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What You Should Know About Soothing a Disgruntled Donor

This article is excerpted from Kay Sprinkel Grace’s book, the 2nd Edition of Over Goal! What You Must Know to Excel at Fundraising Today, published by Emerson & Church. For more information about the book, visit emersonandchurch.com or call 508-359-0019.


It happens to all of us, no matter how hard we try. We upset a donor. Wrong name on the envelope. Continuing to write “Mr. and Mrs.” long after a death or divorce. Acknowledging the wrong amount for a gift. Misspelling a donor’s name in the annual report.

While any of these mistakes may be harmful, they don't necessarily sully your the relationship for the long term.

Here’s what you should know about picking up the pieces – and soothing a wronged donor.

Admit the mistake.

Searching for someone else to blame may make you feel better, but it doesn't soothe the donor. Donors see our organizations as functioning teams, and if you’re the captain of that team or the chief player in the data management department, you bear responsibility for the mistake.

Telling a donor you'll find out who made the mistake isn't the point. Apologize, tell the donor you'll find out why the mistake happened and make sure it doesn't happen again.

Don't Argue

Never argue with a donor. Accept their version of the mistake – even if you sense it isn't entirely accurate. Acknowledge the donor’s anger with phrases like, “I can imagine how you must feel…” or “I don’t blame you for being upset…” or “I can understand why you're thinking these things about us….” All of these phrases are safety valves for the donor’s anger and open the door to conducting a constructive conversation.

Let your staff know this is a serious matter.

All too often, the seriousness of a mistake doesn't sink in. Sometimes, it's hard for people to understand why a donor doesn’t just laugh it off or grin and bear it.

Part of creating a culture of philanthropy in your organization is focusing on donors and their needs. The vast majority of donors not only need to be treated with respect (and continued mistakes connote disrespect), they don't understand when organizations ignore or repeat the oversight or error.

Use incidents to instruct staff. Use them to initiate a data base cleanup or other solution to the problem.

Let the donor know what you're doing to correct the problem.

Admitting the mistake is good; letting the donor know that his experience has led you to examine the cause and correct it, is better. That alone can help a donor feel as though his experience has had a good outcome.

Don’t let data entry slide, even if you're short-staffed.

I know, I know: I've seen the change-of-address forms and other information piled high next to the data entry desk (while every support person was deployed pulling lists, running reports, and doing other urgent work).

Nevertheless, correcting your data base is vital, and reminds us again and again of the difference between what is seemingly urgent and what is truly important.

When a donor has let you know of a change, or an envelope has been returned marked “Deceased” – enter that information on regular basis.

Only by keeping the data base current can you, with confidence, apologize to a donor whose information has been mishandled or not updated.

For serious lapses, have an immediate “response team” ready.

Publishing names that were to have been anonymous, failure to direct a donor’s gift towards the program designated, omission of a person’s name from a recognition list – all of these require more than a phone call from someone working at the membership or development support desk.

For these lapses, an internal meeting among staff leaders should be followed by an offer to visit with the donor and explain how the error occurred.

If a visit isn't welcomed or possible, be sure it is the CEO or Vice President for Development, or even the Board Chair who extends the apology by telephone or handwritten personal note.

Consciously connect accuracy and timeliness with the whole issue of stewardship in your organization.

In too many organizations – particularly large ones – we tend to separate personal stewardship from the nuts and bolts of data base maintenance. This can be particularly true at universities and medical centers where data bases are often maintained by people who aren't daily connected with development.

But, in truth, accuracy and timely generation of receipts is connected to the whole area of stewardship. If our goal is to convert donors to investors by building a relationship with them, remember that the relationship begins by getting their name right and letting them know as quickly as possible the gift has been received.

We have, unfortunately, drifted far from the old 48 to 72 hour rule for acknowledgments, citing the difficulty of processing gifts through often elaborate systems. We need to figure out how to put the donor’s needs ahead of the system’s complexity.

Recognize and reward those whose accuracy and timeliness – and donor satisfaction quotient (DSQ) – is consistently on target.

We spend so much time troubleshooting problems, that we often neglect those who do their job well. Set incentives for achieving a “zero margin of error” environment by celebrating those people whose accuracy and timeliness are impeccable.

The resources we dedicate to solving problems could be minimized if we focused on putting those same resources into systems and encouragement that will ensure a low rate of mistakes.

Be honest with yourself about the ability of your software to handle the size and complexity of your program.

We put off upgrading our systems because conversions are painful and costly. But faulty systems lead to situations with donors that can be significantly more painful and costly!

Far too many organizations persist in using outdated technology. Set about finding the resources to get a new database management system or upgrade your existing one. This isn't a luxury, it's a necessity.

Check those mailings before they go out – many disturbing errors can be caught.

Signing letters in a hurry without looking at the salutation, rushing a mailing without checking for duplications, and failing to match thank-you receipts or letters against the original list of gifts reflects a practice that many now-defunct technology companies embraced: there was never time to do it right, but it seemed as though there was always time to do it over.

Do it right the first time, so that you won't have to correct your mistakes – and the bad feelings they engender – over and over again.

---

To donors, there’s no such thing as a “little mistake.” They expect more of us. Once you make a mistake, you may lose the donor no matter what you do. But by honest and diligent follow up to the problem, you can do a great deal to keep that donor connected to your cause.

***********************


About the Author: Kay Sprinkel Grace is the author of the Second Edition of Over Goal! What You Must Know to Excel at Fundraising Today, from which this article is excerpted. Her other books include The Ultimate Board Member’s Book and Fundraising Mistakes that Bedevil All Boards (and Staff Too). For information about any of these books, visit emersonandchurch.com or call 508-359-0019.
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