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How To Handle A Disgruntled Donor

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Have you ever worried about offending a donor? If so, you’re not alone. Most fundraisers I know have done their share of mental gymnastics worrying about this possibility.

Maybe you’re afraid you’ll offend them by sending too many emails. Perhaps you’re worried about the response to a photo or language you used in your appeals.

The important thing is to be prepared to respond to your donors’ feelings. That’s what I’ll address in this blog post.

What do you do if you upset a donor?

Let’s say you had a mail merge snafu that messed up your donors’ names and addresses. This just happened to one of my favorite fundraising professionals. Initially, she was so embarrassed that she was physically ill. However, she didn’t let that stop her from rectifying the situation immediately.

First, she quickly acknowledged the mistake in a personal follow-up email and postcard. She apologized, explained that this was a simple error, and reassured donors that their data was safe.

She also wisely tied in a note of gratitude. She reminded them that their donations are keeping the nonprofit’s constituents safe too.

Because she was open about the mistake, donors responded with empathy and understanding. Many promptly mailed in their checks using the reply device, while others gave online. Several called her just to commiserate. She formed new friendships and deepened existing ones.

In some ways, you’re right to worry—because we all make mistakes. The good news is that you can address some of those mistakes quickly without suffering lasting consequences.

So, what happens when you do offend a donor? Here are some basic steps to follow:

  1. Apologize for the mistake as soon as you notice it.
  2. Take responsibility, explain why it happened, and explain how you’ll work to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
  3. Be vulnerable. People will empathize with you.
  4. Include a note of gratitude.

Now, what do you do if you have a donor who is upset about something that isn’t a mistake or one who is having a disproportionate reaction to what happened?

One of the hallmarks of being a good steward to your donors is caring about what they care about. If it’s important to them, you can choose to make it important to you and by doing so you can hopefully diffuse any further upset.

Fundraising research by world-renowned author and philanthropic academic Adrian Sargeant shows that just listening to a complaint from a donor—even if the organization is powerless to do anything to resolve it—will result in the donor becoming more loyal than if you hadn’t listened to the complaint in the first place.

What if you have a disgruntled donor who is upset about something that you aren’t willing to change?

I once found myself in this situation. A donor who refused to allocate their funds to help any child who wasn’t suffering financial hardship. Our mission was to empower girls in math, science, engineering, and technology. We knew that all girls—regardless of their family’s income—were at risk for losing interest in these subjects. We also felt strongly that having girls from diverse backgrounds, including economic ones, was a positive experience.

What did we do? We respectfully thanked the donor for their kindness and generosity, explained our perspective, and declined the gift. Almost immediately the donor decided to remove their restriction and make the gift to us.

In life, we have to pick our battles. While some hills are not worth dying on, most relationships are worth saving. Everything you need to know about comforting a disgruntled donor you likely already know from being a good friend or coworker.

If you’re one of those fundraisers who was worried about this, I hope this blog post eased your mind a bit!

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