When ‘No’ Doesn’t Always Mean ‘No’

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Written by Alex Comfort, CFRE

Here’s a literal $10,000 question. When is it time to give up on past donors or foundations that have denied your grant appeals? Early in my career, a very wise person told me “there is no such thing as a lapsed donor.” It was true then, and it remains true today.

You can learn a lot by conducting a detailed analysis of past giving. Look at what people gave over the years, note spikes and think about who might have simply been forgotten or overlooked. Visit those folks and ask them what happened. Enlist your board members to help. The primary goal is to find out why they quit giving. Their answers will likely help your organization become better donor stewards moving forward.

The same is true for grants. Sometimes, you just need to ask follow-up questions.

Here’s a little secret: some foundations say “no” to all first-time applicants. They want to see if you’ll apply again, taking the steps required to meet their criteria. Don’t forget, they really don’t NEED you to apply. Most foundations have plenty of applications, which means it’s already difficult for them to make funding decisions.

Therefore, when you get a negative reply, pick up the phone and call the foundation. See if they’ll tell you why you weren’t selected or how your proposal could have been improved.

This is called qualifying the no.”   It means you take the time and make the effort to follow up and find out what their “no” really means.

Not now? 

Not ever? 

Not in my current format? 

You’d be surprised how much both grantors and major donor prospects want to tell potential grantees. Use the information they give you to improve your application or revise your focus. I’ve used this tactic, and it’s paid big dividends for my fundraising efforts.

I’d like to challenge you to take some risks and keep trying with the donors who can make a real difference to your organization.  Find them in your pool of donors and archives. But don't sit behind your computer – go see them in person or, at the very least, make a phone call!

One final thing – if there are donors on your list who gave you “in lieu of flowers” memorial donations, you can cut them loose. That was a one-time deal.


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