Nonprofit 411: Negotiating a Major Gift—Respectfully

By Diane G. Remin, President,


Setting the Stage:  You just asked for a gift, and received a response that falls into one of three broad categories:

  • Yes. That one is easy.
  • “Let me think about it”—and all its variations, e.g., I have to talk to my <fill-in the blank>. “Let me think about it” is not a trigger to negotiate. Ask questions. The donor may simply need time to think. If you are uncertain, then err on the side of caution:  don’t negotiate.  But do schedule a next visit.
  • No way: “There is no way in the world I/we can do that” or “I/we can’t possibly afford that much.”  You are listening for an absolute “no” that will be expressed through the words, voice tone and body language. It’s time to negotiate.

The following are not immediate negotiation triggers:

  • “Wow, that’s a lot of money.” This is an observation, not a definitive statement that the donor can’t or won’t make the gift. Respond with an “impact statement,” e.g., “With that gift, you will be <fill-in the blank>.”

Tip:  Refrain from inserting your own money values into the conversation.  A seemingly empathetic reply of, “Yes, that is a lot of money,” may encourage the donor to recalibrate. Focus on impact: “A gift like that will <example of what the gift will accomplish>” or “You will be making a big difference.”

  • “I wasn’t expecting that.” This is an expression of surprise that can mean many things. Keep the focus on the project and on how involved the donor wants to be in the opportunity you presented.
  • “How did you come up with that number?” Respond with known interest in the organization/work, not process: “We know how much you care about <nonprofit or the particular program/project> and thought you would want to take a leadership role” or “thought this might be the level at which you would want to be involved.”

3-Step Donor-respectful Negotiation Strategy

Note:  Although the principles apply to gifts of all sizes, this 3-step process was designed with gifts under $1M in mind.

  1. Try a timing solution: If you asked for the gift as a lump-sum, e.g., for an outright $100,000, test a timing solution: “Would you be able to fund this project the way you’d like to if we spread your gift over time—would $25,000 a year for 4 years for a total of $100,000 make it possible?”
  2. Reduce the ask amount by 50%: If timing doesn’t get you to “yes,” then halve the amount and re-ask.

Why 50%?

  • If the donor could come close to the amount you asked for, you wouldn’t hear an emphatic “no way.”
  • Even if 50% is still too high, it’s clear you are listening.
  • It doesn’t feel like haggling.

3. Invite the donor to name an amount: If a 50% reduction doesn’t do it, then ask the donor at what level s/he would like to             participate: “So John, I know you would like to support the initiative…. Tell me what amount works for you.”

Whether or not a gift results, this simple, respectful negotiation strategy insures that the donor and solicitor feel good at the conclusion of the conversation.