I often query fundraising candidates with, “Describe a time where you blew it with a donor.” It is a telling response when the candidate cannot immediately point to a specific time where she made a mess of a solicitation or relationship with a major donor. Fundraising is challenging work with high stakes. If you haven’t made a serious mistake along the way you are likely huddled in your office, hanging out with the grant writer, and never, ever asking actual people for actual money.
I also ask because I am curious how the candidate responded to the failure, what she did to fix the mistake, and what lessons were learned for the next time.
One of my favorite non-profit voices on Twitter is The Whiny Donor. She is a philanthropist and a thoughtful, articulate scold to our business of philanthropy. We need her voice, and many more like it, in the worst way. I don’t always agree with her but I give pause when she challenges our typical practices.
Here is her must read essay, the key message being, “Sooner or later you are going to blow it with a donor like me…” Donors, like the rest of us, can be prickly and have unrealistic expectations. But ignore their critique at your peril. Her specific examples will make your skin crawl…The “Dear Supporter” letter addressed to a loyal donor of 24 years and a gift officer who passed the buck to a subordinate…Yuck.
Being mistreated by a non-profit after a meaningful gift feels lousy. I’ve stepped up my philanthropy in recent years and it hasn’t always been fulfilling, compared with the immediate gratification of new wireless headphones, when no one calls to thank me, written acknowledgements don’t arrive, and my name is misspelled. I give money to solve problems and invest in community. Feeling sore at a non-profit sucks.
As a donor, I completely understand The Whiny Donor’s willingness to walk away from support after she complains about something and doesn’t receive an adequate response. But it’s not typical. The reality is that most donors won’t bother to complain to you directly. They will simply ghost away and you won’t ever see another $1.
Bless the donors willing to share frustrations with your organization because you are going to make mistakes, screw things up, misprint names and forget to mail the thank you letters on occasion. What do we do when they call?
- Listen. Take any complaint or constructive feedback with real sincerity. You might not agree with the premise or degree of injustice suggested. That’s okay. I happen to believe in (and champion) robust fundraising tactics like telefundraising and multiple solicitations per year (if well designed and carefully segmented). But I will surely listen to a donor who feels otherwise, and offer a solution like putting someone on a no call or one solicit per year list.
- Apologize. If you signed the letter, don’t pass along the complaint downstairs. If you are the Boss, be the Boss. Accept responsibility. Explaining that you are SORRY seems like a forgotten skill these days. Practice. Say that you are sorry and mean it. Start at home tonight. You did something.
- Fix the Problem. Don’t say, “I am sorry that you are disappointed” passive aggressively like Delta Airlines. Say, instead, “I acknowledge this issue. You have my sincere apology. If you permit me, I will make this right.”
We donors invest in non-profits to have impact, to feel good about being a human, out of obligation, and for many other legitimate reasons. Our first job as fundraiser is to Do No Harm with donor relationships. We can start by being humble, sincere and apologetic when we inevitably make a mistake.