How to Manage Donor Complaints

Shakespeare famously penned the words, “Beware the ides of March,” in his play Julius Caesar. The piece tells the tale of the Roman ruler’s assassination by angry mob and stabbing. 

I hate to be dramatic, but sometimes being a professional fundraiser can feel just like that. I mean the stabbing part, not the supreme ruler part. 

Disgruntled donors: just part of the job

Here’s a bit of hard truth:  No matter how well you manage your data, no matter how compelling your donor appeals, you will have complaints. They hurt, don’t they?

This is usually because of simple things, like differences of opinion. “You (nonprofit) shouldn’t spend my donor dollars on glossy magazines.” Note: glossy is many times cheaper than matte, but it looks fancier and can anger some donors.

Or it can be due to all-out mistakes – sometimes even your human mistakes. Like mailing to someone who requested no mail, or accidentally sending something to deceased donors. I’ve done both.

Good donor mail = strong reactions

But take heart. Mailings that get the strongest “objections” – a nicer word than complaints – are sometimes your best performers, too.  

Good donor appeal packages elicit strong reactions, both positive and negative.  Just remember that the negative ones come in the shape of angry phone calls and emails. And those arrive first, so you’ll really feel like you are a bad, bad, human being for a couple of days. Et tu, fundraiser?

But the positive ones will come soon after—in the shape of dollar bills. Don’t you love a good redemption story? 

The thing to look out for is when you receive far fewer donations than objections. That’s a rare occurrence in my experience, but when it happens you know it’s time to take a closer look at what went wrong.

4 tips to keep your cool

Either way, you have to field the donor complaints. Here’s how to do that and still keep your crown as the emperor of cool. 

  • Take ownership: I often say “I’m responsible for this fundraising program, so you’re talking to the right person. How can I help solve this problem?” Donors appreciate when you address issues directly and don’t try to put them off to someone else. When I say these magic words, they have a calming effect. “You’re talking to the right person! This is all my fault!” (Even if it isn’t.)

  • See it from their perspective: But don’t be afraid to explain yours, calmly. Starting a sentence with “As you can imagine …” is a good way to move the conversation toward mutual understanding.

  • Get personal: Many objections can be handled with good data management. The complaint, “You shouldn’t send so much donor mail,” can easily be answered with, “I’m so glad you got in touch about this! How often would you like to hear from us?” Note: MAKE GOOD ON THIS PROMISE - it’s the path to donor loyalty.

  • Seize the opportunity: Even mistakes are an opportunity to build relationships with your donors. Being apologetic and getting them to talk about their interest in your mission can be a great way to turn things around. So many times a tense conversation leads to more information about the donor. And I’ve had people who started the call angry, and end up donating an immediate gift.

Using these tips, you can create some of your most loyal donors. Be honest, and respond thoroughly and accurately to their concerns.

Don’t be afraid to face disgruntled donors. The sooner you handle the angry mob, the sooner you can get back to conquering your mission. WITHOUT any fatal wounds. 

Terri Shoemaker is Chief Strategy Officer of Abeja Solutions, a fundraising support firm that helps nonprofits create reliable revenue. A professional fundraiser, Terri has raised millions of dollars for nonprofit and higher education institutions. Read more from Terri.