Fundraising is Not for the Thin-Skinned: Dealing With Complaints

February 25, 2010

“You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time”.”

― John Lydgate

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’d 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 of 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 of 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 “three”…three 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 longtanding loyal donor base. They also have the largest number of bequest gifts I’ve seen in a small organization. And not one of their donors has remarked on the Charity Navigator ranking.

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