How To Get Value Out of Donor Rejection

They say, no, or even worse, they are silent. In either case, you, your nonprofit, and your idea are rejected. Rejection, while difficult in all occupations, is especially bitter in the nonprofit arena. Your intentions were noble, your hopes high, and your cause important.

Rejection is part of the nonprofit experience. When you encounter it, take these three steps to create value.

1. Grieve.

Allow yourself time to respond to the blow. Its nice if you have a padded room in which to vent but sometimes all you can do is breath deeply, let go, and move into learning.

2. Learn.

There is only one thing worse than grief, and that is setting yourself up for unnecessary future grief. If possible, ask the person saying no for more information. Was it the amount? The timing? You might receive standard answers, such as they had too many requests or too little money. Whatever the response say, “Thank you.” Stay curious and ask for more insight. Ask about their decision process. Or what, if anything, you might have done better. Ask if you can stay in contact. Then, again say, “Thank you.” This information might allow you refine your ideas into a better request or to close their file. Clarity allows you to invest your valuable time better.

3. Evaluate. 

You might receive minimal or no information. In any case, do your own analysis. With practice, become skilled at developing reasonable hypothesis about the turndown. After all, if you didn’t expect a yes, you would not be disappointed. Why did you expect a yes? Why did they turn it down? To help your thinking, use the following hierarchy as a framework, based on the work of Andrew Sobel.

Did you receive a no because–

  • The person did not perceive the problem?  

Despite your messages, were they unaware of the need? For instance, did they not understand that dental care is challenge for the homeless? Reduce future rejections by refining your messages about the need.

  • The decision maker does not own the problem?

Boundaries allow us to focus our efforts. In this case, did your request fall outside the donor’s boundaries? For example, the person understands that dental care is in terrible shape in Connecticut, but as New Yorker they don’t consider it their responsibility. Can you re-frame your request inside your donor’s boundaries?

  • The donor Is not dissatisfied by rate of current change?

Does the donor perceive the urgency of your request? They may believe dental care is important. They may believe you are doing a great job, but relative to the other needs, they are happy with the status quo. Can you make your request more urgent? Why is it important now?

  • The person does not trust you?

The person believes there is a problem, owns it, and is unhappy with the speed of change. Unfortunately, you, your organization, or the proposal does not give them faith in your ability to execute it. What has happened to destroy trust or fail to create it? What can you do to increase or create trust?

  • Other stakeholders in the decision don’t agree?

In this case, the donor would accept your proposal but others, whom they want to include in the decision, don’t agree. This rejection may sound like this, “I’m so bummed, I love you, your nonprofit, and the proposal. But my family members are totally against it.” To avoid future rejection here, identify all the decision makers and obtain their input before you develop your final request.

Why did they say no? What is the reason they did not move forward? When you receive a no, seek knowledge so you can fine-tune your future actions.  Learn from your rejections and turn them into gold. How do you handle rejection?


Karen Eber Davis

Karen Eber Davis Consulting guides executive directors and CEOs to generate the resources, boards, and support they need to make remarkable progress on their missions. As the award-winning thought-leader, advisor, and founding principal of Karen Eber Davis Consulting, Karen helps nonprofit leaders get answers, generate revenue, and grow their mission. Davis is known for her innovation and practicality based on her work with or visits to over 1,000 nonprofit organizations and her experience leading board and team events. She is the author of 7 Nonprofit Income Streams and Let's Raise Nonprofit Millions Together.