The Art of Negotiating Great Gifts

Once or twice a year, after talking about a training or retreat facilitation, the person at the nonprofit lets me know that they are not hiring me because my price was too high or because “a friend” has offered to do it for free. Often both in one sentence. The unspoken third choice, of course, is that I just wasn’t the right fit for them. But, ignoring this last, and passing on the usual comments about free being worth what you pay, I’m always bemused by the “we wanted you but went with someone cheaper,” which is often what is said. You’re fundraisers, right? Whatever happened to negotiation?

When I was spending my days inviting people and companies to invest in my organization I rarely asked for what I thought they would give. I would ask for more. Often much more. My theory was—and is—that you can always negotiate down, but it is much harder to negotiate up. You ask for something and the other person says yes, your only acceptable response is, Thank you. Unless you are an auctioneer, you don’t then try to move them up.

So I would think that someone could give ten. I would ask for 12 or 15. Any answer other than yes would prompt me to say words to the effect of, “If you could make a gift of that size, would you?” My real goal here was to judge inclination. (I would ask that of potential clients who tell me my price is too high—if they really want to work with me, we can usually find a way). If it’s no, I want to know and I want to talk about what we could do to turn that no into a yes. I also want to know what would be the number that would elicit a yes.

If the answer is yes, we have work to do—to figure out how this prospect can make the gift that will make both of us happy. That doesn’t mean that we will get what I asked for; but we get a donor who feels good about his or her gift. And we will get a gift that will be really meaningful for us.

If the answer is no, then my work goes in a slightly different direction. First off, can I get a gift at all? If so, what is the best gift I can hope for? Best, mind you, may not be the most. Best is the gift that donor feels good about, that we can steward well, and that can—handled correctly—turn this donor into a more connected donor


Janet Levine works with nonprofits, helping them to negotiate around their (lack of) resources and increase fundraising capacity.  Learn more at  Then negotiate a deal with her!