By Rob Meiksins
When my brother and I were kids, there were some things we had to ask our father for. We would walk up to him, ready to ask, and he would look up and jokingly say, “The answer is no. What’s the question?” I had a conversation with a foundation officer the other day that reminded me of that. In fact, it was almost exactly the same.
As I look back on conversations I've had with prospective donors over the years, I realize that there is a thing called The Wall of No. I’m sure you’ve felt it. You call up and almost as soon as they say “hello,” and you say “Hi, I’d like to talk to you about…” You can hear the change. The Wall of No has gone up. It’s the knee-jerk reaction to say no to your request, whatever it may be that you’re asking for.
And I get it. I really do. Program officers are inundated with requests from nonprofits. A small foundation I served on the Board for had $40,000 to give away one cycle, and we received requests totaling about $2 million. It’s hard. I get it. I bet those program officers would love to say “Yes” to every request, because for the most part the projects being proposed are good.
Getting Over the Funding Request Wall
So what’s a poor nonprofit leader to do? You've done your homework, prepared your pitch, cultivated the relationship, and made the call. The Wall of No immediately goes up. When this happened to me the other day, I realized that the nature of this call had changed. It was no longer a request. The goal of this call was now to get this program officer to look over The Wall, or around it, or whatever. I was not even trying to get her to take the wall down – that was too much to ask. Just look over the wall. Please?
What are some tactics to do that? In this instance I used information. I talked with her sharing my knowledge of what the foundation has been working on, that I was aware of their initiatives and how things were structured. I asked a few questions about it. And then I asked for her feedback on some things we are working on. Of course, what we are working on are things I think her foundation would be interested in, because we could help what they are funding. Gradually, the tone changed, and she said she would talk to a couple of people about it. I could feel her beginning to look over the Wall of No. Good. Thanks. Great step for this phone call. I’ll talk to you soon.
In another instance I combined a little charm with self-deprecation and, most important, let the program officer know I was aware of the challenges she was facing: when she told me how busy she was, I begged forgiveness because I knew that – I had heard what was going on in her world, and said how silly of me to call her the day before this huge event. A couple other comments, and we laughed. I said I’d call back. She then said, “This was a very gracious call. Thanks. Shoot me an email with some dates, and I’ll get back to you the day after tomorrow to let you know when we can meet.” Score! The Wall of No came down.
It's About Respect
The moral of this story is that overcoming the Wall of No requires respect. On both sides. In both cases it was up to me to realize where that program officer was – that her world is crazy with people like me asking for something. In both cases the program officer had put up the Wall of No, but also had the courtesy and showed the respect of hearing me out and eventually rethinking their original position.
This also speaks to something that has been on my mind a lot, which is the barrier of communication that has emerged between donors and nonprofits. This is not always the case, of course, as there are some cases where that communication is open, supportive, and quite wonderful. But in many cases it seems there is an inherent mistrust or assumption that the other party is going to get it wrong or is going to demand too much. This is as true of nonprofits as it is of philanthropists.
This summer, two surveys are being issued, one by the Public Policy Forum and the other by the Wisconsin Philanthropy Network. Both are designed to look at the state of charitable giving and the health of the relationship between nonprofits and donors. Both represent a chance to open up the dialogue between donors and nonprofits, something I believe is all too rare. So, nonprofit leaders, before you throw up your own Wall of No, please take the chance to complete both surveys. Click here to go to the Public Policy Forum survey - I'll add a link to the other survey as soon as it's released.