I’m going to tell you to do exactly what I do.
Don’t ignore a single disgruntled supporter. Express compassion and contrition.
If someone takes the time to tell you they’re unhappy, that means they care. They’re connected to you. They want something from you, and you’re disappointing them.
This is your golden opportunity to get inside your donor’s head and find out what your supporter really cares about!
Don’t blow this person off. Instead, empathize with them and find out what they want; then see if you can deliver.
Real Life Example From My Blog:
Jeannette Tells Me I’m Boring Her
From time to time people unsubscribe. I have a place on the unsubscribe form where folks can let me know why they unsubscribed. Last week I heard from Jeanette. Her reason for unsubscribing was: “Tell me something new!” She was intimating, of course, that my blog bored her. I could have just shined her on, said a few choice swear words under my breath and called it a day. After all, you can’t please all of the people all of the time, right?
WRONG. You can, if you know what pleases them. And that’s the challenge.
How I Won Jeanette Over
In this particular case, I wrote back to my former subscriber, Jeanette, and told her I understood; then asked her what she’d like to hear more about. Guess how she responded?
“LOVE that you wrote back to me Claire! Brilliant.I would like to hear about family foundations. When you have a small family foundation giving gifts annually what treatment should they receive? Looking for the “what if everything I thought about how to celebrate and engage these donor’s was wrong” and samples of what WOW engagement looks like.”
I responded to Jeanette with a few of my own suggestions, but I’m also putting this out to all of you? Do you treat family foundations differently than private foundations or private individuals in terms of how you steward them? Have you ever asked them what type of treatment they prefer from you?
Jeanette is now considering writing her own post on this subject, so anything you report back to me I will share with her. Let’s give her a lot of ideas, okay?
Now… back to the point of this article:
A Donor Complaint is a Terrible Thing to Waste.
Let’s face it. Most organizations terribly mishandle complaints. Either they ignore them entirely, they get defensive or they overreact. Here are some common responses, and ways to avoid them:
1. You mail too often.
Too often the response here is to mail less. The worst case is mailing less to everyone (pretty crazy when you’ve had 1 complaint out of 500 pieces of mail sent, but I’ve had executive directors insist that I do this based on just one whiner). Folks, survey after survey shows that mailing more raises more. Sure, your organization may be a rare exception. But understand how rare you’d be, and don’t make this change without conducting a study (e.g., next time you send an appeal randomly divide your mailing list into two segments; mail to one and not the other. Then, when you mail your subsequent appeal, mail to everyone. See if the group that did not receive the interim mailing responds at a lower or higher rate). I know it sounds nice to mail less, but it’s not practical. How are folks supposed to know you want them to give if they don’t even know what the problem is that you address?
ACTION TIP: Respond right away to the complainer letting them know you understand and appreciate their perspective. Then explain why you mail as frequently as you do. Tell them your research shows that most supporters enjoy learning more about your programs and the outcomes of your services through these mailings, and they often share them with friends. This enables you to educate a broader community about the cause and the ways they can become active in creating positive change. You might also take the opportunity to suggest to this person that they join your monthly sustainer program (a good reason to start one if you’ve not already done so!) and therefore receive less frequent mailings – all while assuring your services continue year-round.
2. You don’t need to waste expensive mailings on me.
Again, a common response here is to mail less. Or to make your next mailer look cheap. Guess what? In my experience working with dozens of nonprofits of all shapes, sizes and stripes, making mailings look cheap is never an effective strategy – no matter what folks tell you. Our eyes are attracted to color and photos and good design.
ACTION TIP: Begin by responding that you understand. Maybe even add that you used to feel this way when other nonprofits sent you mailings (this is how you empathize). Then explain to the donor that you do everything in your power to save trees and cut costs; your mailings are actually much less expensive than they may appear. You get a good deal… you use recycled paper… they’re underwritten… etc. In addition, let your donor know that it’s actually less expensive to mail more than less. So, if they don’t mind, you’ll keep them on the list because it brings down the costs for everyone else who want to receive the mailings. Then suggest, perhaps, that they share their mailing with a friend – a great way for them to leverage their support!
3. I don’t like the stance you took on [fill in the issue].
Resist the temptation to write this person off. Their opinion is important, and one you should incorporate into your ongoing dialogue about what works and what doesn’t work to achiever your organization’s mission. This is an opportunity to open up discussion.
ACTION TIP: Pick up the phone (send a letter if they won’t answer) and let your donor know how much you appreciate their taking the time to voice their concerns. Then, gently explain the rationale behind the position your organization took. You may be pleasantly surprised at how pleased the donor is to have their concern acknowledged. You may not change their mind, but you may be able to make them understand why you differ. And they may be able to accept your stance in this instance.
4. I thought that last newsletter was in poor taste.
Resist the temptation to pass the blame. Never say “Oh, that was the marketing department” or “we outsource that” or “Sorry, that’s not my job.” Anything that comes from your organization to your donor is everyone’s responsibility.
ACTION TIP: When you weren’t responsible for the objectionable offense, listen to the complaint, validate it and then offer to look into it. And make sure you follow through on your promise!
When it’s Okay to Ignore a Complaint
Sometimes complainers are belligerent. They’ll fill the reverse side of a remit envelope with all sorts of vitriol. Often these folks are not even supporting you at present. You can’t be logical with these folks, so it’s best to just suppress them from your file. Put them out of your mind, and hope they’ll put you out of theirs.
How to Create a Complaint Friendly Culture
Make your workplace a place that is safe for differences of opinions. Discourage complaining by staff. You know, that tendency we have to put down the phone after dealing with a difficult person and then launch into a barrage of derision for that person? This breeds contempt for complainers and creates a culture of condemnation rather than gratitude.
BOTTOM LINE: You’re grateful for your donors, aren’t you? They make your mission possible, right? Then appreciate them! Donors primarily want to know they’ve been heard. Demonstrate this, and you’ve taken a forward step in bonding with them and drawing them closer to your community and family. Donors who feel listened to help you improve, and come back to give you another chance.
ACTION TIP: You may want to go as far as the nonprofit Threshold, a national housing charity, did in publishing their Donor Feedback and Complaints Policy on their website. They give the name of a specific person to contact with complaints and are clear that they welcome and take complaints seriously. This is the quintessence of a donor-centered culture.
P.S. Remember my subscriber Jeanette? Just on the basis of my response to her she’s decided to resubscribe to my blog. We’re both happy.
P.P.S. If you’ve had any similar experiences, please share them in the comments below.
Want to make your supporters feel good?
The Attitude of Gratitude Donor Guide is for you! Tons of tips, templates, samples and resources – all designed to earn your donor’s trust, confidence and love. Plus you get a free 15-minute consult. Give yourself a little gift and grab some new ideas today!
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