Donor Stewardship: How Sour Feedback Can Still Be Sweet

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Use Donor Complaints to Improve Fundraising Process

It’s sitting on my desk. I can’t look away.

It’s just a piece of paper, but it’s haunting me. I should recycle it and move on. I’ve done the coding and data entry already.

But instead, I keep thinking about it.

Fundraisers like me get these messages all the time: “Take me off of your list.”

They’re usually short and sweet and not always from donors -- they’re sometimes from prospects. I’ve accommodated many of these requests during my time in charge of individual giving programs.

Why is this one bugging me?

It’s from a donor. A previous good donor who hasn’t given since 2012. I included this donor in my newsletter mailing with hopes of getting her back. The response?

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But you DID donate to us – we used to be one of the “selected charities”.

I have the phone number. I’m tempted to call. What did I do wrong? What did we do wrong? Do you remember that you used to donate to us, in the sum of multiple gifts that added up to about $1,000 a year? For many years in a row?

What happened in 2012?

Was it a donor change of heart, that I have little control over?

Did our organization’s stance on some issue enrage you?

I feel like a heartsick teenager pining for an ex. This is the equivalent of being broken up with by text message.

Not enough information! How am I supposed to learn and improve if I don’t know what we (or I) did wrong?

There’s the phone. I could pick up the phone. But this donor doesn’t want us anymore. Is it intrusive to call anyway, and just let the donor know that their request has been honored?

I have an email address, too. Oh look – notes. Called once, hand signed thank you letters – donor requested no acknowledgement. Did we accidentally send a thank you anyway? Could that have done it?

All caps. What did it mean that the note was in ALL CAPS. Anything? Nothing?

Channel your inner Elsa. Let it go, let it go.

But, but, but. How do you give to an organization for more than a decade and then stop? After a while I’m sure this donor got excluded from mailings.

How can I use this for good?

Got it!

  1. Donor Data Insights: What other donors gave for multiple years and then stopped that I haven’t noticed because they didn’t happen to send me an ALL CAPS note. Need to run that report.

  2. Call List Updates: Thank you call list. Need to update the thank you call list and incorporate win back calls.

  3. Channel Review: Did this donor unsubscribe from email? Should check on that and if not, it’s a good thing to reach out and see if they want to be removed there as well – objection could turn into re-initiating.( A fundraising lady can dream…)

Wait, wait, wait. I’m lucky. So lucky!

How many Development folks work in jobs where they never would have seen this piece of paper? In fact, I’m not the one at MY job that usually sees this piece of paper.

Need to fix that, too. Letting my eyes lock on to this kind of feedback spurs other thoughts, fixes and helps me identify process problems.

Long after this letter is recycled, I will still be here, doing better. Thank you, grumpy donor.

There’s always something to learn. Even from ALL CAPS.

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.

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