Dealing With the Donor Who does Not Show Up

Empty shoes depicting missing deadbeat donor

Congratulations! After a fantastic visit to your prospect’s horse-country estate, you secured the biggest donation of your career! Your passionate presentation aligned perfectly with Deidre Donor’s desire to do some good. Now your organization will be able to provide X-ray equipment for hospitals in the most remote regions of the South American Andes.

But a month later, your cheesy grin has melted. Deidre hasn’t paid up. “Maybe she forgot,” you think. She might have gone on vacation in the French Rivera, where her visions of squalid hospitals gave way to languid days spent sipping martinis on an obscure baron’s yacht. You give her a call, which goes directly to voicemail. “Hey, remember me, Deidre? Remember your gift to refurbish those hospitals in the Andean foothills? You’ve probably been really busy, so I just want to remind you to send in your check so you can save lives and get that hefty tax deduction.”

Despite waiting for days, you never hear the dulcet tones of a return call from Deidre. All you hear are crickets. And in this case, silence isn’t golden — it’s a real stinker.

Now What?

What are you supposed to do? You could try the Yosemite Sam approach (not recommended!), with lots of hollering and preposterous threats. “Alright, varmint! You said you was a’goin to make a gift, and a gift you’re a’goin to make!” While this approach might work with some people, don’t expect to ever see them again.

You might adopt a Dr. Phil approach: “I understand you may have forgotten your pledge to our organization. After all, you are a very busy, very important person — one of the most important, ever! But those men, women, and children are counting on you, and I trust you’ll come through because you are a good person.” This approach might work, too … but don’t count on it.

Of course, depending on how you secured the gift, you may ultimately need to take the Judge Judy approach. She won’t take kindly to Deadbeat Deidre. She’ll do any shaming necessary. And if it exists, she’ll find a legal solution to your donation dilemma.

Adapt Accordingly

Deadbeat donors comes in a variety of models, but fortunately for the nonprofit world, most fundraising professionals will ever only deal with one or two, if any, during their careers. A well-crafted gift acceptance policy (download a free sample template of a gift acceptance policy here) will do wonders in heading off this sort of behavior. But inevitably — especially during capital campaigns — you can expect some skiving.

But, why do some people shirk?

  • They pledge a certain amount, only to be reined in by their accountants, or the spouse who actually pays the bills and knows what’s what.
  • They made a lofty public pledge in front of their colleagues to look good, but never had any intention of paying up.
  • They want to fulfill their promise, but lost their job, or lost their shirt in the stock market or a nasty divorce.
  • They no longer agree with the direction in which your organization is headed and changed their minds.

If you’re faced with a deadbeat donor, work with your team to determine what kind you’re dealing with, then respond in kind.

The “big talker” may ante up after some public humiliation … though the threat of a lawsuit can be just as effective, and considerably less dramatic.

If the donor pulled an “oops,” however, set up time to talk and ditch the brass knuckles. Find out what happened. Be sympathetic. Try to work out a gift they will be able to manage now or in the future.

And if your donor had to consign his Armani wardrobe in favor of thrift-store chic, let them know you understand. If you stay on their nice list, they’ll want to make up for the lost (or diminished) donation. We know of one fundraiser who weathered a financial storm when a despairing donor told his designer crowd about his plight and the organization. They, in turn, emptied their Louis Vuitton wallets into the nonprofit’s coffers. When the donor got back on his feet, he then wrote a check for even more than the initial promise.

In the case of a donor who no longer supports your mission, things are a little more complicated. You’ll need to exercise diplomacy and bring in your legal team. Remember when Nike owner Phil Knight backed out of a $30 million pledge to renovate a stadium at his alma mater, after the University of Oregon allied itself with a monitoring group critical of Nike’s overseas factory conditions? Stuff happens. The best case scenario is an amicable agreement. The worst case is that it goes to court.

Whatever you do, do it ethically and professionally—but don’t do it half-way. Learning the secrets of becoming a nonprofit leader helps.

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