While we firmly believe that fundraising is one of the best jobs in the world, there is a challenging reality that comes with it. Disappointment and rejection are part of the process. It’s one thing to know that this happens, but it’s another thing to really experience the emotional toll this can take on fundraisers who are working their plan, focusing on the donor, and putting in the time to present a well-aligned offer.

This blog was inspired by some stories we’ve been hearing from our clients about their disappointment related to certain asks that they made.

Several weeks ago, two fundraisers with one of our clients said they were discouraged about the size of gifts they received from a transformational ask.

One received $500k, up from the regular $400k gift the donor usually gives. The fundraiser was hoping for a $1.5 million gift and had prepared the ask with that in mind. But before the fundraiser could present the ask, the donor committed to giving $500k as the meeting started.

The other one had hoped for $500k and received $100k, again right before she made the ask.

So, in both cases the fundraisers were dealing with a lot of emotions in their disappointment. They felt like they were letting the organization down, and this was compounded by feelings of personal failure – wondering if they’d misread the donor, did they say the wrong thing, was the timing off, etc.

You have been in this situation, and so have I, where your expectations do not match what happens in a donor conversation. And that brings up the need to figure out how to do things differently. What can you do in these situations while staying focused on the donor’s interests and remembering that it’s not all about the money?

Here are some ideas we think could be helpful:

  1. Keep in mind that the relationship to your donor is a long-term one. This is a key point because your organization’s fiscal and calendar goals, if you don’t watch it, will force you to think and behave otherwise. Don’t fall into thinking “I must get X dollars by this date or I will fail.” Remember, the donor is not thinking about your organization’s financial periods or your caseload goals. They are thinking about the need they are passionate about and how to get that work done. So, there is a built-in conflict between your donor’s goals and your goals. Keep this straight in your head so you can properly process your donor’s behavior and giving actions.
  2. Remind yourself that you aren’t after the donor’s money. This is much like the point above, although with a slightly different focus. Here, it is about how YOU are thinking about your work with the donor. Is it about the money you will get from them, OR is it about how you can help each donor on your caseload fulfill their interests and passions? It’s the latter. You need to focus on the relationship with the donor, and the money will follow.
  3. Review how you prepare for a donor ask. Have you spent enough time with your donor talking to her about the need her giving will address? We routinely see front-line fundraisers not doing this correctly or waiting until the last minute to do it. You should be making the case for the need to the donor MONTHS before you do that ask, not days or one week before or, worse, the day of your ask. It should be a building up of information and energy on the topic so that when you ask, the donor is fully prepared to receive it. The ask is NOT the main event in your life with the donor. It is the buildup to the ask that is the most important. Take a look at how you do this and make the adjustments you need to make.
  4. If you receive a “no” from your donor, reframe what that no means. A “no” does not necessarily mean no never. It could mean “no, not now”. Or it could mean “no, it’s not right” meaning the emphasis or project is not aligned with their interests. It could mean “no, the number is wrong” which means you need to revisit the amount. Don’t ever take a “no” as a closed door. Ask the donor what their no means. And do it in a way that is kind, sensitive, and truly curious. Then, having received the information, create a new plan.
  5. Take time to realign with the donor to ensure you are aware of any shifts that may be happening in their interests or preferences. This is so important. A donor’s passions may change and you need to keep in touch with those changes in real time. We have seen so many situations where the front-line fundraiser is talking to the donor in their old framework and not realizing it. Stay current. It can be as simple as “Donor, you have told me that your core interest and passion is X. Is that still true today?” Or, “You told me you prefer I contact you via email. Is that what you still want me to do?”
  6. Remember that disappointments happen. Take time to process the disappointments you experience and accept them as part of normal life. It is not that you are bad or that you have failed. It is simply that you expected one thing and another thing happened. Focus on your next steps and don’t overanalyze the past.
  7. Celebrate the “no’s” and the let-downs. When you receive something different than what you expected from a donor, celebrate what you received instead of focusing on the disappointment. Because when you celebrate the decision your donor has made, you honor the donor. You leave her with a good feeling about you and your organization. Your celebration tells her you are truly her partner. It draws you to her and affirms and builds the relationship. It tells her that you really want her to be free to decide what SHE wants to do, not what you want her to do. This is so positive. And it builds the relationship, which is what you want.

In the end, it is important to remember that a donor’s gift is not as much about the money or the amount. It is one way the donor expresses their value and interest in changing their world. And if the amount or timing is different from what you expected, the best thing you can do is get curious about why that is. And the list above is a good place to start.