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Overcoming Objections and Obstacles in Philanthropy

As philanthropy officers, our first priority is to connect individuals in the community to the top strategic priorities of the health care organization and to facilitate donors’ gifts to help accomplish their philanthropic goals. To accomplish this, we need to ideally spend 80 percent of our time visiting and engaging with major gift prospects and donors, which includes planning solicitation or stewardship activities and strategies. However, as philanthropy officers, we often find many things that fill our days and pull us away from this optimal “80 percent” goal.

One of the best ways to support this goal is to spend time building skills to efficiently overcome objections. These objections can include prospects and donors who disapprove of the strategy or face other obstacles that hinder successfully engaging them to support the health organization’s mission and top strategic priorities.

Where do we start? Here are some practical tips and curated words of wisdom to inspire philanthropy officers to overcome everyday obstacles, objections and other challenges:

  • Plan for it. We need to add time to our calendars to address current objections and obstacles while also anticipating any future ones that may occur. For example, if a prospective donor shares with that they love the health care organization but are not familiar with the leadership, we have a challenge of building trust and an authentic relationship and should therefore plan how to best connect this prospect with our leadership.

  • Ask questions. Questions help philanthropy officers better understand our prospective donors along with their goals, desires and passions. Therefore, it is important to ask about their top charities and their philanthropic True North—what they wish to accomplish with their dollars. I am often inspired by Mary Oliver’s famous question, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Let’s take a moment to think about our prospects. What is it they plan to do with their wild and wonderful philanthropic hearts? We can help them make that happen.

  • Be an active listener. As philanthropy officers, we are often very enthusiastic when telling people about our amazing organizations. However, we must also remember to actively listen to the desires of our prospective donors. This makes our roles as matchmakers between what donors want and what the organization needs much easier. We know active listening helps resolve conflict, anticipate problems and build trust. As we practice active listening, we must try to identify specific objections or obstacles that could exist. Is it the dollar amount? The credibility? Trust? The people? The timing? Through active listening, we can validate their circumstances and feelings, and then work to solve any issues at hand. Keep in mind not all issues can be solved. Practicing active listening helps us determine if we need to pause the conversations, move the conversations forward, or simply move on. Study and practice active listening while remembering Mark Twain’s insightful words, “If God intended us to talk more than listen, he would have given us two mouths and one ear.”

  • Build Authentic Relationships. I often remember an example of donors who became lottery winners. The first gift the husband gave his wife was a bracelet that she never took off, until she lost it in our facility. Beyond the police and security involvement, we created and put up reward posters around the facility for a month. The bracelet was never found; however, the donors felt supported in our efforts to help solve the issue. Creating and sustaining an authentic relationship is the foundation for relationship-based partnership. For inspiration to help solve a problem, think of Tina Fey who said, “Whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles. We’ve all worked with that person. That person is a drag.”

  • Validate with gratitude and sincerity. Donors may not necessarily share their objections or obstacles to giving, but it’s important to ask. When they share their thoughts and goals, it is a gift. Thank them for that. Sometimes, on tough days, philanthropy officers may find ourselves rolling our eyes when that one specific donor calls to complain about something. However, this feedback can be a sign of trust that they are willing to reach out to us and it also provides us with an opportunity to thank them and help pivot the conversation forward. Don’t worry about saying something wrong or stumbling over the right words. Let’s be inspired by Maya Angelou’s words of wisdom, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

  • Share testimonials. As much as I admire our truly innovative donors that follow the path of Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams when he said, “If you build it, he will come,” many donors align more with the phrase, “When I see it, I will believe it.” Some donors or prospects may share the organization’s vision; however, some still need to see the full plan and the reasoning behind it in more detail. This provides a great opportunity to prove that philanthropy really works through great partnerships. It is a great time to share stories and numbers that show the health care organization has the credibility and vision to partner with them on their philanthropic goals and our priorities. We can help our donors actualize Wayne Dyer’s philosophy, “You’ll see it when you believe it.” In other words, if prospects are inspired by the testimonials and believe in strategic priorities, they will be able to see it.

  • Don’t take it personally. There is often a fear of rejection that happens in cold-calling or major gift initiatives that include connecting with potential prospects. If we remember that our outreach is not about over-selling our organization but rather advancing health care, we can be secure in knowing our donors often feel the same way. If they are interested in helping to make an impact, they will speak to us, meet with us, and ultimately, if they are passionate about the organization’s strategic priority, they will give. This is what philanthropy is all about. It is not about us and what we want. Instead, it is about our opportunities to play the role of confidant, strategic partner and cheerleader with those who want to make a difference. If a prospective donor decides not to give, don’t take it personally. Instead, let’s take those decisions much like Sylvester Stallone in Rocky, who said, “I take rejection as someone blowing a bugle in my ear to wake me up and get going, rather than retreat.” In the end, if a prospective donor is not interested, get going and find others who are interested in elevating the health care of our community.

  • Close the loop, not the conversation. After taking each of these steps, we want to ensure that our donors still have their original enthusiasm and everyone is on the same page. Whether it is moving forward with a philanthropic gift, or moving forward in a different direction, closure is needed. Closure allows us to show off our new active listening skills, while helping our donors accomplish their goals now or perhaps later in the future. We must enable our donors to make informed decisions. Our ultimate goal is for donors and organizations to enter a place that Kerry Peterson names, “The pool of shared meaning is the birthplace of synergy.” What a wonderful place to be with our donors as we work together to elevate health care and the well-being of our communities.

While there is no magic wand that can address every objection or obstacle, this list should help address the challenges we face with our philanthropy prospects, donors and partners. Keep in mind that attempting to address each scenario perfectly takes us away from the ideal 80 percent of time we should be focused on engaging with people—creating authentic relationships. As philanthropy leaders we need to spend this time investing in connecting with the community and partnering with people in the “birthplace of synergy” to advance health care together. But being prepared and equipped with tools to address obstacles and objections will help us work through them efficiently and effectively.

Accordant Checklist_Overcoming Objections
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About the Author: Heather Wiley Starankovic, CFRE, CAP, is a Principal Consultant with Accordant. She remains inspired by all things within health care philanthropy, with a special dedication to supporting and recognizing staff members along with the desire to create programs that keep talented and dedicated servant leaders within the field. You can reach Heather by email at or by connecting through LinkedIn.


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The Accordant Team has published a number of books to advance the efforts of health care philanthropy and help development leaders everywhere. 

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Accordant is honored to collaborate with American Hospital Association Trustee Services to provide issue papers, templates and webinars to support the involvement of healthcare trustees and foundation board members in advancing philanthropy. These resources can also be found on the AHA Trustee website.

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