Overcoming the 9 Fundraising NOs

I’m a huge, long-time fan of Bernard Ross, author and Director of The Management Centre. I first met him years ago when we were both speaking at the Institute of Fundraising Conference in the United Kingdom. His presentation was thoroughly entertaining and packed with valuable insights from his years as a nonprofit consultant with some of the world’s largest and most prestigious organizations. Later that evening, we shared adult beverages in the hotel bar, swapped stories, and discovered a great deal of common ground.

Since first meeting Bernard, I try to attend whenever he speaks at an Association of Fundraising Professionals International Conference or when he presents a webinar. I’m also a big fan of his books, Breakthrough Thinking for Nonprofit Organizations: Creative Strategies for Extraordinary Results and The Influential Fundraiser: Using the Psychology of Persuasion to Achieve Outstanding Results.

I’m honored that Bernard has agreed to share some fresh insights here about how fundraisers can better handle rejection:


People won’t always agree with your fundraising proposition. The implication is that even when you use the most targeted approaches the reality is you are still likely to get a “No” more often than a “Yes.”

The difference between a successful and an unsuccessful fundraiser is that they don’t necessarily accept the first “No” as a definitive answer. The successful fundraiser responds by being curious about what exactly the donor means.

There’s Darwinian logic to this, at least in fundraising. Put simply, if you only asked people who you knew would definitely say “Yes,” or if you only asked for the size of gift that you were sure they would definitely give, you’d:

  • be working off a very, very small sample of potential donors,
  • probably tend to “under-ask” by framing your proposition very low.

And, the negative payoff is you’d possibly:

  • be letting down your cause and the people you’re there to help.

So, to be successful as a fundraiser you need to learn to deal with the possibility of rejection. And, in particular, you need to deal with initial rejection and be able to analyze it more closely. That first “No” may not be as bleak as it appears.

To help you manage and interpret the possible rejections you might experience, we’ve created a “No” typology. In our experience, there are essentially nine fundraising “No”s that prospects use. With the first eight of these, if you follow up with a better question you may well get a better result. Only one of these responses – the last one – genuinely means “No, go away.” And if you hear this “No,” you should leave.

The 9 Fundraising “No”s are:

  1. No, not for this.
  2. No, not you.
  3. No, not me.
  4. No, not unless.
  5. No, not in this way.
  6. No, not now.
  7. No, too much.
  8. No, too little.
  9. No, go away.

Each of these “No”s has an underlying reason or explanation that a skilled influencer will seek to uncover. And, that’s why dealing with “No” properly requires that you ask a different or better question rather than simply giving up.

So, how do you get from a “No” to a “Yes”?

The table below explores our 9 Fundraising “No”s typology. In it, we suggest why you might get a particular “No,” what the donor might really want from you, and how you could respond in a way that might lead to a more positive outcome.


No Reason the donor gives What the donor really thinks – and how you might respond
No, not for this “You’ve asked me to support your education programme for children, and I’m not interested in work with children.” “Why don’t you ask me to support your work with adults or elders? I’m interested in that kind of work.” If they are in some way interested with your work, what might they be interested in?
No, not you “I’m not comfortable with you soliciting this gift.” (The solicitor is maybe a 30 year old woman and the donor a man of 70+.) “I’m 70 years old and want to talk to someone my own age who shares similar life experiences understands how I feel about the importance of a legacy gift.” (Or, “I want to talk to someone of my faith, with my sexuality, etc.”) Who’s the right person to ask the donor that they will feel comfortable with?
No, not me “I’m not the right person to ask — I can’t or don’t make those decisions.” “I don’t make these decisions. You should talk to my partner — she decides about our charitable giving.” (Or, “You should talk to the marketing director,” if it’s a company, or “One of the other trustees who has an interest in this field,” if it’s a foundation.) Who is the key decision maker who will decide whether to back this proposal?
No, not unless “You don’t seem to be offering me what I need or want in return for my gift.” “I need to have my deceased partner’s name on this building as part of the gift fulfillment.” (Or “No, unless you provide the following commercial benefits…” if it’s a sponsorship.) What is it they really want and can you ethically or reasonably provide it?
No, not in this way “You’ve asked me for cash, and I can’t help with that.” “I could help with some other kind of support through my business interests like vehicles, printing, and back office services but you don’t seem interested in other kinds of support.” If not money, how else can they help?
No, not now “I can’t help you at this time.” “Why don’t you ask me for a donation in a year’s time after my daughter has graduated from university?” Or, “When I’ve sold the company.” Or, “Towards the end of our foundation financial year when we know the resources we have left.” When would be a good time to make this ask?
No, too much “I can’t give you that amount of money.” “I don’t have that sum available or it doesn’t fit with my commitment to your cause. Ask me for a different — lesser — sum that will be meaningful for you and is within my range.” What sum might be appropriate, acceptable and still help with your project?
No, too little “I want to do something bigger and more important, and that sum doesn’t relate to that feeling or commitment.” “Ask me for a different — larger — sum that will be meaningful for me and relates to my ability to give. I want to make what I perceive really is a significant difference or an impact.” What kind of sum is appropriate and can you use it properly?
No, go away “No!” “I’ve thought about your proposition and decided that it isn’t what I want to support.” Say thanks and back away after determing if the door is really closed, or what might have to change for there to be a possibility to re-establish the relationship.


In truth, there are probably more than nine “No”s, but the above list is a good start in that they force you to listen carefully and actively to the response — “No” needn’t be final.

