A Meditation on Rejection

I could lie to you.  I could tell you that it’s not personal.  You’ll learn to shake it off just like a dog shakes off water.  Besides, every door that closes leads to another one to open.  Or some such balderdash.  But I won’t.  It’s truth-time.

Rejection, I have to tell you after 40 years of hearing “no” in all its guises, does not get easier.  And it always feels like it is about you.

Sure, sure.  It may just be timing.  They could have just made a large purchase, lost money in an investment, lost their job.  So next month, next quarter, or even next year may bring a better answer.  Or perhaps you were a little too quick on the draw.  It’s no right now because they don’t know enough about you.

Or you could have asked for the wrong gift, or the wrong amount, or been the wrong person to make this particular ask.  So then it really is about you.  And that feels pretty crummy.

Still, we ask.  Because we believe—and unless you are a complete masochist, you’d better believe—that we are offering an opportunity that will improve that person’s life or that organization’s image or meet a specific goal.  We are providing an opportunity to make a difference, accomplish something, right a wrong, and generally change the world.

That’s true, or should be true, no matter what you are selling.

As a fundraiser, I was convinced that I was giving our donors a chance to partner in something important.  That helped me to weather rejection and keep putting myself out there.

As a consultant and trainer I honestly believe that by working with me, my clients and my students will improve and enhance what they know and what they do. That makes asking for their business if not easy, a lot easier than if I didn’t believe that.

I was in sales for a long time before I fell into fundraising.  I started out as a freelance writer.  That meant that fully half my time was spent selling my work to editors.  And I believed that I was offering them an opportunity to give their readers something of value.  Then I sold life insurance, and I knew that was offering peace of mind. When I no longer believed that, I stopped selling insurance.  From there I went into the graphic arts industry and as long as I was working for someone who did quality printing, I could be evangelical about what my services provided.

What I’ve learned over all these years about rejection is that while it never goes away, a smart salesperson minimizes rejection by (a) paving the way thoroughly before making an ask and (b) takes care of existing clients/donors really well.  Why?  Two reasons.  The first is that it always easier to make follow on sale to a happy customer.  They know what you provide and they know that their investment in your product or your organization gives them something they want.  The second reason is that you can ask a happy customer or donor for a referral, and that referral will be far more likely to say yes.  In fact, cold calling gets you about one yes per 100 asks.  Referrals bring in one yes per three referrals.  I don’t know about you, but I definitely prefer those odds.

And, as I said, no doesn’t always mean no.  It may mean not now; not for what you are presenting; not at that price.  Or perhaps it just means that I don’t know you well enough, but if you continue to educate and enlighten me, my no will turn positive.  Over time.  If you persevere.

Perseverance is important for sales and for fundraising, but only when it is done with the prospect’s permission.  If someone tells me that he or she is not interested in me or my organization, I believe that person.  I don’t like it, but I believe it.  I lick my wounds, and move on.

Knowing when to move on is important in sales and in fundraising.  A wise mentor once told me that my real job was to qualify people.  If someone isn’t going to support your organization or use your services, you want to know that before you spend a lot of time cultivating them.

When I sold insurance, we called those people China Eggs.  They were always happy to take a meeting (especially if it was a meal), to let you talk about your products or present a proposal. But they never, ever, ever got to yes.  These China Eggs–they weren’t going to hatch. I had to learn to ask for something early on so I could assess if this person was a real prospect or just or just someone who while they wouldn’t say no, would never buy a thing from me—nor would they support my organization.  I had to learn to reject them so I could get onto some serious refusals.

A lot of my work is with Boards—who, truth be told, really do not want to fundraise.  They have some good reasons.  They know that when they ask their friends for support, it is going to cost them a donation back.  But probably even harder is the prospect of rejection.

What I tell them is what I tell fundraising staff—don’t look that far ahead.  Don’t think about asking for money.  Simply start a conversation.  Tell the prospect why you care so much about this organization.  Share some success stories.  Explain why the work is so important.  And then make them an offer—that you will give them the opportunity to learn more, to get a little involved.

