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.