It’s especially important to try and work out which “No” is being used:

  • When you’re in a live one-to-one situation where the initial rejection might seem to be the end of the conversation. It helps you look beyond your own immediate disappointed reaction.
  • When you’re helping a colleague who’s returned from an unsuccessful prospect visit, and he needs help to identify what else he might have done to recover a situation that was going wrong.

That’s what Bernard Ross and Michael Rosen say… What do you say?

[Publisher’s Note: From time-to-time, I will invite an outstanding, published book author to write a guest post. If you’d like to learn about how to be a guest blogger, click on the “Authors” tab above.]

27 Responses to “Overcoming the 9 Fundraising NOs”

  1. What a fantastic list of NO’s! Thanks for sharing.

    I like to talk about the difference between a “hard no” and a “soft no”. A hard no is a “not now, not ever” kind of no. If you get this type of (hard) no, then you weren’t prepared and didn’t do enough cultivation. Soft no’s are the ones you list above, and there’s often a way to turn them into a “yes”!

    • Amy, thank you for sharing your perspective. One of my favorite soft-no recoveries occurred years ago in a phone campaign. The caller asked the prospect for $1,000. The prospect said, “I’m sorry. I can’t do anything like that right now.” The caller was smart. He didn’t immediately get off the phone or drop to a very low amount on the next ask. Instead, he replied, “You say you can’t do that right now?” The prospect said, “Yes, that’s right. My wife is having the gardner relandscape the backyard. I’ve never heard of half the plants he’s putting in. Anyway, the thing is way over budget.” The caller then said, “Well, I’m sure it will be worth it when it’s all done. Listen, if a $1,000 isn’t possible this month because of the landscape project, what about next month?” The prospect said, “Oh, if you can wait that long, that won’t be a problem at all.” Bingo! Good listening. Reflection. Flexibility. Friendliness. They are skills that led to the $1,000 gift.

  2. Michael,

    Great article and advice given by your friend and associate Bernard.

    It is so important to not only research a potential donor, but to spend time to get to know them and find out what their interests and abilities are before making an ask for support.

    A while back, I took part in a major gifts webinar. A”seasoned Development Professional” asked the speaker what was the best way to ask a deep pocket funder for a major gift on the first meeting. I cringed and shook my head. The speaker’s response was exactly what I thought at the moment. “You don’t.”

    • Richard, thank you for you insight. You’ve illustrated one of the differences between someone who does “fundraising” and somone who practices “development.” The latter may take longer, but the results will almost always be better.

  3. Great post…I find it absolutely critical to train volunteer solicitors (especially in a campaign) to “qualify the no.” This is great stuff from Bernard…will probably lift some of it for that training.

  4. Thanks Michael, I remember a session with Bernard some years ago about the various types of ‘no’ but had forgotten there were so many! I always call the last one the ‘no- go away and never darken my doorstep again’. Will pass on this timely reminder to my team.

  5. I REALLY like this – it could also relate to being exposed to the message 9 times before the mind starts to be open to the potential of changed thinking.

    It’s a sales message as well.

    This really sets the stage for an interesting discussion regarding a sales team, too. Each sales person (or, in the nonprofit world, solicitor) has particular strengths. Each person can bring those strengths to bear so that they’re not just looking to make their quotas, but helping each other to bring as much as possible for the company or organization. If everyone on the team has the same skillset, then they’ll be only able to deal with a particular type of customer. The same is true for those operations that have one development person, and they’re personally responsible for all solicitations.

    • Mike, thank you for sharing your insight. Not only does every development professional need to know how to handle each type of No, we need to recognize when we’re not the right person to talk to the prospective donor. Sometimes, we may not have the necessary skills or personality dimensions to work effectively with a prospective donor. By recognizing this, we have an opportunity to bring in another member of our team, from the ranks of professional staff or volunteer leadership, to more effectively engage the prospect. In such cases, we need to set our own ego aside and remember its not about us, it’s about the prospective donor.

  6. I attended the National Arts Fundraising School that Bernard runs in the UK about 7 years ago, and this is still one of the things that sticks in my mind and definitely one to follow (I still refer to huge file we got given on the training course even now!)

  7. Thank you for this great article. I was really drawn to this sentence, “The successful fundraiser responds by being curious about what exactly the donor means.” For me the the message is about truly engaging in a purposeful dialogue with perspective donors by being an active participant in the relationship. I have seen both development and sales people loose the interest and trust of prospects because they were so focused on “closing” that they were unable to hear the nuances of the what the donor was saying.

    • Amber, I’m glad you enjoyed the article. You’re quite correct; it’s about the prospect, not us. That’s the core of what it means to be donor centered. The irony is that when we focus less on closing and more on what the prospect is telling us, we will close more gifts.

      My dad was in retail sales. He managed the paint department for a large hardware chain like The Home Depot or Lowe’s. His sales were always among the highest in the company. How? Well, when someone would come in to buy a gallon of paint, he’d engage them in a conversation about their project. By the end of the conversation, he not only sold them the paint the customer came in for, but also fresh rollers, drop cloths, masking tape, and other needed supplies that the customer hadn’t thought of. The customers were grateful because they were able to 1) get things they needed but didn’t initially know they needed, and 2) get everything they needed with one trip to the store. By contrast, other sales staff would simply sell the customer the paint they requested.

      Engagement, listening, service. These are the things that can lead sales people to close more and development professionals to secure more and larger gifts.

  8. This is very insightful. Thank you so much for this depth of inspiration.

  9. Very inspirational and eye opening fundrasing tips


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