Question #3: How Do I Handle the Sensitive Solicitations I’ve Been Avoiding All Year?

[The strategic development firm that brought you “Eight Burning Questions for Eight Nights of Hanukkah” is back by popular demand with “The Four Fundraising Questions You Should Be Asking this Spring,” providing vital help for your fiscal campaign close.

RAISE Nonprofit Advisors utilizes its deep development and consulting experience to guide nonprofits through tough fundraising challenges, strengthening them and enabling them to achieve success. Before you sit down to the seder this year, tune in these next four days for a new question released each day. We hope these questions (and answers) will help guide you to a successful campaign close this summer, enabling your organization to better fulfill its mission.

To learn more about how we can help you achieve fundraising success this spring, visit us at or send an email to

Happy Passover!
The RAISE Nonprofit Advisors Team]

By Marisa Mahler, Psy.D and Rachel Cyrulnik, MPA

By nature, humans procrastinate. Especially when the task at hand is challenging in some way, we have a tendency to avoid it. And avoidance is a very tempting option! While it may be effective in the short term, it often makes things more challenging or complicated in the long run. As a fundraiser, you may find yourself coming to the end of the fiscal year with your most sensitive donor scenarios still untouched.

When Rachel began her fundraising career, she learned from a seasoned development professional who used to talk about “the D’s of Development” – death, divorce, disease, disgrace, and discharge. What should a fundraiser do about asking for a gift when the donor is grappling with a traumatic life event?

1. Relationships, Relationships, Relationships. They are to development as location is to real estate. This general foundation will come in especially handy in dealing with sensitive situations. Even the most socially and emotionally intelligent fundraiser would be hard-pressed to pull off a solicitation of a donor who recently experienced a trauma without dipping into the relationship capital piggybank he developed during smoother times. Gift amounts may ebb and flow, but the relationship should be the constant variable in the equation.

A little effort – showing you care enough to spend the time and energy – can go a long way. Make it a habit to have regular check-ins. Be sure to reach out when they have a family celebration and wish them congratulations. Optimal frequency of course varies with each donor, but bottom line: your donors should hear from you before you need something from them.

2. Due Diligence. As a fundraiser, you always try have your finger on the pulse of your constituents’ communities, networks, and social circles. This intelligence-gathering will help you better size up the situation and assess whether it is a good time to reach out or not.

3. The Gift of Giving Back. Big life transitions cause anxiety, and a force that can buffer against that stress is the opportunity to have purpose and meaning in life. In some cases, giving charitably may be just the thing a donor needs at the time. Others may be less financially capable, and for these cases, the successful fundraiser must acknowledge that the person’s situation has changed, express appreciation for past giving, and identify other ways the donor can volunteer or contribute.

4. Acknowledge the Elephant in the Room. Be honest with yourself – ask yourself why you aren’t addressing the elephant in the room. Most of the time the answer will lead you to your own anxiety, because it makes you feel uncomfortable. It is imperative to push yourself out of your comfort zone and to opt to take a more difficult but mature approach, acknowledging the major life event, loss, or hardship with which your donor is coping. Once you have acknowledged it (thereby validating it), the ball shifts back to the donor’s court either to engage in further conversation or simply to thank you for your kind words and move on.

Something as simple as, “I’m sorry to hear about you and Cindy. I hope you’re doing ok.” Wait, and see if the donor wants to take up your implicit invitation to discuss the issue further. In almost all cases, you will leave the conversation feeling better for having acknowledged it. This is good practice for both personal and professional relationships.

If you find yourself in a situation that warrants broaching a difficult topic with the major gift donor and find yourself struggling, do some a research. There are an abundance of resources available in print and online on how to address death, divorce, illness, job loss and other hardships those around you may be facing. If you are unsure of what to say or how to say it, it can be tremendously helpful to use psychological resources to guide you.

5. The Long Game. As a fundraiser, you may have been anticipating a gift that is now in question, and the truth is it is a real let-down not to hit your fundraising goals. But you must use your best judgment. If it’s an inappropriate time to reach out, don’t do it. Fundraising is about partnerships and empowering people to feel good about their generosity. It is a poor reflection on yourself and your organization if you lack tact or sensitivity. Think about the longer-term investment. Treat major gift donors like major gift donors, even if they aren’t giving a large gift that year, and they will feel more validated and will be more generous when they get back on their feet.

Rachel Cyrulnik is founder and principal of RAISE Nonprofit Advisors, a strategic development firm servicing nonprofits. Contact Rachel at Marisa Mahler is a clinical psychologist who specializes in the treatment of anxiety, depression, anger, stress and relationship issues. Contact Marisa at