3 Ways To Learn From “No”: Optimizing Fundraising Strategies that Don’t Work

You did it. You made a big, brave ask to a major donor and…they passed. They weren’t interested. 

Ouch. Sorry. 

But take heart! There is life after “no,” and all is not lost. In fact, you can use “no” to improve and optimize your fundraising strategies.  

What Can You Learn From “No”?

It may feel disheartening to get a “no,” but it’s actually a big learning opportunity. Every “no” holds the opportunity to get to know your donor better, improve your skills as a professional, and analyze your organization’s fundraising process.

With every “No:” 

1. You learn more about your donor

If nothing else, you’ve learned something about what your donor is and isn’t interested in. That’s a data point you didn’t have before. You may also have learned that you asked for the wrong amount, you asked too soon, you didn’t manage their expectations clearly, or you didn’t engage their interest.  

2. You learn that “no” isn’t the end of your journey.

This is an important right of passage for every fundraiser. Sometimes people say no, and that’s okay. While it can be awkward in the moment, it’s not the end of the world. Once you’ve met and survived the worst, it’s easier to try again.

3. You learn where the gaps in your fundraising strategies are.

While some rejections are unavoidable, others are a result of problems in your cultivation process, or the ask itself. Once you know what isn’t working you can refine your fundraising strategies to be more effective. 

Finding The Holes In Your Fundraising Strategies 

So, what went wrong? Why didn’t your fantastic fundraising strategies work? How can you find out? 

1. Ask for feedback ASAP

It’s best not to assume why your prospect said no. It’s much better to find out for sure. The only way to do that is to ask. Tactfully and gently, ask your prospect why they’re rejecting this offer. Some sample scripts include:

“Thank you for considering. I want to make sure I only ask you about things you’re interested in, so can you tell me more about why this isn’t for you?”

“I understand. Is there something else you’d rather support?”

Take your cue from your relationship with the donor, and their own level of frankness. Donors with whom you have a close relationship might think nothing if you ask, “Is it the amount or the program that’s giving you pause?” while another might require you to be considerably more deferential. 

2. Reflect on your cultivation process

Sometimes donors don’t give because of things you have no control over, like:

  • Financial setbacks:“I can’t give because I just lost my job.”
  • Other financial commitments: “I can’t give because I just bought a house.”
  • A change in their giving priorities: “I’ve decided to give all my charitable dollars to the hospital.”
  • Life events: “I’m not making large gifts until after my retirement next year.”

 But very often, a no can point to a gap in your cultivation process. Ask yourself:

  • Did you follow a cultivation process with specific steps?
  • What kind of prospect research did you conduct? 
  • Did you miss something in your research? 
  • Did this ask seem to surprise the donor?

That final point is perhaps the biggest clue that something went awry in your cultivation process. If you cultivated the donor appropriately, they shouldn’t have been surprised when you asked for money. 

Don’t beat yourself up, but do consider revamping your cultivation efforts to include:

  • More opportunities to get to know each other
  • Deeper prospect research 
  • At least one meeting prior to the ask (This is a big hint that you’re going to ask in the future)

3. Think About Your Ask

Could your ask have been stronger? Consider:

  • Did you ask for a specific amount?
    If you didn’t name a number, you don’t actually know what the donor said no to, and neither do they. 
  • Did you connect that ask to the impact it would have?
    The donor needs to know what the money would accomplish and why it matters. 
  • Did you relate the ask to their known interests?
    Connect their money to the causes they care about.
  • Did the person with the strongest relationship make the ask?
    If the donor’s primary relationship is with the Development Director, it doesn’t matter that the Executive Director outranks them. The person with the relationship should make the ask. 
  • Did you actually ask for money?
    This one might sound silly, but you’d be surprised how often the question is never asked. It’s worth thinking back and making sure you didn’t just hint or imply that you’d like a donation. 

3 Fundraising Strategies For After “No”

“No” isn’t the end. Use these fundraising strategies to build to your next ask. 

1. Build a Stronger Relationship

The worst thing you can do after getting a “no” is to abandon the relationship with the donor. Instead, use this as an opportunity to deepen your relationship and communicate that the donor is important to you, even if they don’t always give you what you want. 

Keep Things Positive

Send a note after your meeting, thanking them for their time and ongoing interest in the organization. 

Invite More Involvement

Give your donor another way to get involved, like touring a project site, attending an event, volunteering, or meeting some of your clients to hear more about the organization’s impact. 

Create More Touchpoints That Add Value for Your Donor

If your donor only hears from you when you’re asking for money, they’ll get tired of you pretty quickly. That’s the nonprofit equivalent of being the friend who only calls when they need help moving! Instead, create more communication opportunities that don’t include an ask, like:

  • Enclose a note with their newsletter
  • Celebrate with an email that highlights when your organization appears in the news
  • Share photos from programs they’re interested in 
  • Send birthday and holiday greetings

Keep Your Appreciation And Acknowledgement Strong

Sending prompt acknowledgments and communicating your gratitude is important for every donor, from the $5 gift to the $50,000 one. However, it bears keeping in mind that once you’ve asked someone for a major gift, they’re looking at you more closely.  Make sure you’re bringing your A-Game, and double-check that you’re communicating just how much your donors mean to you. 

Prioritize Their Interests

After a “no,” it’s worth considering whether the donor is actually a good fit for your organization. You may find that their funding interests don’t quite line up with what you do. If another nonprofit in your network is actually more in line with the donor cares about, go ahead and make an introduction. You’re not losing out, you’re matching them with something they are passionate about. That generosity will create generosity for you in the future, perhaps as they connect you with their network of friends and colleagues. 

2. Get More Specific In Your Next Ask

Next time, make your ask even more specific. Do your prospect research to create a smaller ask for a specific program that you know the donor cares about. Tie it to a clear impact and a larger vision for the cause. 

3. Ask For Something Else

No one wants to feel valued solely for their money. Show your donor that you value their input by asking for something that isn’t money. 

Ask the donor for:


Does the donor have relevant professional experience to an issue you’re facing? What about personal experience with the cause you’re fighting for? Ask for their advice when you’re making a decision. Not making any big decisions at the moment? You can even ask for their feedback on their donor experience.


In your prospect research, you may discover your donor has connections that could benefit your organization. Maybe they’re in a club with a well-known philanthropist or neighbors with a scholar you want to invite to be a keynote speaker. Ask if they’d be willing to make an introduction. 


Invite the donor to help with a project or program that is relevant to their interests. Perhaps they’d like to read to kids, or help paint a mural, or help you develop a new initiative.

Board or Committee Membership

A great way to cement your relationship is to invite them to join the board or a board committee. 


Your donor may have their own ideas for getting involved, but they may be waiting for you to ask. They could propose something great that you never would have thought of, so give them the chance to share their ideas.

After “No” There Still Could Be “Yes!”

Don’t give up after one “no.” If you examine and adjust your fundraising strategies and continue to build your relationship with the donor, you’ll be poised for a happier outcome in the future. 

What you should do now

Below are three ways we can help you begin your journey to building more personalized fundraising with responsive technology.

Take a self-guided tour of Virtuous, where you can explore the platform at your own pace and see if Virtuous is right for you. 

Download our free Responsive Maturity Model and learn the 5 steps to more personalized donor experiences.

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