A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Just Say No: The Art of the Turndown

People sometimes compare the foundation/grantseeker courtship to the dating process: Funders and grantseekers are looking to find each other and build long-term relationships. Sometimes the chemistry is there; other times it isn’t. Rejection is an inevitable part of this process so learning to say no, politely and confidently, is an essential skill.

That said, let’s be frank, it’s hard to say no to a friend or a colleague who asks for donations to their favorite charitable cause. It’s uncomfortable. If you’re conflict-adverse, you might reluctantly make a gift out of guilt or even start avoiding the grantseeker rather than directly discuss the pending request—leading to feelings of more guilt and even greater discomfort.

If your foundation is known to have financial resources and you’ve given to nonprofits before, you’re likely to face requests for donations time and time again. In today’s information age, it is increasingly easier for grantseekers and fundraisers to see the foundation’s name attached to various charities and put you on their list of prospects. In other words, by making gifts to others, particularly sizable donations, you invariably attract attention. Hiding is not a viable long-term solution.

Dealing with this situation has never been easy, but there are ways to be gracious and direct in turning down such requests. Funders who must say “no, thank you” on a regular basis tell us that mastering the turndown is something of an art. You want to be sensitive, but you also want to avoid misunderstandings. Here are some of their tips for delivering that message, whether by letter or in a one-on-one conversation.

Be Direct

Rather than waiting until you get a follow-up call or are cornered at an event, take the initiative and reply immediately to the individual requesting the support. If the request is for a project that you clearly do not want to fund, then the sooner you reply, either with a letter or a phone call, the better. Your response could begin something like this: “Thanks so much for your letter. I wanted to get back to you as soon as possible because I know the urgency of your organization’s work.”

Explain (But Not Too Much)

There is a natural tendency for funders to want to explain the decision not to make a gift, as well as a tendency for grantseekers to want an explanation. However, saying too much can have unintended consequences and send mixed messages. Consider the funder who, in looking for a convenient excuse says, “Your project is good, but we don’t fund research that does not have a plan for implementing the findings.” Lo and behold, the fundraiser comes back to the donor shortly thereafter with a fully drawn out implementation plan, having interpreted the donor’s initial rejection to mean, “If you make this change to your request, we’ll fund you.” This can lead to an even more difficult conversation after the grantseeker has put additional time into a proposal that still does not makes sense for you to support.

Cautious and experienced funders have learned this lesson and refrain from commenting too specifically on a request that they are unlikely to fund. When it comes to explanations, less is more. Sometimes the “it’s not you, it’s me” response is both effective and truthful, citing your own limitations—budget, the number of requests that you receive, and your desire to focus on a handful of causes.

Listen and Validate

People tend to accept rejection more readily if they feel that they have been heard and understood. Sometimes, listening to a ”pitch” patiently and compassionately, even though you have little interest, allows the grantseeker the satisfaction of knowing that they have made their best case to you.

To the degree that you feel comfortable doing so, you might make positive comments about the project or the organization—stopping short of raising expectations that you are a prospective donor. For example, you could say: “Your passion and dedication to serving the needy really comes through in your request, and I’m sure that other foundations will find it compelling.” Alternatively, you might respond: “It is clear that you and others worked really hard on this proposal, and I want you to know that I found it powerful, even though we have chosen not to offer support.”

Use Your Mission Statement as a Buffer

Foundation boards adopt mission statements and develop guidelines for their funding areas to communicate to grantseekers, peers, and the general public. Having a mission statement and funding guidelines makes it easier to explain why a request wasn’t approved. For example, if your foundation exclusively supports the arts, then a proposal to fight global warming, no matter how worthy, is clearly a non-starter.

Be Firm

It is important for funders to choose their words carefully because the person you’re addressing is likely to be looking for any sign, however small, that the door is open for future support. Even well-meaning casual comments such as “Keep me informed of your progress,” can unintentionally fuel expectations.

Assuming that there is no interest in the work of the organization, some donors seek to nip this in the bud by saying, “Unless we change our funding priorities, your organization will never be a good match for us.” It may sound harsh, but clarity and honesty in the short term can save time, effort, and ill will in the long term. Grantseekers appreciate such candor because it allows them to effectively manage their time and prioritize opportunities that are more likely to yield financial support.

Issue a Partial Decline

There may be times when you want to say “no” to a request for funding, yet still offer some other kind of support. For example, while declining to fund a community center’s ongoing programming, you could offer to volunteer your time during its annual winter coat drive. Similarly, you might be in a position to introduce the center to individuals who are more inclined to support it financially.

These suggestions should help you manage grantseeker relationships while minimizing misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and guilt. Saying “no” might feel a bit awkward at first, but you should take solace in the fact that turning down off-target requests is ultimately constructive for everyone. Not only will you help the nonprofit direct its fundraising efforts more appropriately, but you’ll be able to focus on your own philanthropic goals, concentrating your resources for greater impact in the areas you’ve identified as your foundation’s priority. It isn’t pleasant to decline a funding request, but imagine being acknowledged not only for your charitable giving, but also for how gracefully and directly you were able to say “no.”

Foundation Source is the nation’s largest provider of comprehensive support services for private foundations. The company’s administrative services, online foundation management tools, compliance, and philanthropic advisory services provide a complete outsourced solution, including the creation of new foundations. Our clients supply the vision; we provide everything else.

Now in our second decade, Foundation Source provides its services to more than 1,300 family, corporate, and professionally staffed foundations, of all sizes, nationwide. We work in partnership with wealth management firms, law firms, accounting firms, and family offices as well as directly with individuals and families. Foundation Source is headquartered in Fairfield, Connecticut.

© 2017 Foundation Source Philanthropic Services Inc. All rights reserved. v0617
The information provided in this document is for general information purposes only, and does not constitute legal, tax or investment advice.

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