Successful Fundraising – Not for the Thin-Skinned

February 25, 2010

You can’t please everyone so you gotta please yourself.
Ricky Nelson

I was reminded of this truism recently when the board president of an organization I am working with called to vent about their low Charity Navigator ranking.

Apparently she had been contacted by a potential donor who said that he had planned on making a contribution, but, upon checking out the organization’s Charity Navigator paltry three star ranking, changed his mind.

The fact that this particular organization receives over $2 million worth of in-kind contributions a year (a tremendous showing of community support) evidently doesn’t factor into the financial picture used to determine these evaluations … and, without an explanation, garners a low rating for this charity.

How would you handle a situation such as this?

My immediate thought was to address the situation, quickly and transparently, by way of the organization’s newsletter and website. Point out the flaw in evaluation methods and point out that another recent independent evaluation showed that every $1 donated results in $6 of goods and services!

Sounds good, right?

But stop and think about it.

Whenever a person, organization or company does anything worthwhile there will be critics and opposition. In such cases, it is important to develop a “thick skin” and remember to stay the course. (side note – often the two go hand in hand so well that you can actually plot your success by the amount of criticism you get).

There are a couple of key points to keep in mind:

– Beware taking to heart negative feedback from people that are not giving you money. Opinions are like elbows, everyone has one…er, at least one…so only listen to your direct target audience which in most cases consists of people that give you money. Even then you want some sort of critical mass before you act on it – if your organization has a hundred members, you probably want to hear the same thing from 10-20% before you act on it. Do you really think Nissan goes back to the drawing board because someone complains about not enough leg room or a button being too far away?  One person, one vote!

– Beware the magnifier/multiplier effect of bad feedback. When someone is upset or angry and you’re on the receiving end there is a tendency to magnify the problem – you perceive it to be worse than it really is. I recall an annual appeal – my first one with a rented list – where, when I got into the office the staff told me everyone was calling in and expressing how upset they were about receiving duplicate mailings …I asked, “how many people exactly?”…the response was “five”…five complaints out of nearly 70,000 letters mailed (and it turned out to generate a 27% increase in annual funds that year).  Nevertheless the few complaints raised proved to be enough to justify the ED wasting an enormous amount of staff time and energy.

– Beware the “miserables” ….I could go on ad nauseam about a portion of the population that is just miserable and looking to be offended at any opportunity. Even if you do everything right, there will always be someone to complain about something (they don’t like the color, they thought you emailed them too early/too late, you used their maiden name, etc.) so there are some things (actually quite a few) that you’ll just have to learn to roll with.

By the way, this particular organization has one of the most impressive databases I have ever seen with a loyal donor base. They also have the largest number of bequest gifts I’ve seen in a small organization. And not a one of their donors has remarked on the Charity Navigator ranking.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Heidi Massey February 25, 2010 at 7:59 pm

Hey Pam,

Wonderful post. I think it takes a great amount of skill and confidence to be able to roll with the criticism punches. But clearly very good advice. I don’t know if I would have necessarily thought to respond the way you did in the first scenario, but I think you were right on to do so!

Keep up the great insights…not enough of you wise ones online, especially when it comes to fundraising!

Stephen Nill February 26, 2010 at 7:12 am

Having founded four successful nonprofits, advised hundreds during my career either as consultant or lawyer, and watched the conversations of thousands of nonprofit professionals via CharityChannel for 18 years, I am quite certain that attempts to apply a set of pre-conceived notions in an effort to rate or rank nonprofits is fraught with peril. I admire the effort, but I don’t envy those who make the attempt.

I applaud Pamela for advising the leaders of this nonprofit to steer their own course, and to not take this sort of thing too seriously. That is good advice, though we’re only human; sometimes these things just hit home. I once founded a parochial school in my community, and some of the worst slings and arrows came at me in my career while sacrificing my time and my finances to build the school. Today, it is thriving and the critics are gone (as am I, having moved on once it was up and going). The school is near my home, and any time I’m down, I make a point to drive by, and see 800 students or so happily going about the business of growing into kind and decent human beings. Take that, you critics!

Ken Berger, President & Chief Executive Officer, Charity Navigator, is a member of the CharityChannel professional community. I’ve spoken with him on occasion and know that he does listen to his colleagues in the nonprofit world who have found fault with Charity Navigator. I don’t envy him the challenge that Charity Navigator has undertaken.

Ken contributed an article “Board Governance of Nonprofits,” to CharityChannel’s Nonprofit Boards and Governance Review in September. You can read it here:

Coincidentally, Gayle Gifford, ACFRE, also a long-time veteran of CharityChannel, without knowing of Ken’s article because it hadn’t been published when she submitted hers, wrote “Is Your Organization Ready to be Rated On Its Performance?” You can read it here:

I commend both of these articles.


Stephen C. Nill, J.D., GPC
Founder & Chief Executive Officer
+1 949 589-5938


Joanne Fritz February 26, 2010 at 7:32 am

I think your approach to this situation is right on, Pamela. It’s a bit like a news outlet making an error in an article or “quoting out of context” something the ED said. Typically, the ED gets very upset and wants you to demand a retraction. If you actually call to complain to the reporter, you will 1)tick him/her off and risk a negative story 2) get a correction at the bottom or in an obscure corner that noone ever reads 3) creating another story this time a negative one that gets even more attention. Charity Navigator is not something to take lightly though (They are mentioned in a Money Magazine article this month) so I would prepare for some fallout should it occur. This is an “issue” that the org needs to figure out how they will respond should more donors or board members or the press inquire. See my article on Issues Management here:

John Haydon February 26, 2010 at 8:37 am

If it’s one person they’ve heard from, I wouldn’t make a big stink about it.

