Don’t ignore a single disgruntled supporter.
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.
Express compassion and contrition.
Seth Godin says “customers who feel listened to help you improve (and come back to give you another chance.”
Begin with learning where the donor thinks you went astray. Maybe you really did. If so, embrace your errors.
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.
A Donor Complaint is a Terrible Thing to Waste.
Let’s face it. Most organizations terribly mishandle complaints. Either they ignore them entirely, get defensive or overreact. Generally, a knee-jerk or ad hoc response to a complaint will not be your best friend. It’s best to have a plan in place for responding to complaints, especially those you’re most likely to receive.
Here are some common complaints, and productive ways to respond to them:
1. “You mail too often.”
Too often the knee-jerk 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 I do this based on just one whiner). The truth is survey after survey shows, generally, mailing more raises more. Sure, there’s a point of diminishing returns. But you’re highly unlikely to reach that threshold. Sure, your organization may be a rare exception. But understand how unusual you’d be, and don’t make this change without conducting a study or test. [If you go to the NextAfter website you’ll find oodles of examples of real-life tests and results.]
ACTION TIP: The next time you send an “extra” project-specific 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 you don’t tell them? I must credit Jay Wilkinson of Firespring for this motto: “You can ask for what you want or take what you get.” NOTE: I did this accidentally once when a database query inadvertently sent our entire mailing list a Spring appeal intended only for donors who hadn’t yet made a gift that fiscal year. We learned that those who had already given responded more robustly than those who hadn’t. If we hadn’t asked them for a gift to this project, we’d have taken what we got (nothing).
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 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 certainly can offer to mail to this donor only annually if that’s their preference. Or you might take the opportunity to suggest they join your monthly sustainer program (a good reason to start one if you’ve not already done so) and thereby 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 a multitude 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, compelling 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… your mailings are underwritten… etc. In addition, let your donor know 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 achieve your organization’s mission. This is an opportunity to open up discussion. And don’t forget to actively listen. This is one of those occasions for using your two eaers and one mouth in proportion.
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. If you have their email, and no phone number, message them this way and suggest you’ll send a zoom invite for a chat. Or ask them to give you a call directly so you can address their concerns personally. 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 gratuitous 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? Talk with your team about stopping this practice. Why fan the flames of contempt for complainers? This creates a culture of condemnation rather than gratitude. For the most part, folks who take the time to send a complaint your way are demonstrating they value what you do. They care enough to want you to do better. So why not make it your practice to respond to complaints with: “I’m so glad you let us know! It really means a lot that you took the time to inform us. Let’s set aside some time to chat about this; we truly value your feedback.”
Donors who complain 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. It’s amazing how powerful it can be to simply respond proactively to a complaint with a warm, open, listening stance.
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.
Want to make all your supporters, gruntled and disgruntled, 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!
All Clairification products come with a 30-day, no-questions-asked, 100% refund policy. If you’re not happy, I’m not happy. I welcome complaints!
Image courtesy of Freedigitalphotos.net