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Halloween special: The most frightening word in fundraising

Evil pumpkin

In this halloween blog, Bernard Ross, =mc Director gets right to the heart of what fundraisers fear the most…

In Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, the ‘hero’ Kurtz finally confronts his own demons. His final words? “the horror, the horror”. (Note carefully introduced pretentious reference and avoidance of plot spoiler.) As Halloween approaches I wonder what the fundraising equivalent of the Heart of Darkness is? (Note carefully introduced unpretentious, if a bit cryptic, reference and link to fundraising.)

So, my question is what is the most feared word in the most feared situation fundraising? What’s the average fundraiser’s Mr Kurtz moment? When I ask this this question with groups all over the world the answer always comes back the same. ‘The situation I most fear is asking for gifts face to face.’ I understand that. There is the possibility of failure, of rejection, or even just of embarrassment.

When I probe further the fear is located in one word. The word fundraisers most fear is “No.”


Maybe that‘s not surprising. But If you share a fear of the word “No” in response to your solicitation then, as Halloween approaches, I want you to reconsider. That’s right, I don’t believe that ‘No’ should be the most feared word in fundraising.

Instead you as a fundraiser should learn to fear the instant “yes” response from a donor. There’s Darwinian logic to this. Put simply, if you only asked people who 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 not be frightened of it. And in particular you need to be able to deal with initial rejection, analyse it more closely, and respond appropriately. That first ‘no’ may not be as bleak as it appears.  It may not be “the horror.”

skeletons halloween

To help you manage and interpret the possible rejections you might experience I created a ‘No’ typology. In my experience, there are essentially nine fundraising ‘Nos’ 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, indeed, 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 fundraiser will seek to uncover. And that’s why dealing with No properly requires that you then ask your prospect/bogey man a different or better question rather than simply giving up.

Getting from No to Yes

The table below explores the 9 Fundraising Nos typology. In it I suggest why you might get a particular ‘no’, what the prospect might really want from you, and how you might respond in a way that could lead to a more positive outcome.

No Reason the prospect gives What the prospect might think – and how to 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 them.” Do you have a range of propositions that might they 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 a legacy gift.” (Or I want to talk to someone of my faith, or with my sexuality…) 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.” “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, 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?  Can you ethically, economically or reasonably provide it?
No, not in this way “You’ve asked me for a specific cash amount 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 ask for 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 gift in a year’s time after my daughter’s graduated?” Or “When I’ve sold the company.” Or “Ask at 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 lesser sum that will be meaningful for you and is within my range.” What sum might be appropriate, acceptable and still help?
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 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.” 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 graciously and back away… (Check is the door closed, or what might have to change for there to be a possibility to re-start the relationship?)

In truth, here are probably more than 9 Nos but these are 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 and a rejection of you. This helps you look beyond your own immediate disappointed reaction.
  • when you’re helping a colleague, who’s returned from an unsuccessful prospect visit and they need help to identify what else they might have done to recover a situation that was going wrong.

Hoping you have a happy Halloween…and be sure to watch out for your inner Mr Kurtz trick or treating.

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If you’re keen to learn more about how we can help you transform your fundraising, call and speak to one of our experienced consultants on 020 7978 1516, contact us online or visit our fundraising consultancy pages.

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Bernard Ross

About Bernard Ross

Bernard is an internationally regarded expert in strategic thinking, organisational change and personal effectiveness. He works in Europe, USA, Africa and South America. His assignments have involved a wide range...