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How to Handle a Disgruntled Donor


By Allison Gauss

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Reading Time: 4 minutes

Donors may not be exactly the same as customers, but donor stewardship shares a lot of qualities with customer service. One of the more stressful and tumultuous situations in customer service is dealing with an unsatisfied or even angry customer. Many nonprofits experience a similar situation when confronted by a dissatisfied donor.

While donor satisfaction is vital for maintaining and growing your organization’s community, you cannot necessarily do everything that every donor expects. By learning how to listen and communicate with donors in a way that respects their concerns while sticking with your nonprofit’s mission and operations, you can address donor complaints and stay professional in an uncomfortable situation.

The Nonprofit’s Goals

Maybe it’s in the form of an email rant, or an annoyed caller, or even a donor showing up to your public offices. Whatever the context of your donor complaint, it helps to think about your primary goal when handling situations like this.

Your first goal should be to satisfy this person if it’s at all possible. Not only do you want to reassure this donor so they stick with your organization and continue to support you, you also want to prevent the spread of any negative word-of-mouth. Ideally, you can identify the donor’s problem, offer them a reasonable solution, and they will leave feeling satisfied.

Your second objective in this situation is to maintain your nonprofit’s autonomy and independence. Everyone knows that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, but the time and money you put into pleasing that wheel can distract you from getting to your destination. This is why you need to balance donors’ demands and opinions with your organization’s mission and plan.

Let’s say you get a phone call from a donor complaining about some direct mail you sent them in the past few months.

“This is ridiculous. I just throw all this stuff away. You’re wasting donations like mine on useless mailers!”

What this donor may not know if that direct mail happens to be a very effective engagement strategy when it comes to promoting your annual 5K. The caller may want you to stop using direct mail, but you know that would only hinder this upcoming fundraising event. You need to find a middle ground between satisfying this donor and doing what’s best for the organization.

In this case, a good solution might be to say you will remove the donor from that mailing list. You can apologize that they received communications they didn’t want, but explain that you only use direct mail for certain campaigns, when you’ve found them to be effective.

How to Talk to Donors

When it comes to handling a disgruntled donor or customer, how you communicate with them can be just as important as any action you take. In a small study, researchers asked groups of male and female customers what was most important to them when voicing their complaint to a company. The most important concept for both men and women was that their concern was being taken seriously.

Other qualities that were important to respondents were friendliness, active listening, and competence. Even if you know you can’t acquiesce to a donor’s request, you should remain professional and polite. Don’t give donors the impression that you’re trying to get rid of them or you may just lose them for good.

Active listening means that you’re not only taking in what they have to say, but asking questions and restating their concerns to make sure you understand. Even if you can’t immediately solve a problem, most people will feel better just knowing that they are being heard.

If there has been some kind of mistake, say a donor has somehow been charged twice, tell the person what you are going to do to solve the issue. People want to be treated courteously and listened to, but they also want their problems to be resolved.

Responding to Online Messages

Of course, donors now have many ways they can communicate with nonprofit organizations, including social media. Unfortunately, too many organizations do not monitor what’s being said to and about them online. When someone posts directly on your Facebook page or calls you out by your Twitter handle, it’s a clear message that they expect an answer. Adjust your profile settings to make sure you are notified when someone reaches out to you on social media.

You should respond to questions and complaints on social media as soon as possible. This doesn’t just show the individual that you care, it also shows your responsiveness and professionalism to any other potential supporters who may see the post.

If the conversation is better off being moved to email or phone, you can be proactive by sending a private message to reengage the commenter. And your message shouldn’t just say “Please send all comments and questions to [email protected]” That is the social media equivalent of being pushed out the door.

If someone emails a question or complaint, they will likely send it to the first email address they find for the organization, which may not alert the best person who can offer help. Again, don’t respond by telling them to email someone else. It only takes a few seconds more to personally forward the email to the correct staff member and introduce them. It is often little steps like this that prevent hard feelings and lost donors.

A Final Word

It can be frustrating to deal with a critical or angry donor, but remember that a complaint about the organization isn’t a personal insult. In fact, complaints from donors and customers often have nothing to do with the staff member they speak to. Remembering this can help you stay calm and cordial when speaking to unhappy donors. If you find, however, that a donor is becoming insulting or belligerent, do not retaliate. People only feel justified in anger when others around them react badly.

Most of your communications with donors will remain civil and friendly, but your best chance of resolving the issue and retaining the donor is to actively listen to their concern and explain what action you can realistically take to help them.

Keep Donors Coming Back: Download the Customer Service Guide Now

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