A Non-Response Isn’t A Rejection

By Nancy Peterman, Partner

In the world of development much has been written about how many attempts one must make to land a meeting with a donor before throwing in the towel.  Some organizations have specified protocol such as the following:

  1. If there is no answer leave voice mail on the first attempt;
  2. Call three more times two days apart, and if there is no answer, do not leave a voice mail;
  3. On the fifth attempt, leave another message;
  4. Follow-up with an introductory email or letter;
  5. Attempt another series of calls as outlined in 1-3 above;
  6. If there is no response assume the person isn’t interested;
  7. Turn their name back into prospect research and code them as “not interested” or “unresponsive after multiple attempts.”

From personal experience, I’ve chased many prospects who didn’t eagerly return my calls.  In fact, many of them didn’t call me back for some time, even after my diligently following the contact protocol outlined above.  However, I’ll be honest.  Most times, I never allowed myself to get to step six, but continued to focus on attempting to find the right time or right way to make contact.

At one institution, I was told not to bother contacting a prospect in my pool.  This gentleman had not responded to multiple attempts, including several from the president.  Perhaps I was just lucky, as I was able to finally land a meeting with the elusive individual.  I drove three hours to his place of business and had a delightful meeting with him.  He shared with me that he regretted not being able to meet with others from the institution who had tried to meet with him in the past.  His explanation was that it just hadn’t been convenient or the right time.  More importantly, he made a $50,000 pledge at our first meeting.

Another individual whom I secured a meeting with shared that he thought that the university was not interested in him as he received no mail of any kind.  I didn’t share with him that he had been coded “do not contact,” and “do not solicit” and “no mail” many years ago by a student caller.  (We had reason to doubt the veracity of this coding for a variety of reasons, including that all accounting majors in one year had the same codes.)  We updated his information and he became a regular donor.

All of us know of an anecdotal story which tells of the irate prospect who calls the president and expresses his annoyance of development’s continual attempts to contact him.  This is not necessarily all bad as once this information is conveyed, it is a simple matter to code the individual and note in his record that he has requested this.  Savvy chancellors and presidents recognize that this kind of feedback reflects the opinion of one person, and shouldn’t influence policy for contacting other constituents.

The title and inspiration for this column came from a Tribune News Service article by Erika Ettin, who is “the founder of A Little Nudge where she helps people navigate the world of on-line dating.”  In the world of dating, Ettin believes that “Non-response does not equal rejection.  In other words, the absence of a positive reply—a return message—is not the same as turning you down.”

Noel Stanek, who was my first boss in development, is fond of saying, “Not unless they say they would rather put pins in their eyes than meet with you, should you interpret their response (or lack of response) as a no.”