I’m not going to lie to you here, either.  You will still get rejection.  There will still be that word “No” as the response to much of what you propose.  And it won’t feel any better than the no you would get if you were asking for a gift.

But here’s a truth that I think is really important:  As you tell people about your passion for this organization, you will be reminding yourself of why you are doing this.  And that will make rejection more bearable—and ironically, the more you share your passion, the less people will actually say no.

Janet Levine is a consultant and trainer, working to help nonprofits increase their capacity and reach their goals.  Learn more about her consulting and the classes she teaches—online and in person—at http://janetlevineconsulting.com.


About janetlevineconsulting

For over 20 years, Janet Levine has worked for and with nonprofit and educational organizations, helping to grow their advancement programs. Her consulting company, Janet Levine Consulting, serves a wide range of organizations from small, all-volunteer agencies to major national organizations. She regularly teaches courses in non-profit management, fundraising and grant development, both face-to-face and online at http://courses.lmlearningstation.com/. In addition to her nonprofit work, Janet brings years of experience as a business and sales manager in the for-profit sector. She has an MBA from the Graziadio School of Business at Pepperdine University.
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6 Responses to A Meditation on Rejection

  1. Robert Nelson says:

    Fear of Rejection is probably the main reason that most people absolutely hate when asking for money. Through the years I have found that rejection should never be internalized…it should be shared.

    When making a direct solicitation, two people always make a more effective request. Several reasons—First of all is the fear of being seen as a cheapskate by their peers. The desire to be part of a successful effort is probably #2. The donor wants to be recognized –not for the size of the gift, but for making a gift. Two people there also provide a venue where there is no question about what was said by either the fundraiser, the accomplice, or the prospect.

    I agree with the statement that we are offering them an “opportunity to participate” in this very worthwhile endeavor…If you aren’t convinced and enthusiastic they won’t be either. Lack of enthusiasm is telling the prospect “You don’t want to give us $100,000 for this program, do you?”

    The accomplice needs to be a peer and they need to have already made their commitment to make it hard for the prospect to say “No”

    Cultivation is the key. Listen and learn what the prospects interests are, take a trusted friend who has already made a commitment, and make your pitch based on what you know. Then when they still turn you down or make a token gift you say “Thank You very much, We appreciate your indication of support and wanted you to know your name will appear on our list of donors”. By being gracious you are leaving the door open for other gifts down the road. One case I personally know of, a donor targeted for $25,000 gave $100 to the campaign and ten years later the organization receives a $2 million gift from the donors estate.

    Never take it personally. Make sure you have the right person with you when you make the ask. Always say thank you for the gift no matter what the size.

    • You are so right, Robert. Sharing rejection is an interesting concept…I completely agree that getting it out in the open makes it easier and puts it into context.

      • Philip Joe says:

        Well said, fear of rejection is the main fear in sales and fundraising but more you practice and more you share your passion, the less people will actually say no and chances gradually move towards positivity..

  2. Janet, this is a good post. The subject of rejection is one that we are all taught to not even talk about because after all it will always be a numbers game and just around the corner you will find your next yes. Though I truly believe this I know it is never easy. My heart will always bleed for the Livestrong campaign to raise enough awareness and raise enough money to truly make a difference in finding a cure to end this horrendous disease. I have more business development and sales experience than most in these Foundations and due to my conviction for the cause I incessantly lobbied for greater responsibility and a bigger role essentially. Though no one will ever say it to me directly I felt a different kind of rejection one that politely insinuated “you’re not one of us how could you ever possibly be effective in playing such a vital role”.

    Do not tire and do not grow weary. The fight to raise awareness and draw attention to your cause is great. Rejection happens everyday but we learn to adapt and we have to get smarter in our approach when talking to prospects. You’re right. No doesn’t always mean no so let’s get all the no’s out of the way so we can hear yes. Press on.

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