Our Ask An Expert series features real questions answered by Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE, our very own Fundraising Coach, also known as Charity Clairity.
Today’s question comes from a nonprofit employee who wants advice on how to handle complaints from donors:
Dear Charity Clairity,
I’m really uncomfortable handling donor complaints. My boss acts like I’ve done something unforgiveable any time we receive one. She says: “One complaint received means there were at least 10 others thinking the same thing.” I feel: “Many complaints are outliers; I don’t want to alter a winning strategy to appease one disgruntled person and then risk losing the lion’s share of donors who were perfectly happy.”
— Not Feeling Complaint Friendly
Dear Not Feeling Friendly,
I’m going to tell you to do exactly what I do.
Don’t ignore a single disgruntled supporter.
If someone takes the time to tell you they’re unhappy, this means they care. They’re connected to you. They want something from you, and you’re disappointing them.
Begin with learning where the donor thinks you went astray. Maybe you really did. If so, embrace your errors. Express compassion and contrition. Seth Godin says “customers who feel listened to help you improve (and come back to give you another chance.)”
This is your golden opportunity to get inside your donor’s head and find out what they really care about! Don’t blow this person off.
Here’s a personal example from an interaction I had with a Clairification e-news subscriber:
I have a place on my unsubscribe form where folks can let me know why they unsubscribed. Jeanette’s reason was: “Tell me something new!” She was intimating, of course, that my blog bored her. I could have just shined her on, said a few choice swear words under my breath and called it a day. After all, you can’t please all of the people all of the time, right?
Wrong. You can, if you know what pleases them. And that’s the challenge.
In this particular case, I wrote back to Jeanette, and asked her what she’d like to hear more about. Guess how she responded?
LOVE that you wrote back to me Claire! Brilliant.
She then proceeded to give me a specific example of a topic she wanted to hear more about. I wrote back with a few suggestions. And, the next day I saw she had not only re-subscribed but also enrolled in Clairification School.
A donor complaint is a terrible thing to waste.
You’re not alone. Most organizations terribly mishandle complaints. They ignore them entirely, or overreact. Let’s look at some frequent complaints, and ways to address them:
1. You mail too often.
Too often the response here is to mail less. Worst case? Mailing less to everyone (pretty crazy when you’ve had one complaint out of 500 pieces of mail sent, but I’ve had executive directors insist I do this based on just one whiner). Mailing more raises more! You could be a rare exception. But understand how rare you’d be, and don’t make this change without conducting a study (e.g., next time you send an appeal randomly divide your mailing list into two segments; mail to one and not the other. Then, when you mail your subsequent appeal, mail to everyone. See if the group that did not receive the interim mailing responds at a lower or higher rate).
ACTION TIP: Send a letter to the complainer explaining why you mail as frequently as you do. Tell them your research shows most supporters enjoy learning about your programs and the outcomes of your services through these mailings, and they often share them with friends. This enables you to educate a broader community about the cause and the ways they can become active in creating positive change. You might also take the opportunity to suggest this person join your monthly sustainer program (a good reason to start one if you’ve not already done so!) and therefore receive less frequent mailings – all while assuring your services continue year-round.
2. You don’t need to waste expensive mailings on me.
One unfortunate response is to make your next mailer look cheap. Guess what? In my experience working with dozens of nonprofits of all shapes, sizes, and stripes, making mailings look cheap is never an effective strategy – no matter what folks tell you. Our eyes are attracted to color and photos and good design.
ACTION TIP: Send a letter explaining you do everything in your power to save trees and cut costs; your mailings are actually much less expensive than they may appear. You get a good deal… use recycled paper… have underwriting… etc. In addition, let your donor know it’s actually less expensive to mail more than less. So, if they don’t mind, you’ll keep them on the list because it brings down the costs for others who want to receive the mailings. Then suggest, perhaps, they share their mailing with a friend – a great way for them to leverage their support!
3. I don’t like the stance you took on [fill in the issue].
Resist the temptation to write this person off. Their opinion is important, and one you should incorporate into your ongoing dialogue about what works and what doesn’t work to achieve your organization’s mission. This is an opportunity to open up discussion.
ACTION TIP: Pick up the phone (send a letter if they won’t answer) and let your donor know how much you appreciate their taking the time to voice their concerns. Then, gently explain the rationale behind the position your organization took. You may be pleasantly surprised at how pleased the donor is to have their concern acknowledged. While you may not change their mind, you may be able to make them understand why you differ. And they may be able to accept your stance in this instance.
4. I thought that last newsletter was in poor taste.
Resist the temptation to pass the blame. Never say “Oh, that was the marketing department” or “we outsource that” or “Sorry, that’s not my job.” Anything that comes from your organization to your donor is everyone’s responsibility.
ACTION TIP: When you weren’t responsible for the objectionable offense, listen to the complaint, validate it and then offer to look into it. And make sure you follow through on your promise!
Sometimes it’s okay to take a pass.
While it’s best to be complaint friendly, sometimes complainers are belligerent. They’ll fill the reverse side of a remit envelope with vitriol, and often these folks are not even supporting you at present. You can’t be logical with these people, so it’s best to just suppress them from your file. Put them out of your mind, and hope they’ll put you out of theirs.
Otherwise, come from a place of gratitude. Make it part of your culture to welcome folks who reach out, rather than treat them with condemnation. Most people just want to know they’ve been heard. Demonstrate this, and you’ve taken a forward step in bonding with them and drawing them closer to your community.
— Charity Clairity
How does your organization handle disgruntled donors? We’d love to hear from you!