Have you ever had a donor get mad at you and/or your organization? I have and I can tell you that it is not fun. I do not like conflict or “drama” and so I don’t like having to deal with these situations. I have learned throughout the years, however, that it is always better to deal with the problem head-on.
There are various reasons that donors get mad. I once had a donor who got mad because she felt that the $100 ticket price to our annual fund raising dinner was too expensive. I tried to explain that catering a dinner in a ballroom is expensive, and that it is intended to be a fund raiser. I don’t think she ever saw it my way. I also had a donor who got mad because we accepted a donation from an organization that held views contrary to his own. I tried to explain that we seek to engage everyone in support of our mission and it would be very difficult and expensive for us to operate if we had to interview every donor to ensure that they don’t have any ideology that we may oppose. I think that he eventually understood, and really just needed to vent.
I had a situation with a donor in the past where we failed to get an acknowledgment letter to the donor. We were going through a staffing transition at the time and so it is not fully clear if the letter was never sent, or if the post office did not deliver it. In a sense it doesn’t matter, the donor was mad. And, to make matters worse, it was that donor’s first gift to the agency. As I am sure you can understand, this was not the first impression that we wanted to make. I believe that first gifts are great, but it is really the second gift that is almost more important because statistically there is a much better chance of retaining the relationship with that donor after their second gift.
Anyway, the donor did not receive their acknowledgment letter and sent a handwritten note indicating that they would not be making any more contributions to us because we did not acknowledge the gift. I was horrified, as good stewardship practices are something that I stress and seek to execute. Clearly we had failed this donor.
Just because someone is mad at us does not mean that all is lost. By handling the situation properly, it is possible to restore these relationships for the benefit of both parties. Learn from my missteps so that you will not make the same mistakes I did as a young development officer. The first thing that I recommend that you do is communicate. When you find out that the donor is mad, call or visit them. There is a time for emails or letters, but this isn’t it. You need to communicate to the donor that you have heard their issue and that they are important enough for you to visit with them. This may be less feasible if you are a national organization and the donor is across the country, so a phone call is the next best thing. The goal is not to explain to them why they are wrong, but to make them feel heard.
The next thing that you want to do is apologize. This may seem strange, especially since you may not be “wrong.” Who wants to apologize when they are “in the right?” Going back to the ticket price example, I apologized that the donor felt that the ticket prices were too high. There is a subtle difference there. I knew the costs of the event and we really were not making much on a $100 ticket price, it barely covered the meal and venue costs. Additionally, we were targeting that event toward people who could easily afford a $100 ticket. But the price created an “issue” for the donor, so I apologized for the consternation that it caused. The donor felt as though she had a sympathetic ear, and I offered her a ticket to a different event that did not cost $100.
Lastly, ask for their continued support. For some, this is going to sound crazy. “Kevin, are you suggesting that we ask this angry person for money?” The answer is: possibly. It depends on the situation. Perhaps you simply ask them for their ongoing support at a future time. If they just gave you $1,000 last week, this may not be the time to ask for another monetary gift. In that scenario, I would say something like: “Susan, we really depend on our supporters like you who help us accomplish our work. Thank you for your gift of $1,000 last week. I am glad that we had an opportunity to discuss your concerns today. Can we count on your continued support of XYZ Charity?” At that point, I would be silent and wait for the response, no matter how long it takes. That will tell you if you have been successful at quelling the problem and maintaining the relationship.
In the example that I mentioned above, where we failed to provide the acknowledgment letter, the donor made a five-figure second gift. It is always easier to retain an existing donor rather than try to find a new one. Do whatever it takes to fix the problem when donors get mad – your mission depends on it.
Have a great week,
A well written article Kevin. You highlight strong focal points in each situation of real life stuff. I myself has encountered angry donors. You’re very on point, all you can do is apologize professionally, let the smoke settle and directly ask for continued support.
I like how you handled even the small $100 dinner donor, this shows your true colors Kevin, you’re a professional. We all know the little checks collectively adds up substantially.
Well done Kevin.
Thanks Phil. Indeed, the small checks add up. Sometimes we are so busy looking for the $10,000 donor that we overlook the ten $1,000 donors, and in all honesty there is often more long-term potential within the latter. Thanks for your post, have a great week.