Pro Tip | Working with an unhappy donor

publication date: Sep 28, 2021
author/source: Ann Rosenfield

Every March I get a phone call from a donor who is doing their taxes and asking "Where is my tax receipt?!" They are often angry and flustered because they are trying to get an annoying task completed. I find the most important next step is to confirm their address with them. I am telling you right now that 99% of the time, either the donor has a new address and didn't update it with the charity or that receipt is in their spam folder.

Not all donor situations are as easy as confirming an address change. Here are some common issues and how to deal with them.

Name spelled wrong

Sometimes we just simply spell a donor's name wrong. Thankfully, in an electronic world, this is easy to correct. When printing donor lists, electronic, paper, or plaques, it is a good idea to proofread all donor names with another person. In addition to apologizing to the donor, you need to both make the situation right, and develop a way to make sure the mistake doesn't happen again and then report that to the donor. 

Shows up at an event without RSVPing

I recently had an outdoor donor event to thank major donors. We had RSVPs for 25 and 32 showed up. Fortunately, I was prepared! We had pre-printed nametags for all the invitees (it was a small list) and we had ordered extra food. If you have ever had a parent say "family hold back" when more guests arrived than planned, you will appreciate that the three staff present gave up our meals so that the donors could eat. In fact, I always order a vegan, a gluten-free, and a vegetarian meal for staff so that if someone has forgotten to tell us of their dietary restrictions, we can still accomodate them.

In addition to food and name tags, we had maintenance staff on call to quickly bring in 2 more tables with chairs so that all guests could sit. We also had extra gift bags to give so that everyone who attended was able to be welcomed and thanks.

While this was an unusually high percentage of walk-ins, it is common to have at least one or two people show up who did not RSVP. Be prepared!

Angry that gift has not been acknowledged

Charities are generally slow at thanking donors and recognizing their gifts. As a rule, the donor public is surprisingly forgiving of this problem. Similar to a missing tax receipt, the first thing to check when a donor complains that their gift has not been acknowledged is to confirm the gift has been received. If you do not see the gift in the database, the next step is to ask the donor if the gift may have come through another way like a Donor Advised Fund (DAF), through a transfer of a gift of securities, through a company or private foundation. There can be more than one way that a gift arrives. Generally, the issue is that the gift was not marked correctly in your database. If you are slow at sending out your thank-yous, then that is another, way bigger, issue you need to resolve.

Everyone makes mistakes. By staying calm in your conversation with a donor, you can often explain the problem quickly and easily and put their mind to rest.  A good apology is always key but an apology combined with an explanation of how you will prevent the problem in the future is even better.

Ann Rosenfield is the Editor of Hilborn Charity eNews and has made all these mistakes more than once, sadly.

Cover photo by Icons8 Team on Unsplash


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