What To Do With A No


Nearly every big ask in my career as a staffer and consultant – whether it be an ask for a lead gift or a key leadership position – started with a no.

For example:

Would you and your family consider a lead gift of $____ for this campaign? No.

Would you consider serving as a chair for this campaign? No.

It wasn’t fun to hear, but it didn’t mean the end of the relationship, just a change in strategy. What is the next step after the no? Do you move on? Or do you re-approach in a new way?

Remember that lead gifts take time. These are big decisions for a donor, and they want to be sure that they’re using their philanthropic dollars wisely. Rushing the decision often results in a reduced gift or no gift.

The early stage of every campaign – the stage when you are seeking lead gifts – is like making popcorn.

Popcorn? Yes! I like to make my popcorn in a black iron skillet. I add the popcorn, oil and then turn up the heat. The waiting feels like forever! I shake the skillet, and sometimes take the cover off. (Caution, don’t do this!) All the while my mouth is watering for popcorn. Then what happens? One kernel pops, then another, then they all take off. Until you hear those first pops, your job is just to shake the pan and keep the heat on.

When it comes to your campaign, your job is to tell your story over and over again in a variety of different ways, allowing it to “heat up” like popcorn kernels in the imaginations of your donors.

If you’ve gotten a little anxious with your popcorn and taken the lid off too soon, all is not lost. Instead, go back to the beginning. Add a little more oil to the pan and slowly begin to reheat the kernels… or, in other words, begin a slower, more deliberate cultivation plan with that donor. “No” doesn’t mean they hate you (usually), but it does mean that you haven’t presented a compelling or urgent enough reason to get them to take action.

Be patient and take your time. Often the real answer behind the no is “wait” or “not now.” It can be hard to hear, but as a very generous (and sweetly Southern) philanthropist once told me: “Your campaign timeline is not my crisis.”

Any stories you’d like to share about rushing your popcorn?

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Posted by Bruce Berglund
Bruce Berglund

Written by Bruce Berglund

For nearly 30 years, Bruce Berglund, CFRE, has been a successful professional fundraiser in the fields of higher education, arts and culture, and social services. Bruce is the CEO and Founder of DBD Group (formerly Donor by Design Group), a national firm providing comprehensive fundraising services to nonprofits, churches, community colleges and schools. DBD is currently managing more than $3 billion in capital, annual and endowment campaigns. Bruce is a highly sought-after writer, speaker and teacher.

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