How Prospect Research Can Turn ‘No’ Into ‘Yes’


By Anne Hofmann

Prospect researchers fill several critical roles in the solicitation cycle. We gather, synthesize and interpret data, and we provide strategic recommendations to frontline fundraisers and executive leadership. But one area that can be overlooked for key prospect research involvement is how to regroup and pivot after a prospect declines a solicitation request.

There are five reasons a prospect or donor will say “no” to an ask: wrong amount, wrong timing, wrong funding area, wrong asset type and wrong solicitor. In many cases, these can all be overcome with the right information. Some might ask, “Why didn’t we have the right information before the ask?” Maybe you didn’t know what question to ask in collecting the data. Maybe it’s an established donor whose research isn’t frequently updated. It could be anything, and sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know.

With each donor interaction, the gift officer gathers new information. This is a delicate dance of asking the right question at the right time, which will hopefully shed light on the reason for the decline. Once the reason is determined, prospect research can pick up from there with the following approaches.

Wrong Amount

This question correlates to capacity, but could also relate a donor’s self-perception. A thorough capacity evaluation should be performed, and a determination made if they had been previously rated too high.

If the capacity rating is not the issue, then you should also perform a review of their general philanthropic activity. Once you’ve verified assets and established a capacity rating you feel confident with, compare their visible giving to this figure. Do they typically give below their capacity level? This donor could suffer from comparison syndrome, or feel their own level of wealth is inadequate compared to others. They think if they can’t give millions their gift isn’t worthwhile, when in fact your organization would be over the moon for the hundred thousand dollars they can give! Arm your gift officer with this information to help build the donor’s confidence and understanding that gifts of all levels are meaningful to an organization.

Wrong Timing

What is going on in this prospect’s business and personal life? It’s possible that the prospect is funding a large wedding for their child. Their business could be preparing for an IPO and they are waiting on the results before making a commitment. Maybe they have three children going to expensive colleges or private schools. Even if they don’t offer this information, much of it may be attainable via contact notes or the internet. Once you have identified the influencing event you can advise the gift officer to adjust their ask timeline accordingly.

Wrong Funding Area

A prospect will usually be forthcoming when the proposed funding area doesn’t resonate with their philanthropic priorities. They may even have an alternate area they are interested in and will offer it in response. But sometimes it will just be a “no.” For this we also go to their public giving record to see what causes have already been recipients of their generosity. We look at where they volunteer their time and what they promote on their social media. This information should then be reconciled with the available funding opportunities at your organization.

Remember to keep in mind that the area they feel most passionate about might not be the big new building that you’re trying to raise money for, and that’s OK! At the end of the day, it’s about the donors and helping them find alignment between the impact they want to see with their giving and your organization’s priorities.

Wrong Asset Type

If a donor declines an ask for cash, the problem might not be the amount but rather the giving vehicle. Time to review their assets! Do they own extensive real estate that could be donated? What are their stockholdings and are they willing to donate those? Don’t forget about private company stock; that can be donated, too.

Note: Before the gift officer revisits the conversation with the prospect, confirm with your compliance and accounting departments that your organization is set up to receive assets other than cash.

Wrong Solicitor

This last one can be a little uncomfortable to wade into. It deals with egos and territory, and forces us to ask hard questions of ourselves about bias and relatability. But the reality is, even an organization’s top fundraiser isn’t always going to be the best fit for some donors. As the people who work closely with the frontline staff, we know their varying personalities. We have also spent a lot of time learning about specific donors and can serve as a wide-angle lens, should there be a need to identify a mismatch between a fundraiser and a prospect.

Go Get the ‘Yes’

Equipped with this new information, your gift officer can revisit the ask with the prospect with renewed confidence in receiving a “yes.” And if the frontline staff does not automatically seek out your counsel after a “no,” don’t let that deter you. Gather up the relevant information and offer it to them, and they will quickly see yet another invaluable way in which prospect research contributes to their work.

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