No one wants to listen to complaints every day. Whether the complainer is a spouse (“Put your dirty dishes in the dishwasher!”), one of your kids (“Why can’t you take me to the mall?”) or a donor (“Stop sending me so much mail!”), it might seem easier to ignore the situation than to do something about it.
But just as you don’t want your spouse to file for divorce or your child to hitch a ride to the mall from a stranger, you also don’t want a valuable donor to say goodbye to you.
Too many nonprofit organizations don’t deal with complaints in the best
manner, and many complaints end up in the garbage can with no response. What’s the best way to deal with them? Your strategy should first depend on whether the complainer is a donor or non-donor.
If the complainer is a donor, you need to pay extra-special attention to what the person is saying … and how you respond. Probably the most frequent complaint from donors concerns the frequency of solicitations. Too often, organizations respond to such complaints by automatically suspending most solicitations to the donor. This is a major mistake.
Morris Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center and one of the early innovators of direct-response fundraising, once told me about an analysis he conducted into the giving histories of SPLC’s most frequent donor complainers. He surprisingly determined that these complainers actually were the most valuable contributors on his donor list, with higher retention rates and longer donor histories than other contributors.
Dees realized that instead of suppressing these donors from his mail schedule, which effectively would lower a donor’s likelihood of responding again, he should pursue another strategy. Instead, he developed a sophisticated response system to directly address complaints. In the case of a complaint about the frequency of solicitation, he would send a thorough letter explaining the necessity of frequent solicitations, while also explaining the benefits of SPLC’s sustainer program, which would allow the donor to contribute on a regular, pre-determined basis.
Dees’ strategy resulted in increased donor bonding, with many donors joining the sustainer program and pledging regular contributions. As he explained, donors just want to know they have been heard. A personal and quick explanation on the organization’s part often will be rewarded with even more loyalty by the complaining donor.
Such a strategy also will work for other types of complaints. If a donor complains about the use of telemarketing, tell her why your organization uses it. If a donor complains about a stance your group has taken on an issue, send a thorough reply explaining why the organization did what it did. You’ll be surprised by positive responses from donors who are grateful
to know that their opinions are important.
If the complainer is someone who’s never donated to your organization before, and who probably is responding to an acquisition effort, there are other considerations to incorporate into your response.
For organizations that address politically sensitive issues, complainers might disagree with your stance. If this is the case, a response generally isn’t needed, although do yourself and the complainer a favor by including the individual on a do-not-solicit suppression file, which you should use with each merge/purge.
What if the complainer is belligerent? Calls you names? Thankfully, the days when such characters attach your BRE to a brick and mail it back are long gone. But such individuals still gladly will send you letters filled with vitriol. While it might give you temporary enjoyment to answer these people in kind, such a letter could find its way back to your boss or, worse, the press. Avoid the temptation and just add the complainer to your suppression file.
Jim Hussey is president of Adams Hussey & Associates. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.