We’ve all had it happen. You’re meeting with a donor, talking through a proposal for a major gift, and when you ask for the gift, the donor says “No.” It can be disheartening to hear this, but objections from donors are actually gifts that help you to stay aligned with what the donor is truly passionate about supporting.

Now, there are a few reasons your donor may say “No” or “Maybe,” but what I want to focus on today is what you should do after you hear this response to continue to build a strong, ongoing relationship with your donor. I know I’ve been in situations where the donor didn’t move forward with a gift, and instead of staying active in that relationship, I got distracted and I didn’t treat the donor as a long-term partner.

The first thing to consider as you prepare how you’ll respond to an objection is to take a step back and really tune in to the different ways that people may respond. It’s important to remember that we all have different values and norms around being direct or indirect. For some cultures, it could be seen as offensive to say “No,” so you may, instead, hear a “Maybe” or even a “Yes” that then stalls out as you try to confirm the details of the gift.

For other cultures, being direct is valued, and isn’t seen as disrespectful to say, “No.” So, it’s critical that you take the time to understand your own community, some broad cultural norms, and the potential differences in how your donors might respond to an ask.

Next, you’ll want to have some open-ended questions ready so you can continue to follow up with the donor and keep your relationship intact. Your goal here is alignment, and by using permission-based asking, you’ll be able to keep the donor at the center so you can stay focused on actively listening and partnering. Here are some suggestions based on different donor responses:

  1. Donor Response: “No, I’m not interested in making a gift at this time.”

    • Thank you so much for sharing that with me. Would you be willing to share with me more about where you are in the process at this time?
    • I really appreciate you being honest with me. Would you be willing to share more about what led you to that decision?
    • Are you open to discussions in the future about other giving opportunities?
    • What timing would best work for us to come back with projects in the future?
  2. Donor Response: “Maybe… I’ll have to get back to you.”

    • Absolutely, there’s no rush. Are there any questions that are still unanswered for you?
    • Of course, that’s no problem. What other information would be helpful for you in your decision?

    It’s important to note that in some more indirect cultures, saying “Maybe” is really a “No,” so you’ll need to bear that in mind as you craft your follow-up questions. If you get the feeling this might be the case, you could say, “Of course, that is no problem at all. I don’t want you to feel any pressure about this; your partnership is so valuable to me and our organization. When would be a good time for me to come back and check in?” If they don’t want to give you a specific time to come back, give them space, and make sure you are following up with great touch points.

  3. Donor Response: “Yes, I’d be interested in that.” (But then the gift stalls after your meeting.)

    • What questions or concerns have come up for you since our last meeting?
    • What other information would be helpful as you consider this gift?
    • It’s been a while since we talked about this. Has something come up that has made it difficult for you to move forward? Do you need more time? When would you like me to come back and revisit this with you?

    You may also want to be more direct with the donor if you sense something is wrong. This is where it’s critical to have high emotional intelligence as a fundraiser because there is some important information that you can learn from these conversations. You’ll want to remain focused on staying in alignment with the donor and genuinely reaching out to see where the donor is in this process. Remember, you are working to build long-term, meaningful relationships. Be careful in this kind of situation to not make the donor feel like you’re only after her money.

Now that you have some initial follow-up questions that will help you re-align with the donor and stay tuned in with where the donor is, what can you do to continue moving the relationship forward?

  • Continue to pursue your discovery of the donor’s passions and interests. Use your prior conversation as a launching point to ask more questions to help you understand which programs are most meaningful to your donor. Adjust your Touch Point Plan to provide more purposeful information about the programs your donor cares most about.
  • Be sure you’ve reported back! Take a moment to review how you reported back on a previous gift. Perhaps the donor is hesitant to give again because they don’t really know the impact of prior gifts. If so, put time in to share the results and stories that connect with the donor’s gift. And don’t worry about making these perfect! Oftentimes, the simplest reports on impact are the most meaningful.
  • Stay committed to your system and structure to maintain the donor relationship. So often, we ask for a gift and then the donor falls off our radar because we are on to the next proposal. This is why we focus so much on creating a system that helps you track each relationship and know exactly what to do each month. This will ensure you stay connected with your donors, no matter what.
  • Don’t forget to celebrate! This is the final step of our Permission-Based Asking model, which we teach in our Making Effective Donor Asks course. No matter how the donor responds, this step is critical because it’s so important to celebrate the incredible difference your donor is making regardless of where they are in that moment. There are a number of reasons a donor could decline an offer, but you can still make the donor feel valued.

Dealing with objections isn’t easy, but if you can reframe this experience to be a positive step toward a greater partnership with your donor, you’ll be establishing an important relationship that will serve your organization for years to come.