How do you respond when a donor complains? When a donor’s feathers are ruffled?

While there are a multitude of scenarios that might prompt a donor complaint … and I can’t possibly think of all of them, let alone share a possible response for all of them … this basic guideline ought to get the job done for you:

  •  Respond quickly. (Within 24 hours – unless it occurs over a weekend – get a letter in the mail; send the Tweet; reply to their Facebook comment; etc. But if the complaint came via social media, I recommend following up the first short, basic response with a letter in the mail if you have the donor’s address.)
  • Thank them for contacting you.
  • Acknowledge their concern – somehow state that they “raise a valid point.”
  • Explain clearly and simply why your organization did whatever it is that the donor wasn’t happy with. Don’t patronize. It may be that the donor doesn’t understand enough of the industry. Therefore your original action is bothersome to them. Give them a bit of education. Let them know there are valid reasons for what you did.
  • Thank them for their support.
  • And if you’ll change a process as a result of this mistake, say so. Thank them for the idea. (But please don’t panic based on a “complaint” or two and abandon a good fundraising strategy. As the expression goes, “Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.”)
  • Or, if by chance you made a mistake. Own up to it.
  • Include donor schmoozing. Thank them again for their support. State how important they are.
  • Apologize for having “upset” them. And state that you have taken their concern to heart.

The approach above ought to restore the good feelings of your donor.

A quick, thorough, and polite response is also a form of stewardship. What’s more it ought to help with donor retention because I believe you’re also building trust with such a response.

I was prompted to write on this topic because of a recent event with one of my clients.

We developed a special mailing to a small number of high-dollar donors. We mailed a small box with an object directly related to the mission. But because it wouldn’t fit in all of the mail boxes (including mail slots in subdivisions, apartments, etc.), not all U.S. Postal carriers will leave it at the door. Often times a pink slip is left and the donor would then have to make a special trip to the post office to collect it. We didn’t want to inconvenience donors in this way.

Basically the Post Office couldn’t guarantee delivery to all donors. So the decision was made to send it FedEx Ground (the most cost efficient choice left).

The donor wasn’t happy receiving this “costly” package. Thought their money could be better used. They sent an email to the President of the nonprofit expressing their displeasure.

I was asked to help write the letter back to the donor explaining the situation. In writing the letter I followed my guidelines outlined above at the start of this post.

It was a thoughtful, 2-page letter that included a clear explanation of why we chose to send such a package: that it was a small and very limited mailing: and included a basic explanation of our cost analysis.

The letter also stated that, “We strive to be good stewards of the funds we receive.” And we shared a couple stats on how much of the money raised goes toward the mission (e.g., “94¢ out of every dollar raised directly helps …”), plus the nonprofit’s high Charity Navigator rating.

Ruffled feathers were smoothed. All is well.

The key is to respond quickly. Acknowledge the point the donor raised right away. And then explain your actions.


Related posts:

How you build trust with donors.

This still holds true for donor retention.

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I begin defining donor-centric copy this way: Nonprofit organizations must put the donor at the center of everything.

Donor-centric FundraisingThe donor – the person giving you the money you need to operate – is the reason everything gets done.

The donor is the reason your org is successful.

It’s the donor making sure farmers in Peru know how to rotate crops for better yield year-after-year.

It’s the donor making it possible for those water wells in Africa to get drilled.

So if the donor is at the heart of all you do, then why are your fundraising appeals all about your nonprofit?

Web copy, direct mail appeals, emails, etc. often take this dreadful approach:

Fantastic Charity saved over 6,300 lives this year alone. We sent more than 120 tons of food and life-saving medical supplies to people suffering from nations in civil war, from earthquakes and other natural disasters, and from intense poverty. We’re there when people need help.

The above example is NOT donor-centric copy. It’s we-we-we and not you-you-you. Here’s just one way it could be rewritten:

Do you realize that you helped save over 6,300 lives during this past year as a supporter of Fantastic Charity? It was a tough year for many people around the world, but you made it a lot better for some of them. Thank you.

In fact, you and other supporters made it possible for us to send more than 120 tons of food and life-saving medical supplies to thousands of people in need. People who would have otherwise starved because of droughts. People who lost everything after devastating earthquakes …

You make the donor the hero of your nonprofit work. And you also specifically show how they make a difference in the world with clear objectives. You keep them informed of the progress they’re helping you make (i.e., explain in measurable terms what their past donations have accomplished). And you make certain they receive a prompt and meaningful thank-you letter whenever a gift if made.

Oh, and please don’t flood them with solicitations. You can ask too often, so test to see what frequency works best for your nonprofit so your attrition doesn’t skyrocket.

Donors – your heroes. Please treat them as such through donor-centric fundraising.


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According to Forrester Research, we’re in the “Age of the Customer.” As I’ve pointed out before, just cross out “customer” and replace it with donor, member, volunteer, advocate, etc. The same principles apply because how your supporters behave … and what they expect from organizations is consistent regardless of who they’re doing business with. Even […]

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