How to turn down requests for charity without feeling like a jerk.

Advice on how to make the world better.
March 18 2009 6:58 AM

Just Say No

How to turn down requests for charity without feeling like a jerk.

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to, and Patty and Sandy will try to answer it.

Dear Patty and Sandy,

How should I decline requests for charity without going straight to hell? I'm a good person, but sometimes I don't have it to spare. Sometimes I do have it to spare but don't want to spare it for that cause. Sometimes I just want a coffee or new shoes. What's the most respectful, yet firm, way to say no?

Erica in Philadelphia



I might have more practice at this than almost anyone! Having spent a decade making more than 300 grants per year at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, I've been party to thousands and thousands of "no thank yous." In spite of the scale, it was never easy to turn down a friend, community leader, or nonprofit director who believed passionately in their mission and badly needed our support to fulfill their objectives.

I would advise you, Erica, to adopt the method I used: "hug and release." Why take the time to hug? Because most of these individuals and organizations are working extremely hard on important causes we all want to see progress on: The "hug" should be a genuine acknowledgment of what they are trying to do and your appreciation for their efforts. The "release" needs to be equally genuine and should give them information that helps them understand their own failure to win your support.

So here is my recommended turn-down framework: "John, it's great that you are working to support finding a cure for breast cancer. I have been reading about the many possibilities for improved treatment that are beginning to surface thanks to the research going on in this area ..." (the genuine hug)—"but I have chosen to focus my giving on early childhood education—it's an area I have interest and passion in and also needs whatever resources I can give" (the release).

After 10 years of having to turn down 10 times the number of people we could fund, I have had only one truly ugly experience. The majority of the time, people, while disappointed and sometimes painfully so, understand that choices can and must be made by even the largest giver. And they will recognize the same thing when you turn them down.


While I haven't had billions of dollars to "hug and release" over the past few years, I—like Erica—have felt plenty guilty turning down some great, and even some not-so-great, organizations seeking my limited contributions. With nearly  1.5 million nonprofits  in this country, it's no wonder it sometimes feels like you're solicited at every corner.

My view is that the easiest way to say "no" is to know when you'll say "yes." My mom's method worked because the Gates Foundation had a highly articulated plan that helped her know when to say yes and when to say no: If a grant proposal didn't fit into the foundation's grantmaking priorities, she knew it was time to "hug and release." You can do the same thing by making a giving plan and sticking to it.

How? Start by determining a realistic amount for you to give this year.  The 89 percent of Americans who donate annually give an average of 3 percent of their income to charity. Depending on your budget, you may be able to give more or less. Don't put your financial solvency at risk in order to give more than you really should, but also don't let yourself off too easy—many of us can give more than we think. If tax savings might tip the scale, you can use Charity Navigator's  giving calculator  to determine how much your donation will really cost you.

Next, make a list of the issues you care about, and research which organizations are doing the best job at addressing these. While there are many  opinions  on the right way to "rank" charities, start by using Charity Navigator, the Better Business Bureau, or  GuideStar  to identify organizations working in those areas (though there are many organizations that don't make it onto these sites, so don't just stop there) and gather information about their activities. GiveWell  is a relative newcomer to the field of charity evaluation and is trying to rank based on impact rather than financials (a tall order). While they don't have many organizations evaluated yet, it may be a good place to poke around. When you're choosing which groups to support, remember that small donations cost just as much to process as large donations, so try to focus your giving on just a handful of worthy organizations.

The Network for Good, an online giving site, offers  10 tips on giving wisely. Donating through the site also allows you to keep all your giving records in one place and track whether or not you're living up to your giving goals. Giving online helps the money get to the organization quicker, which is especially helpful in these tough times. If your charity of choice isn't part of the network or you have some fear of PayPal, make sure to keep your donation receipts and set up your own system for tracking your donations—it's nothing an Excel spreadsheet can't handle.

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to and Patty and Sandy will try to answer it.

In our ongoing effort to do better ourselves, we're donating 25 percent of the proceeds from this column to—an organization committed to raising public awareness about the issues of global poverty, hunger, and disease and the efforts to fight such problems in the world's poorest countries.

Patty Stonesifer is the chair of the Smithsonian Institution Board of Regents and a senior adviser to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where she was president, then CEO for 10 years. She spent the first two decades of her career in the technology business, where her last job was senior vice president at Microsoft.

Sandy Stonesifer works on issues related to adolescent girls' health at a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.


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