Two kinds of donor complaints, and how to respond to each

Many nonprofit organizations live in mortal fear of complaints from donors.

That’s not good, because when fear leads, bad results follow. I’ve seen successful campaigns that were raising hundreds of thousands of dollars and motivating tens of thousands of donors to higher levels of involvement scrapped — cancelled, because three to five donors made articulate complaints about it.

But simply ignoring complaints isn’t a good solution.

You can control the fear by putting complaints into two classes, each of which calls for a distinct type of response:

1. “You can’t please everyone” complaints

Really, you can’t. If you try, someone will still complain. And your attempts to please everyone will destroy your fundraising effectiveness.

These complaints are usually about the style, type, or content of your communications: too much mail, upsetting images, making me feel guilty — things like that. Don’t let the complaints guide you decisions about those things! Watch donor behavior — typically, you get hundreds or thousands of donors endorsing your work with their wallet for every one who complains.

The correct action to these errors is not to change what you do. Not to let the vocal minority drive your strategy.

2. “We messed up” complaints

This is when something actually went wrong, and it’s your fault. It’s often data-related errors, like duplicate records or gifts recorded (or not recorded) in error. Sometimes it’s when a donor has asked for something and you haven’t done it, or have taken too long to do it.

You need to act quickly on behalf of the donor who complained and make things right. You might also need to make systemic changes to correct the problem and keep it from happening to others.

Knowing the difference between “You can’t please everyone” and “We messed up” complaints can save you from damagingly wrong responses to complaints.

(This post first appeared on March 11, 2015.)


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff BrooksJeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 35 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com. More.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 30 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com.

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