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Ask the Expert: Major gift solicitation – timing and rejection 

Ask the Expert: Major gift solicitation – timing and rejection 

April 24, 2024
John O'Kane, CFRE

When soliciting a major gift, the critical question is whether the donor is primed to respond favorably. The conundrum arises when the major gift donor says “no” and the development professional is left pondering the next step. 

Too often it seems like solicitation to the major gift prospect is driven by the need or timetable of the requesting nonprofit or even the major gift officer’s metrics, and not by the readiness of the donor. If the proper cultivation of the major gift prospect to the mission and specific needs of the organization is not driven by the donor, the result can be a much smaller gift or no gift at all. 

The urgency of the case or need can also present an opportunity to move a request forward, even before the donor may feel they are ready to contribute. The less urgent the case or presenting need, the greater the likelihood there may be a smaller gift. Solicitation of a major annual gift may be a little different process than seeking a larger capital or planned gift and not require as extensive cultivation. 

The keys to timing of a major gift solicitation are: 

  1. Cultivation. 
  2. Familiarization. 
  3. Connection.  

The process should include, first and foremost, establishing a relationship of trust and concern for the major gift prospect’s wishes. Consider: 

  • Has the time been taken to get to know the donor, his or her family and their business or profession?  
  • What is happening in their life now – illness, unemployment, retirement, family or relationship issues?  
  • How did they become interested in the nonprofit’s mission and what specific area(s) interest or motivate them? 
  • What kind of recognition do they desire? 

A standard cultivation process for someone who has never made a major gift to your organization often includes: 

  1. Research and identification: Identify prospects who have the capacity and interest in making a major gift to your organization. First off, there may be a major gift prospect hiding among your current smaller donors, so start there. You can also use wealth analysis and ask board members and current major gift donors for their thoughts. They can also help to make introductions. 
  2. Initial contact: Introduce yourself and your organization through a personalized email, letter or phone call. Be sure to express gratitude for any past financial or other support the potential major gift donor may have provided. 
  3. Discovery meeting: Arrange a face-to-face or virtual meeting to learn more about the prospect’s interests, values, motivations and philanthropic goals. 
  4. Education and engagement: Provide opportunities for the prospect to learn more about your organization’s programs, successes and challenges. Invite them to attend events, participate in site visits or meet with staff and beneficiaries. Share compelling stories and testimonials that demonstrate the impact of your work. 
  5. Cultivation activities: Deepen the relationship over time by staying in regular contact through newsletters, updates on relevant projects and invitations to events. 
  6. Involvement opportunities: Offer the prospective donor opportunities to become more involved with your organization beyond just financially. Suggest volunteering, joining a committee or advisory board or serving as an ambassador for your cause. 
  7. Stewardship and recognition: Acknowledge both the prospect’s financial and non-financial contributions. Show appreciation for their time, expertise and support and keep them informed about the impact of their involvement.  It is, however, important to respect a donor’s wish to remain anonymous. As development professionals we are always looking for recognition and promotion opportunities, but donors increasingly are wishing not to have their name and gift amount plastered over the internet.
  8. The ask: When the relationship is strong and the prospect has shown interest, approach them with a specific ask for a major gift. If you’ve skipped any of the previous steps, it’s not the right time. And when making the ask, be sure that it aligns with their philanthropic goals and capacity to give. 
  9. Follow-up: Continue to nurture the relationship regardless of the outcome of the solicitation. Thank them for their consideration and maintain regular communication to keep them engaged with your organization’s work. 
  10. Evaluation and feedback: Periodically assess the effectiveness of your cultivation efforts and solicit feedback from donors and prospects to identify areas for improvement. Use this information to refine your approach and enhance your relationship-building strategies. 

What if they say no? 

Receiving a declination from a donor can be due to several reasons. Discerning the right timing for a major gift ask can be like getting all the puzzle pieces in place.  

Main reasons for a “no” can be a premature ask, a rushed request or the lack of prospect alignment with the case or cause. Proper cultivation can help address these rejections. 

Things to consider: 

  • In your cultivation process what did you learn about the donor’s passion or specific interests?  
  • What did you learn about their current life situation? How is their business or employment going?  
  • Have they had any health changes?  
  • Do they have additional family or relative burdens? Properly paced cultivation can surface this information. 

It is important to assess whether the donor’s response is a no, a maybe or a not now. Try to clarify these distinctions. Always be gracious with whatever response you receive and establish a time to reconnect.  

Ask the major donor prospect what the best time would be to get back with them. Giving you this timeline grants you their permission to follow up and a date to put on your calendar. Without this permission you are left guessing about the next step.  

Ultimately, remember that a “no” from a major gift prospect is not a personal rejection of you as a development professional (regardless of how your supervisor or others may make you feel).  

A successful development professional learns this difference and how to take responses like “no,” “maybe” and “not now” in stride. 


John O'Kane, CFRE

John O’Kane, principal of John O’Kane Consulting, retired after 31 years as a Professor of Practice in the Nonprofit Studies Program, Department of Public Management and Policy, Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University. In 2019 he celebrated 50 years of work in the nonprofit sector, where he has gained experience with personnel management, organizational development, training, consulting and fundraising. After more than 25 years, John retired from the Atlanta fundraising consulting firm of Coxe Curry & Associates. Prior to that, he was vice president of human resources with the United Way of Metro Atlanta and before that served as executive director of the Mental Health Association of Metropolitan Atlanta. John has served on numerous boards of directors and advisory councils including the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Atlanta Chapter; the Georgia Society of Association Executives and the National Academy of Volunteerism (faculty).