To Give or Not To Give: How to Say No when Asked for a Donation

  Photo Credit: Emily Scott

Photo Credit: Emily Scott

When asked what one of the bigger personal challenges a philanthropist faces, the answer often is “saying no when asked for funding, board participation, or a time commitment.”  At The Philanthropy Workshop, where I am an alumna, we refer to this as the investment of our time, treasure, and talent. 
 
I wrestled – and still do – with the donation question, especially when a friend is making the request.  I have made huge mistakes, have had unrealistic expectations, and have learned some of the lessons the hard way.  When I was President of our family foundation, the very first thing our new Executive Director said to me was, “I am here to say “no” for you so you don’t have to,” which provided instant relief for me, and some degree of job security for her!
 
As one would expect, there are multiple ways to decline a contribution request.

Here are a few insights of some wise, caring, thoughtful philanthropists: 

  • "I have an allocation portfolio for my charitable giving.  Whenever a friend or family member asks for a donation to something which isn’t in my portfolio, I always give a little as I want to be supportive.  Due to my funding constraints, I rarely give the full amount that is asked.  I include an explanation, such as, “You are very important to me and I respect that this cause is important to you.  I appreciate that you believe this is a worthwhile organization and I trust you. While it is not my passion, I want to be supportive of your efforts.  I have money set aside for just this reason. I cannot give you the full amount as I want to be there for others in similar situations.  Thank you for asking me to contribute."
  • “I now say, ‘I'd love to, but I can't.’  It has the virtue of being true, being respectful, honoring the request, and setting a good boundary. I have found that it is as much a gift to the asker -- whether it be a development person, a friend, a board member -- to be clear and not squishy.  This is hard.  Some of us need to please, and this helps no one, least of all ourselves.” 
  • “The donation ask is the hardest for me because we all have plenty of resources.  I have sort of a baseline contribution I will make in honor of friends.  Beyond that, when asked for something that takes me off task, I'll generally use language such as ‘We're fully committed’ or ‘We're stretched pretty thin’ or ‘I can't take this on, but I wish you the best of luck.’”  
  • “I always try to remember and start with the dubiously attributed Mark Twain quote: ‘If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything.’” 
  • “We set aside a very small proportion of funds to accommodate unexpected requests to support ‘friends and furries.’ Since we set the rules for this process, we can always bend them, but this structure makes it easier for us to decline a request using language like ‘we are committed for this year, but tell me more so we can consider this for next year…’” 
  • “I have 3 categories for my philanthropy and the third category is friends and family.  This category consumes 5-10% of my overall giving.  We lay out the budget in January and track against it so I can’t give if we are fully committed.  If a really good friend asks for $10, I give $2.  I used to fret about saying no but I’ve found that, while they may be disappointed, the friendships endure if you are authentic and responsive.”

 
In his book, Essentialism, The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown writes, “Remember that a clear “no” can be more graceful than a vague or noncommittal “yes.” He adds, “Being vague is not the same as being graceful, and delaying the eventual “no” will only make it that much harder – and the recipient that much more resentful.”

A note to acknowledge the other side – the ask.  Given my extensive list of passions, I could easily ask my network for a donation to a different organization every day of the year.  I have vetted each nonprofit and know that they are of value to the area of need in which they operate.  When I was told “no,” I used to think “how can you possibly say no, don’t you care about ___?”  It took me a long time to recognize that my passion is MY passion and simply may not resonate with others.  Combine that with financial constraints, donation fatigue, etc. I now have more compassion and appreciation for those who decline my request. 
 
Hopefully, I never get used to saying “no.”  Supporting the people in my life is one of my core principles.  My showing up with curiosity, authenticity, empathy, mindful intention, and gratitude needs to be consistent.  It is what I want when the roles are reversed.
 
I do know that I would rather hear “no” then hear nothing.  Silence is not always golden.