How to Say No (Without Being Offensive)

How can you refuse a request without offending someone or burning bridges?  Years ago, I wrote an article about financial professionals and their involvement with nonprofit organizations.  The editor and I were talking about board memberships.  He remarked “Accountants are often invited to join the board because the organization wants their taxes done for free.”  Another situation financial professionals encounter is getting asked for financial contributions.  In my opinion, when someone learns you are a financial advisor, they assume you are either wealthy or on your way to being wealthy.  How can you manage these requests?

1. Friends and family pricing.  Regardless of the service you provide, the person asking might seek to minimize the amount of work they are asking you to perform.  “It’s only a small account” or “We just want you to do the basics.”  In reality, they will expect to be a full-service client.

Strategy:  If it’s an organization, you might have a “nonprofit rate.”  If it’s a friend asking for a break on fees, you might have the “friends and family discount.”  The end result is you are making a concession, but still getting paid if you take on the responsibility.

2. The time period.  The organization might be a young one.  They are putting procedures in place.  They might not have much money.  If they want you, as an accountant, to “do their books” you might agree to do it at no charge, but inly for the first one or two years. 

Strategy:  You have agreed to donate your time and services, but only for a defined time period.  There is a defined end date.  At that point, the arrangement can be revisited, but your commitment ends there.

3. Your role is oversight.  You are asked to provide a free service.  It might involve investments, legal or accounting services.  For some reason, you cannot do it for free.  If they bring in another professional to take on the task in an official capacity, you might still be able to help in another way.  In your role as a volunteer and board member, you might provide oversight.  You might chair the volunteer committee handling that function, liasoning with the board.

4. Contributions through a donor advised fund or foundation.  The organization does not want you to provide a service, they are looking for a substantial cash donation.  Lots of groups approach you.  It can become an even bigger issue when a capital campaign has been announced.

Strategy:  You have added an intermediary step by establishing a foundation or other entity in the past.  You have a procedure in place for evaluating requests.  They follow the procedure, if they want to request funding.  It moves this from a personal appeal to a more businesslike request.

5. You work from a budget.  People often assume wealthy people have this giant pot of money they can reach into, sort of like a soup tureen.  In reality, your personal finances might be similar to portion controlled food products, like cans of soda or yogurt containers.

Strategy:  You have a budget for charitable contributions for 2024.  It might be already committed.  You will be reviewing where your 2025 charitable giving dollars will go during 4Q24.  Can they approach you then?

6. The matching gift.  You will commit to a largish donation, but not at the size they are requesting.  You would do a dollar-for-dollar match, a challenge gift.

Strategy:  You are still giving a large gift, but the organization must work to raise a matching amount to get the full benefit.

7. The corporate matching gift.  You work for a large firm.  They have a corporate matching gift program for recognized charities.  You agree to a total size of the gift, but you are providing only a portion from your own wallet.  For example, if your firm matches dollar for dollar up to a threshold, you put up half the amount and the firm’s match provides the remainder.

Strategy:  You are employing leverage.  One of your workplace benefits is the matching gift program.  You are directing those funds towards this organization.

8. A request begins negotiation.  If you have been on the other side of the table, you know how this works.  You ask for an amount of money, larger than the contribution you have in mind.  They make a counter-offer, lower than what you requested.  Ideally, you meet in the middle.

Strategy:  You are participating as a donor, while choosing the amount suitable for your budget.

9. The non-cash donation.  The organization is having a gala.  They want you to be a major sponsor, buying a table.  That is too expensive.  You plan to buy a couple of tickets, but feel you are expected to do more.

Strategy:  Will they have a live or silent auction?  Can you either donate or solicit items that will raise significant money?  You might have a couple of favorite restaurants you visit regularly.  You approach the for a gift certificate for dinner for two.  They hand over certificates.  You and the organization send thank you notes.  These become part of an auction lot.

10. Lean on your history.  This might not be the year for a major contribution.  Business is slow.  You have other expenses taking priority.  You intend to be making a gift, but not as much as they are asking.

Strategy:  Some organizations are focused only on the present.  You mention you have been providing support for twenty years.  You talk about the cumulative amount you have given.  You will continue your tradition of giving, but at the amount that works for your budget this year. 

11. No, for now.  When financial advisors prospect, asking someone to invest, you might assume that person is sitting on a pile of cash, waiting for the phone to ring.  That never happens!  They might have cash, but it’s tied up.  They might be expecting cash to be coming in soon.

Strategy:  Explain you are not in a position to make a gift now but will be at a certain point in the future.  Let them know when, giving them the responsibility to get back in touch.

12. The pledged gift over time.  This happens with capital campaigns.  You might not be in a position to make a gift now, but expect your situation to change.  Most organizations are OK with the “pay me later” approach.  They will structure a larger gift over a few years. 

Strategy:  You have committed to a gift, but do not need to be putting much up immediately.

The final strategy is one you are familiar with from your business and charitable endeavors.  The Silent No does not involve anyone actually saying no.  The person who is making the decision is never available.  The committee to authorize the decision won’t be meeting for months.  The person you need to call is away at a conference or on vacation.  They actually did not give you a no.  Instead, the person able to give you a “yes” answer is never available!  It can get you off the hook, but creates an uncomfortable situation if you need to interact with these people on a day to day basis.

Related: 12 Ways You Can Get Noticed by Your Prospect