Mistakes: The Unavoidable Fundraising Nightmare

A few days ago, I work up to an email from Disney that had some exciting news for me—except the subject line said, “Jeffrey, your Castaway Club news is here!” Oops! No Jeffrey here… But in Disney’s defense, that kind of mistake happens. No matter how many checkpoints we put in along the way, a mistake can slide through.

But since mistakes are inevitable, how a fundraiser responds to those errors is what can really set the organization apart. Instead of spending all our time on looking for someone (anyone but me!) to blame, our first priority needs to be our donors. While a wrong name in a subject line is not a big deal (though it can feel sloppy to a recipient), an incorrect receipt, a broken link in an eAppeal or failure to respond to a call, email or letter with a question can make a donor less inclined to give again.

Since mistakes are unavoidable, here are some time-tested (and experience-tested) ideas for responding:

Say “I’m sorry.” Maybe I’m showing my age, but someone actually apologizing in a tone that conveys sincerity seems to be a dying art. And perhaps because it is rare, it’s memorable. When something goes wrong, surprise your donors by first letting them know you are sorry for the mistake. You don’t have to beat yourself (or another person) up, but you do regret that the mistake happened—so let the donor know.

Correct it when possible—and when it matters. Send out an accurate receipt, get the link fixed (and notify donors of the new link) or pick up the phone and call if a donor is frustrated that his or her letter went unanswered. The secret is to “make it right” as quickly as possible and without further frustration for donors. But don’t call attention to a mistake that was probably not noticed by most of your donors. For example, it’s not that serious if you had a misspelled word (unless it was offensive), a duplicated inset or a flopped photo. Just thank those who call it to your attention and apologize. In these cases, a mass apology just makes more people think something they didn’t care about in the first place is a bigger deal than realized.

Go the extra mile to make fix the problem. Even if it’s a small thing, when a donor writes, emails or calls in about something, it’s a big deal to them. So, fix the problem. You’ll strengthen your relationship with the donor if he or she feels you really care.

Fix the root of the problem. This happens behind the scenes from what your donor sees. Figure out what went wrong, how to fix it and how to keep it from reoccurring. Here’s a tip: This can be good for your career, too, because it shows you are proactive, not just reactive.

Don’t make it a habit. “It’s no big deal” may seem proportional to the mistake in your mind, but if a donor cared enough to bring it up, it is a big deal to him or her. The first time a mistake happens, it’s time to fix it. There is no excuse for repeated sloppiness because that says to our donors that we aren’t exercising care… and it’s not too far to go mentally from using the wrong name in an email to misusing donations. You may think this is silly, but I’ve seen small things escalate into lapsing donors—something none of us want or can afford.

Don’t beat yourself up. Mistakes happen. If you haven’t made one recently, just wait. Albert Einstein, who I think we can agree was a pretty smart guy, said, “A person who has never made a mistake never tried anything new.” And Ralph Nader is credited with saying, “Your best teacher is your last mistake.”

This old dog knows making a mistake can be an uncomfortable way to learn, but not responding appropriately to a mistake can compound the pain. So, take a deep breath, say “I’m sorry” and move on. Life is a journey of learning… even though sometimes we wish for less time in the “classroom.”

Originally published in NonProfit Pro.

Author: PJBarden

With a professional career in strategic fundraising that spans more than 35 years, Pamela brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to working with nonprofit organizations. She specializes in writing fundraising copy, grant proposals, P.R. materials, instructional articles and blog entries, as well as developing and executing fundraising strategy for her clients. Pamela is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE); an instructor for UCLA Extension School’s Fundraising Certification Program and the University of La Verne, College of Business and Public Management; a frequent webinar speaker; and author of two online courses for UCLA Extension. Pamela earned a Doctorate of Business Administration in 2015; her doctoral project (dissertation) was entitled “Nonprofit Organizations’ Awareness of and Preparation for Legislation, Regulation, and Increasing Scrutiny.” She is a past winner of a Gold Award for Fundraising Excellence and an ECHO Award from DMA; recipient of a Distinguished Instructors Award from UCLA Extension; a weekly columnist for NonprofitPRO (formerly Fundraising Success); and a monthly contributor to Blackbaud’s blog, npEngage.

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