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What to Do When Donors Complain

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Her voice was tight with panic.

“We got a lot of complaints,” she said.  “A lot.  The Board is having a special meeting. I think they’re going to fire me.  You too.”

We’d created a new direct mail fundraising campaign for her organization.

Her fear started to infect me.  “Did we raise any money?”

“Yes!” she said.  “We’re raising a ton of money. We’re on pace to more than double our previous record!  But we got so many complaints!”

“How many?”

I heard the sound of computer key-strokes.  “As of this morning … eight complaints!”


They’d sent just over 100,000 pieces.  The final response rate was nearly 10%, or 10,000 donations. The “complaint rate” was 0.008%.  For every single complaint, more than 1,200 people had given money.  (In fact three of the eight complainers also made donations!)

What were the complaints about?

  • 4 of them were that they were getting too much mail.  (The organization had been mailing 10 times a year, but this year it sent 12.)
  • 3 said the appeal in question made them feel guilty.
  • One complained that the envelope arrived nearly torn in half.

So the Board sprang into action.

  • They had us send an apology letter to everyone who’d received the mailing.  Cost: about $80,000.
  • They cut the mailing schedule back, not to the 10 of previous years, but to eight.  Cost: about 30% less net revenue per year.  Also, donor retention dropped by several percentage points.
  • They mandated that all future fundraising projects go through an approval process by the entire Board.  Cost: Not calculable, but as you might guess, a lot of best practices were killed by the process, which lowered the effectiveness of every single project from then on.

My client didn’t get fired, though she left for greener pastures a few months later. I did get fired. It’s a lot easier to blame the outsider!

Why do complaints have so much power with nonprofits? I think it stems from the nagging fear that the complainers might be right.

Any nonprofit worth its salt examines its marketing efforts all the time. That’s how you know what works and what doesn’t. If you’re doing something ineffective, you’ll find out, and you can make the necessary changes.

If you’re on top of what you do, you’ll know if the following is true or not:

  • Our mail schedule is not a waste of money.
  • Each of our communications are effective at generating net revenue for the cause.
  • The things we say literally are true.

Too many nonprofits don’t actually know if those things are true. That puts them in the awkward position of being unable to answer common complaints with the truth.

A well-run fundraising program is never complaint-free. In fact, complaints often signal that you’re doing something right. Why? If your communications are boring, they won’t stir people to any kind of action — including complaints. Imagine someone making a complaint like this: Your letter didn’t get my attention, and I was unmoved by what you said.

But if your fundraising grabs people by the collar and forces them to pay attention, you’ll make some folks uncomfortable — and some of them will complain.  And a lot more of them will respond with donations.

Does this mean you just dismiss complaints? Not at all.

Many complainers are loyal donors who are experiencing something you’re doing that doesn’t work for them. They just want to make it right. You can — and should — satisfy them.

It’s important when dealing with complainers to be thankful. This person cares enough to communicate with you. She’s giving you a chance to serve her better and turn a negative feeling into a positive experience. Find out exactly what she wants — and do it.

But don’t change your entire program to fit the demands of a complainer.  Follow the much larger voice of those who donated.  Make it work for them!

Let’s look at three common donor complaints and what you can do to turn a complaint into a positive touch.

Complaint: You send too much mail

Positive touch: We very carefully track everything we send to make sure we’re spending our money wisely. We know you can’t send a gift in response to everything you receive. Give when it’s the right thing for you to do. We wouldn’t think of asking for any more than that. If we’re sending more mail than you want, that’s not the best use of our money. Would you like us to reduce the amount of mail we send you?

Complaint: You’re wasting money that should go to the cause

Positive touch: Every dollar we spend on our mailings results in several dollars coming back. We watch this very closely, and we’ve been able to keep our expenses low in comparison to the amount of money people give us. If we’re sending too much to you, then that’s a waste, and we don’t want to do it. Would you like us to reduce the amount of mail we send you?

Complaint: You sent me on a guilt-trip

Positive touch: We don’t want to make you feel guilty. Please accept our apology. Let us assure you, we always tell the truth in our communications. We pay very close attention to what we say and the way we say it. We communicate with a lot of urgency because the need for what we do is so great. Would you like us to avoid sending you this type of message?

The truth works every time. For complaints about anything from telemarketing to the colors you use, the answer is this: What we’re doing works, but we’re happy to let you opt out of it.

You might need to change something for the complainer at hand (such as send her less mail). But you almost certainly don’t need to change your fundraising program. For every complaint you get, there are thousands of donors who responded positively and sent gifts. Be influenced by the people who voted with their wallets and let them shape your thinking — not the complainers.

A complaint can create anxiety that damages an organization. Or, if you face it with the courage of your convictions and a good attitude, it can be a magic moment that creates new bonds with the donor.

Just remember to keep your eyes on the big picture: It’s all about the good work your organization does.

Want to discover how to make your nonprofit communications irresistible to your supporters? Join The Fundraisingology Lab and take my Irresistible Communications for Great Nonprofits course!

Please share your experience by leaving your reply below. We’d love to learn from your experience.

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7 Comments. Leave new

  • We had a similar problem in a smaller city several years ago. A board member got a complaint from a family member about how the letter they received made them feel pressured to give. He wanted us to stop mailing all together.
    The debate touched on all the points mentioned in the article and got personal.
    In the end, the board decided to strike a committee to oversee direct mail and respond to complaints by phone. Not a single member wanted to join the committee.. no one.
    The board who brought in the complaint left the board after one more meeting.
    His family member continued to give.

    • I love how the person who started the whole controversy in the first place kept giving. That’s so often how it goes.

  • Richard Beighton
    April 20, 2018 3:23 pm

    So true. When I started one job I only had one thing I was told I had to report to the senior management team – was it income? number of donors recruited? number of donors lost? Or any other important indicator? Nope, it was number of complaints! Really?? One time we got 11 complaints and everyone was up in arms – but (as in the article) we got 11,000 donations. So for every one who hated it, 1,000 loved it enough to part with their cash. I have changed the culture a bit – but so many people are risk averse instead of risk aware and that needs to change. If we do 50 things that each have a 2% chance of negative reaction then one will probably blow up – but will we get in trouble for the one, or will it be taken in context that we did 50 good things in return for one that caused issues. I hope the latter, but fear the former.

  • Fantastic article! Thank you very much for the concrete information. So practical and immediately useful, especially to development staff members for on the ground donor services work and for sharing with board Development committees for deeper understanding of our work.

  • My organization’s lawyer asked me what I could do to stop complaints from happening in direct mail, as in achieve 0 complaints. I told him his first step would be to fire me and stop fundraising. After 3 years I got him to be one of our biggest advocates. No one had ever shared the data with him so all he saw were the complaints that were routed to the legal department (only once did he actually need to intervene from a legal standpoint)

  • erica waasdorp
    July 3, 2019 3:41 am

    yes, and you know what else? you can ask a complaining donor to give monthly… they’re happy with less mail in some cases, you’re happy because you get that ongoing revenue. If you apply all of jeff’s great and grateful approaches, it’s a great opportunity.
    Donors who call CARE about you!

  • Derek Yarnell
    July 4, 2019 3:31 am

    In my for-profit marketing career we would often face the same issue of how much weight to give to complaints. As a marketing agency we, like you, took to heart people had read our communications and managed our clients expectations. In social-profit space I have found as per the first comment, another dynamic in that complaints can come via board members and rightly or wrongly be given extra weight as a result. What a tragic response from the board in this case.


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