you.” You have met with your prospective donor, but they have been very clear that your organization isn’t a philanthropic priority.


Next steps: If this is a current donor, then understand that they will not be giving more than what they currently give. You need to cultivate and steward their gifts accordingly moving forward.


If this is not a current donor, understand that this person is not going to become a donor. This knowledge is a gift, freeing you up to invest your time and resources in other prospective donors who have expressed interest in build a philanthropic relationship with you and your organization.

Never fear hearing “no” again. Instead, move forward with confidence in your next steps and know that you are using your time and resources effectively.

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