I started my week off grumpy. It was all because of a reprint of a tweet from a popular blogger in a leading publication for the nonprofit industry. There was no commentary — just the tweet.
The gist of the tweet was that the author disliked a particular fundraising method; it did not encourage her to give. That’s OK; donors are different and respond to different things. I know from experience that that particular fundraising effort is an exceptional way to retain donors and raise net dollars. But I also know that reading something in a magazine or online that is critical of a fundraising method can lead some to conclude that “everybody” hates that methodology and therefore it must be eliminated. (Obviously, if the methodology is unethical or illegal, that’s a different story; I’m not talking about those cases.)
For some reason, fundraisers or their bosses often put too much weight on the opinion of an audience of one. Rather than thoughtfully considering it in light of the whole picture, the response is too often wholesale change.
The reality is complaints are part of a fundraiser’s life. Somebody, somewhere, someday doesn’t like something. And while I am absolutely passionate about retaining donors, I am equally passionate about retaining the majority — and that means not letting the audience of one dictate what we do or don’t do.
When faced with complaints — and let’s face it, we all have and will experience them — here’s how I recommend you handle them.
Keep complaints in perspective. If you send out 10,000 letters and get five complaints back, that’s 0.05 percent complaint rate. Even 50 complaints are only one-half of a percent. Yes, some people who take the time to complain are very irate. And yes, there are probably others who didn’t like it but didn’t take the time to complain. But why do they deserve the power to dictate fundraising for the remaining 99.5 percent of your donor file?
Sometimes, the person making the complaint is a person who has a great deal of influence on your fundraising budget, your career or something equally as significant. But again, making a wholesale change for everybody based on that one person’s opinion is dangerous. You’re likely to harm your overall fundraising efforts in a desperate attempt to please that one person. If you can, take the time to explain the income benefits of what you’re doing and how it resonates with a majority of people or at least a far greater number of people than complain about it.
Treat every complaint as an opportunity to build a relationship. Write a letter or email, call a person on the telephone, send a handwritten note — whatever you need to do to let the person know that you’ve received her input and that it matters to you. This is not to suggest that you’re going to conclude you need to make a change as a result of that input, but you should give it thoughtful consideration. Let the person know that this comment helps you make better fundraising decisions for the benefit of your mission and those you serve.
If at all possible, eliminate the complainer from that type of communication in the future. For example, if you send out an annual calendar as a fundraising tool but a small number of people complain about the wastefulness of the calendar, code their donor records so they won’t receive calendars in the future.
This is not to say that complaints should never change your strategy or impact your fundraising programs. However, time and again I’ve seen wholesale decisions made based on “lots of complaints” that turn out to be a very small fraction of the entire donor file that received that particular communication. At the same time, a respectable percentage of people made a donation as a result of that same communication. People who make a donation are saying that they liked a particular communication; if they didn’t, they wouldn’t have given. We must give equal weight to all the people who approved of what we did as we do to those who disapprove.
This old dog has gained a lot of insight by considering complaints about fundraising from the people who receive it. I’ve made changes, and I’ve learned to do things better. But every complaint should not be an indication that change is needed. Keep perspective, evaluate the complaint and how or whether it points to a need for change, but always look at the total picture before reacting.
And stop giving so much power to the audience of one.
Originally published in NonProfit Pro.