Understanding and Overcoming Donor Silence

During my first month as a major gifts officer at Providence College, I was fortunate enough to secure a visit with a consistent donor who had a high-level finance job at an international firm.

The qualification visit went well. He and his wife love their alma mater, and some of their closest friends are major donors of the college. When the meeting was over, we agreed to get together again later in the year.

It was three years before we spoke again.

During that time, I tried to contact the donor using phone, email, and mutual friends. Nothing worked. Then, I had a breakthrough. A reunion gift committee volunteer connected with the donor and helped bring him back into the fold. After a couple of phone conversations and an in-person meeting, he made a mid-five figure annual gift.

This story, minus the ending, is commonplace for all frontline fundraisers. Radio silence from a donor after days, weeks, or months of attempted contact can be frustrating, and it’s difficult to know how to proceed or what to make of a prospect who is unresponsive.

This begs the question: How should we understand and overcome donor silence?


Do Not Interpret Silence

Your mind may be swimming with reasons for why a donor hasn’t returned your phone calls or responded to your emails. They could range from the normal variety to conspiracy theories.

Ultimately, you don’t know the reason for the silence. This truth can be difficult to embrace, but we must do our best. There may be a great reason they have not gotten back to you. There may be poor reason. There may be no reason at all.

Do not assume you know what the donor is thinking, because you don’t.

Silence ≠ No

This is related to the point above but deserves its own explanation. All too often, we jump to the conclusion that an unresponsive donor is an unwilling donor. That assumption is most likely not true—especially in the long term—and can only hurt you and your organization.

If you think that a potential donor does not want to support your mission, then don’t be afraid to make the donor say it before you remove him or her from your contact list. The individual is on your list for a reason and should not be dropped unless he or she makes it clear that your time is better served meeting with someone else.

Silence = Creative Opportunity

If the traditional channels of communication are not working, then view the situation as an opportunity to explore other methods. Try connecting with the prospect through social media, a mutual acquaintance, a peer, or one of your colleagues. Look for them at events or coordinate with a volunteer or faculty member.

If you are feeling particularly bold, try dropping in on the prospect at his or her work. I’ve used this tactic on a couple of occasions with some success. Keep in mind that some people may not appreciate the maneuver, so this is probably best to use as a last resort. However, more often than not, your anxiety about a potential drop-in far outweighs any negative consequences.

Relentlessness Is Commendable

Oddly enough, I know several gift officers, myself included, who have gotten a visit simply because we were relentless. A fundraiser who continues to reach out—despite not receiving positive reinforcement—may even intrigue the donor. I once had a donor say that to me verbatim. It was nice to hear that the effort I was putting in was worth it in the end.

In the end, a hard “no” can be easier for a fundraiser to absorb than no response at all. In these cases we’re able to lick our wounds and move on.

Donor silence, on the other hand, creates an ambiguity that can leave us questioning our approach and our skill. Don’t let this happen. Try to embrace the challenge and break the silence by experimenting with a more diverse set of tactics.

Liked this article? You may also enjoy “The 3 Types of Visits Every Gift Officer Must Have.”

Matt Chittim is a major gifts officer at Providence College, where he works with alumni and parents in Metro New York and southern New England. Matt is also the host of the Providence College Podcast. In his non-working hours, he is chasing after his two young kids, running, and following New England sports. You can follow Matt on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn. You can also subscribe to the Providence College Podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud, StitcherGoogle Play, and Tune In.

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