That said, they could do a survey of all their donors / potential donors that includes one question (among many) about why they didn’t donate (if they didn’t). Obviously they should use a survey tool that allows for conditional questions, meaning that if they answered “no” to “Have you donated?”, then a follow up question would be displayed. Gravity Forms, a WordPress plugin is a good tool for this.

They should be surveying their supporters anyhow.

Pamela Grow February 26, 2010 at 8:42 am

Agreed on the donor surveying. Thanks for your response!

Tom Ahern February 26, 2010 at 12:40 pm

This incident seems like the perfect opportunity to publish in the donor newsletter (and probably on the website, too) an article titled something like, “Why we’re a top-rated charity, yet one national ranking service refuses to see it that way.”

If the real story, in other words, is (1) Charity Navigator’s inflexible, subtlety-deaf approach to ratings (a problem often remarked on by experts); and (2) your organization is truly a terrific charity, well, heck: blare the trumpets.

I don’t believe in leaving “erroneous negatives” unchallenged. They have insidious side effects. Here, a donor told the charity he did not make a gift because the rating was not 4-star. How many others, I wonder, didn’t make a gift for the same reason — yet never bothered to tell the charity?

I’ve heard that some donors restrict their giving only to Charity Navigator’s 4-star picks. If you’re not a 4-star, yet you really are terrific, I think you need an explanation handy. I’d consider that explanation part of the standard case for support.

Kristy Hall February 26, 2010 at 1:55 pm

Great post! It’s a real-life situations many organizations face.

I absolutely agree with your suggestion that the organization look at whether any of their current donors complained about the ranking – continuing to nurture those relationships should always be a top priority.

And, I think you make some great points about how we often take things incredibly personally … when they really aren’t about us.

I also really like Tom’s article suggestion – address the issue head-on and create an opportunity to “blare the trumpets.”

Along those same lines, I would suggest providing current and prospective donors with hard evidence that you’re actually achieving your mission. Personally, I’m not as concerned about a ranking as I am about how effective the organization is – and, having proof helps!

Kimberley MacKenzie February 26, 2010 at 1:55 pm

Hi Pam,

Great post! I truly understand what you are saying about keeping the complaints in perspective. When I looked into it in my new job we hardly had any complaints last year. To mean that meant we were being bold enough so we are changing that.

I’m more with Tom on this issue. What a fabulous newsletter opportunity if approached from a position of educating your donors about how these rating systems work. Charities can also talk about impact as being a more realist measure.

In the past when bad press for charities hits the mainstream media I have sent letters out to all donors saying “You may have read that….this is where we stand (with admin rates, cost of fundraising whatever)’. If a mistake was made an upfront letter apologizing and letting them know what you are going to do. Remember – donors are onto us! They know this game. As Ken Burnett says they give in spite of us not because of us.

In my experience proactive, candid, transparent communications like these most likely increase support and loyalty.

Love your blog! Keep up the great work.

Phil Johncock February 26, 2010 at 4:25 pm

Sometimes less attention placed on an issue the better. In other words, pick your fights.

You’re not going to get that donor back, so it may be better to “let it go” … a hard pill to swallow.

I would also take the feedback to heart, namely that a donor had “planned on making a contribution, but, upon checking out the organization’s Charity Navigator paltry three star ranking, changed his mind.”

What does it take for the organization to get a four star ranking? What strategies could be put in place to get the four star ranking? How long would it take?

If it takes a long time or is unlikely that a four-star ranking will happen, then I would pursue a newsletter article like Tom suggests … and make sure to keep the agency’s strengths and accomplishments in the forefront… and point out weaknesses in Charity Navigator rating. But, only if a four-star ranking is out of the question.

I appreciate that the board president felt safe enough to cry on your shoulder and vent.

Thanks for sharing, Pamela.


Pamela Grow February 28, 2010 at 6:54 pm

Thank you Kimberley! It’s interesting because this post grew out of a conversation I had with a good friend. My initial thought was to do as both you and Tom suggested. I like to keep things as transparent and above-board as possible. However, I see my friend’s point of view too – particularly if you are on a strong course of action. Do you take a detour every time a complaint arises? Or even when an “opportunity” arises (because we all know that sometimes opportunities are not really opportunities)? Love the comments!

Gabe O'Neill March 2, 2010 at 8:57 am

Thanks for this post, Pamela. Very timely for me. As I embark into fund raising and attempting to get corporate sponsors for a budding non-profit I am running into expected obstacles. People are showering me with “in this economy donors are drying up” and “good, established charities are closing their doors”. I have never been a great salesman as that is never been my choice, but now I have to be. And to be a good salesman you must have thick skin because you will be rejected. I just have to keep repeating, “failures are nothing more than stepping stones to success.”

Lisa Garcia-Ruiz March 5, 2010 at 1:16 pm

Hi Pamela,

I love that you are bringing this out into the open. I think it’s a very good point you make that organizations and executives need to be more think-skinned. If there was a legitimate problem or issue that led to the low rating, then of course they definitely need to address it in the most effective way possible. But otherwise I think your advice was definitely on the mark. AS Gabe mentioned above, sales skills are key to success in “this economy” and they will be served well if they learn those skills now.

Great job Pam, thanks for the great discussion!

Lisa Garcia-Ruiz

Leave a Comment

{ 2 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: