When Charities Fail Donors


I got an e-mail this week and it broke my heart. It was a story of a person who gave money to causes he cared about – and was let down by the stewardship he received.

Stewardship, at most charities, is an afterthought. A process. Something that “just happens” when a fundraiser’s job is done. The “fundraiser” brings in the money and someone else sends a thank you letter, at some point…

That’s the status-quo across the industry. And you know what? The status-quo is failing our donors and our beneficiaries.

We are failing our donors because they are not a cog in a process. They are real human beings with emotional reasons for giving. They deserve to feel valued and like they are making a difference when they give.

We are failing our beneficiaries because we owe it to them to raise as much money as possible for the cause. The best way to do that is to take care of the people who are already giving to you, and grow the relationship so they give more.


Let me get back to that e-mail. It was from “K” (he gave me his blessing to share his story but not his identity).

“K” is a long time donor – to the school he went to, to his church and to the community. But recently, “K” and his wife decided to do more. They wanted to give more to the charities they supported, reconnect with charities they supported in the past and “make new philanthropic connections” (those are “K’s” words – I absolutely loved how he phrased that).

They picked 12 charities – different kinds of charities with one thing in common: “K” and his wife had an emotional connection to each cause. They donated between $50 and $1,500. But what happened next? Here’s how the charities responded:

  • One fundraiser (who “K” knew personally) sent a thank you e-mail within two hours.
  • Two charities where “K” knew staff who worked there personally sent generic stewardship materials several weeks after the gift.
  • The charity whose board “K” had served on sent an automated “your gift was received” e-mail: “I had to call and make sure they had received it. The reply: “Oh, we just check our online gifts once a month.” There followed apologies and personal thank you notes.” – “K”
  • One charity, whom “K” had worked for for years, sent a handwritten note – but also sent a receipt letter with the wrong donor’s name on it. When “K” notified them of the error,no one apologized.
  • Two international aid charities asked for more money in under 2 weeks.
  • One charity never acknowledged the pledge, or the pledge payments. Once again, inquiries were made – and no apologies were given.

Frankly, looking at “K”’s experience it’s not shocking that nearly 80% of first-time donors never give again.

Of all the charities “K” supported – only one truly made “K” feel special and valued, even though it was one of the smaller gifts he had given. Next year, it will be one of “K”’s largest gifts.

The lesson, fundraisers?

Thank your donors. Not just with the automatically generated message (which likely needs a touch-up) – but a real human thank you. A call or a card from a fundraiser, board member, volunteer, or beneficiary of your cause – from the heart and to the donor – can go a long way.

Systems and processes are all well and good – but don’t let that make you lose sight of the power of the personal touch.

It’s up to each one of us as fundraisers to make sure that the next time “K” gives – his experience is better.


How does your nonprofit steward donors? Let me know in the comments below!

As part of Bloomerang’s Content Donation Program, $100 was donated to “K’s” organization, which he asked to remain anonymous.

gift acknowledgment program

Rory Green

Rory Green

Associate Director of Advancement at Simon Fraser University
According to Crystal, Rory is a gifted communicator, and prefers big ideas over details. She is currently the Associate Director, Advancement for the Faculty of Applied Science at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC. She has also worked in major and corporate giving at BCIT and the Canadian Cancer Society. Rory’s passion is donors. How to listen to them. How to talk to them. How to help them feel joy through philanthropy. In her spare time, Rory is the founder and editor of Fundraiser Grrl, the fundraising community’s go-to source for comic relief.
Rory Green

Latest posts by Rory Green (see all)

By |2018-01-03T10:54:03-05:00April 19th, 2016|Donor Engagement, Donor Retention|


  1. Sarah April 19, 2016 at 12:49 pm - Reply

    I completely agree with this sentiment. However, many development departments are understaffed. We would love to give every donor a special touch, but, frankly, it is unrealistic to personally steward every $50 donor.

    • Julia April 21, 2016 at 12:19 pm - Reply

      I understand what you’re saying about understaffed development departments, but without proper stewardship, donor retention rates will drop and then that department will be out of a job. I know it can be difficult to pay personal attention to each and every donor, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying. It’s a matter of prioritization. My nonprofit schedules blocks of time each week to make a few phone calls and write personal notes on our letters. By adding this time to our calendars, it’s really made a difference in our donor retention and how our donors interact with us.

      I may be biased because I’m the stewardship coordinator though. 🙂

  2. Viki Hayden Ward April 20, 2016 at 10:51 am - Reply

    Such a sad story to hear! I hope other organisations learn from this. Note to self – you can never thank someone too much for their generosity!

    I recently wrote a blog on the impact of thank you letters and it shows what a little effort can do to change your fundraising! Read it here; https://flightofthefundraiser.wordpress.com/2016/03/03/how-thank-you-letters-can-make-a-difference/

  3. Grainne April 20, 2016 at 11:27 am - Reply

    Understaffed or not – the very least a donor can expect is a thank you with their correct name. if you have the time to ask, you’ve the time to thank!

  4. Dana April 27, 2016 at 4:09 pm - Reply

    Sadly I don’t find “K’s” experience surprising. What I have learned with my new project is that many nonprofits not only don’t have the infrastructure that would allow them options for easy stewardship but also cannot break free from antiquated approaches. This post is a great eye opener for many people who think everything is “just fine the way it is.”

  5. Jessica April 29, 2016 at 9:07 am - Reply

    I also am not too surprised by the K story, disappointed of course, but not surprised. I’ve worked in charities in various capacities from the back-end gift processing and standard stewardship processes, to the front line having to look the long-time and donor in the eye and explain why their receipt is missing/wrong/late etc. As fundraising professionals lets keep striving to do better, we all know the sincere thanking is important and part of the deepening relationship we aim to build between organization and donor. Volunteers have been key for me and the charities I work for – volunteers add huge capacity to our ability to steward properly. They are those that are willing to make thank you calls and share stories with the donor, or write hand written notes to hundreds of regular donors, not just “major donors”. And to the donors, it means so much.

  6. Tina Odisho May 23, 2016 at 5:01 pm - Reply

    Unsure if I missed this, but what did the group below actually do that made him want to go back.

    “Of all the charities “K” supported – only one truly made “K” feel special and valued, even though it was one of the smaller gifts he had given. Next year, it will be one of “K”’s largest gifts.”

    actually do that made him want to go back.

Leave A Comment