Donor Complaints: Why it’s a bad idea to get upset with donors when they complain

No one likes to hear complaints. 
But when you work for a nonprofit or a private sector business, you need to welcome complaints. Here’s why:

Donor complaints are opportunities in disguise.
Think about this: Only 4% of dissatisfied customers actually voice their complaints. That means 96% are hidden, ensuring that you’ll never have a chance to make things right. But 4% are raising their hands shouting, “Hey! I’m not happy!”
Plus, it takes about 12 positive experiences to make up for one unresolved negative experience.

Are fundraisers less equipped to handle donor complaints?
Possibly so. Here’s my anecdotal evidence.

Years ago, I was asked to pay $10,000 to sponsor a fundraising conference event in Washington, D.C.. Promises were made to me in exchange for my money, but the promises were not kept. Then when I complained to the fundraisers who put on the event, I got passed around to folks who did nothing for me. No one (all fundraisers) attempted to resolve my problem. Some failed to return my calls and emails. Others passed the buck.

Finally, I realized they had no interest in helping me.
So, I lost interest in trying to get a resolution. It still burns me up to this day. $10,000 is a lot of money!

Later, someone posted a question on a ListServe asking its subscribers whether or not a sponsorship at the event was worthwhile. I figured I’d help the inquirer and let them know why I would never sponsor that conference again. Harsh? Yeah. But it was true.

So what happened next?
What happened next got me wondering if, perhaps, the fundraising sector might simply be less well-equipped to handle complaints compared with the private sector. I’m not sure if there’s any empirical support for that. But it’s something I’ve been noodling ever since.

Apparently, others involved with the Conference (all fundraisers and fundraising consultants) read my post on the ListServe. A few days later I got a call from a Board member. She was very upset. She scolded me for posting my response to the question. She told me I shouldn’t be upset since time has passed. Furthermore, she implied that my failed attempts to find someone to respond to my complaints was my fault. Plus, she admonished me saying that I especially should not have voiced my grievance in a public forum (on the ListServe). During the call, I asked her, “What other forum did I have available? The private forum yielded no results. They ducked. They hid. They were unethical. So I figured I’d warn the next potential victim about my experience.”

Ouch! Here’s how she responded.
Again, she tried to belittle me saying she was surprised that I was still upset about the whole thing.

“After all, it happened three years ago,” she reminded me.

I guess she never got duped out of $10,000. Clearly, she didn’t know how that felt and she had no empathy for me whatsoever.

By the way… I need to fall on my sword here for a minute.
Should I have reached out privately to the person who posted the question on the List-Serve instead of posting my critique online? Yes.

And, in fact, I apologized sincerely to the Board Member who called me to complain about my complaint.

I tell people (especially my staff) to be careful about what they post online. But, in this instance, my anger from having been so badly mistreated those years earlier came to the forefront quickly and I guess I lost my composure. I am still truly sorry for that. I’m human.

But here’s the rub. After she accepted my apology, she still wasn’t empathetic about my complaint. Alternatively, she was still upset with me. In fact, she was downright angry at me for being a complainer! Ugh!

In the end, she removed me from the ListServe and made sure I was no longer able to sponsor other events.

She censored and banished me.

Wow! I wondered how she must treat donors when they complain.

Bottom line: I think you should NOT get upset with people when they complain— especially your donors.
Re-set your attitude so you see their complaints as opportunities— not only to make things right but also to expand the relationship further.

In this particular instance, I might have sponsored the event again in the future. I might have become a very loyal customer. And, I might have even spoken well of the conference on the List-Serve.

If a donor is upset about how they are being treated and they put forth the effort to complain to you, remember to put on your “empathy-hat” and treat your donor with the best care possible.

It’s an opportunity to make a positive out of a negative. You might be able to remedy the situation and make the donor happy again — for life!

Remember, loyal customers (donors) are worth up to 10 times as much as their first purchase. 10 times! Complaints are opportunities in disguise! That should never be overlooked.



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6 years ago

It reminds me of when a donor came to my office, shaking a letter at me. I had addressed it to Mrs. Susie Smith and she was offended. She is Mrs. Jack Smith, and I better not forget it!
Silently, I was thinking ‘really – that’s what you are worried about?’ but fortunately, that is not what I said.
I apologized and told her I blew it. I told her she was exactly right. I told her it was completely my fault (and didn’t mention the direct mail vendor…). And I asked what I could do to fix it.
She was stunned – she couldn’t believe I didn’t argue with her, or deflect, or blame someone. And here’s the kicker: after that, she was my biggest fan and proponent.
Lesson learned.

6 years ago
Reply to  Sally

Right on Sally! That’s how it’s done! Great job!


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Sheila A. Hard, J.D.
Sheila A. Hard, J.D.
2 years ago

Greg, first a clarifying question/observation: I have the impression that the conference organizers in question are volunteers rather than paid staff of the conference? If that’s the case, it would explain why you were passed around and why no one cared enough to make it right, at least in your first go-around. Volunteers have day jobs. It doesn’t excuse how you were treated, but it does explain it. (I have no explanation for the woman who “complained about your complaining”.)

Second, you wondered whether the fundraising sector is less equipped to handle complaints that the for-profit sector. Personally, I doubt that’s the case. I have as many for-profit horror stories as I do charitable ones. In fact, I’ve used Uber on 3 occasions, with two unfortunate outcomes. On the most recent, I spent over half an hour trying without success to find a way to communicate through the website and register my complaint. I sincerely hope to arrange my life so as never to have to use them again, although I fear it’s only a matter of time before they have driven taxi cabs out of existence.

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