While nonprofit organizations have many assets, the list of donors to the organization is near or at the top of the list in terms of its value. We jealously guard our donor lists because they’re not just names; they are people who have enough of a personal connection to us to have made donations — once, or over and over.
That’s why we dread the call, letter or email (or, worst of all, the personal confrontation) when a donor says, “Take me off your mailing list!” That hurts, and it can hurt the bottom line if too many donors make an exodus, as can happen if there is a public relations disaster that calls the wrong kind of attention to the cause. But the one-off requests, over time, can be just as insidious.
How do you handle these requests to be removed from the list? This may surprise some of you, but, “Duh! We remove them!” isn’t always the right answer. Given that your donor file is so valuable, a well-thought-out strategy is needed for responding in a way that both honors the donor’s intent and safeguards your asset.
Have a policy — in writing — for handling requests
Depending on the size of your organization, one or many people may be responsible for processing requests to be removed from the mailing list. Everyone needs to know the policy, from the receptionist who answers the call to the CEO who gets buttonholed at a Rotary meeting. Otherwise, you risk irregular responses that can cost you income — or worse, your reputation as an organization.
Often, “Take me off your mailing list” does not really mean “take me off completely.” There’s more behind that statement, but the donor doesn’t know your lingo so he or she resorts to a broad demand, knowing that it may be killing a fly with an Uzi but at least the job gets done. Dig a bit to learn the real problem. Does the donor dislike phone calls? Does he find your magazine too expensive or time-consuming to read? Does she dislike appeal letters because they make her feel guilty? Any of these — and many other conditions — can trigger the dreaded “Take me off your mailing list!” demand.
Be ready to offer options, if appropriate
When a person has smoke coming out her ears and flames out her mouth as she shouts, “Take me off your mailing list!” there’s only one thing to do — comply. But short of that, your listening may uncover an alternative that is less drastic but still will solve the problem. Some possible options you can offer are newsletter-only, no phone calls, quarterly appeals only, year-end appeal only or no newsletters/magazines.
There is no standard list of options; you need to create the system that melds with your fundraising programs, meets the common kinds of issues your donors have and is logistically doable. Don’t create a plan that is so complex that it is impossible to successfully implement.
Be prepared to handle the angriest requests
Sometimes the best way to diffuse an irate person is to let him talk to “someone in authority.” When the receptionist or the donor services staff member feels it would be wise, have that person pass along a donor to talk to you. This not only sends an important message to the donor, but it also assures your staff that the fundraisers really care about the donors (and about them). Over time, that gives them more confidence to talk with donors and convince them that you’re not trying to exploit them, just share with them the full story of the work you do. Your passion can trickle down through your willingness to get in the trenches when the grenades are flying.
‘Turn the other cheek’
It’s not personal. Despite what is said on the phone call or in the letter or email, the person is not angry at you. A particular communication triggered her response — and it may not even have been one from your organization! She may have gotten into a discussion with a family member who said, “All charities are just out to fleece you,” or he read an exposé in the newspaper about other organizations and decided to lump you in with them. I’ve been torn from end to end a few times in my career and it hurts, but it really isn’t about me.
Here’s how I learned to respond to these barn burners: “Mrs. Smith, my name is Pamela, and I am personally removing you from our mailing list. You may get a few more letters from us because of lead time, but after that, you will not get our mail. You have been removed, and if you have any more concerns, you can call me, Pamela, directly and I will help you.” If it’s a phone call, try to smile as you speak. But always, whether it’s in an email reply or on the phone, give the donor assurance that you are doing as requested.
Make sure you cover all bases
You’re just asking for another irate phone call if you don’t put that donor name in a file that you use to purge any rented or exchanged lists in the future. While occasionally a once-angry donor will response to an acquisition mailing, too many others will consider the letter a personal betrayal. Personally, I don’t think it’s worth the $35 contribution you may get.
Last Sunday, a day this old dog still considers set aside for family and church, I received a phone call. It was a local community theater; I had attended one show there several months ago. Since then, the theater has called and emailed excessively. I have asked the folks there not to call, and a Sunday afternoon call was that proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. I didn’t scream and rant (really!), but I did say, “Remove me completely from your list.”
It didn’t have to come to that. If only someone had listened to me earlier …
Originally published in NonProfit Pro.