Mistakes: The Unavoidable Fundraising Nightmare
A few days ago, I work up to an email from Disney that had some exciting news for me—except the subject line said, “Jeffrey, your Castaway Club news is here!” Oops! No Jeffrey here… But in Disney’s defense, that kind of mistake happens. No matter how many checkpoints we put in along the way, a mistake can slide through.
But since mistakes are inevitable, how a fundraiser responds to those errors is what can really set the organization apart. Instead of spending all our time on looking for someone (anyone but me!) to blame, our first priority needs to be our donors. While a wrong name in a subject line is not a big deal (though it can feel sloppy to a recipient), an incorrect receipt, a broken link in an eAppeal or failure to respond to a call, email or letter with a question can make a donor less inclined to give again.
Since mistakes are unavoidable, here are some time-tested (and experience-tested) ideas for responding:
Say “I’m sorry.” Maybe I’m showing my age, but someone actually apologizing in a tone that conveys sincerity seems to be a dying art. And perhaps because it is rare, it’s memorable. When something goes wrong, surprise your donors by first letting them know you are sorry for the mistake. You don’t have to beat yourself (or another person) up, but you do regret that the mistake happened—so let the donor know.
Correct it when possible—and when it matters. Send out an accurate receipt, get the link fixed (and notify donors of the new link) or pick up the phone and call if a donor is frustrated that his or her letter went unanswered. The secret is to “make it right” as quickly as possible and without further frustration for donors. But don’t call attention to a mistake that was probably not noticed by most of your donors. For example, it’s not that serious if you had a misspelled word (unless it was offensive), a duplicated inset or a flopped photo. Just thank those who call it to your attention and apologize. In these cases, a mass apology just makes more people think something they didn’t care about in the first place is a bigger deal than realized.
Go the extra mile to make fix the problem. Even if it’s a small thing, when a donor writes, emails or calls in about something, it’s a big deal to them. So, fix the problem. You’ll strengthen your relationship with the donor if he or she feels you really care.
Fix the root of the problem. This happens behind the scenes from what your donor sees. Figure out what went wrong, how to fix it and how to keep it from reoccurring. Here’s a tip: This can be good for your career, too, because it shows you are proactive, not just reactive.
Don’t make it a habit. “It’s no big deal” may seem proportional to the mistake in your mind, but if a donor cared enough to bring it up, it is a big deal to him or her. The first time a mistake happens, it’s time to fix it. There is no excuse for repeated sloppiness because that says to our donors that we aren’t exercising care… and it’s not too far to go mentally from using the wrong name in an email to misusing donations. You may think this is silly, but I’ve seen small things escalate into lapsing donors—something none of us want or can afford.
Don’t beat yourself up. Mistakes happen. If you haven’t made one recently, just wait. Albert Einstein, who I think we can agree was a pretty smart guy, said, “A person who has never made a mistake never tried anything new.” And Ralph Nader is credited with saying, “Your best teacher is your last mistake.”
This old dog knows making a mistake can be an uncomfortable way to learn, but not responding appropriately to a mistake can compound the pain. So, take a deep breath, say “I’m sorry” and move on. Life is a journey of learning… even though sometimes we wish for less time in the “classroom.”
Pamela consults with nonprofits, helping them develop their fundraising strategy and writing copy to achieve their goals. Additionally, she teaches fundraising at two universities, hoping to inspire the next generation of fundraisers to be passionate about the profession. Previously, Pamela led the fundraising programs for nonprofit organizations. Pamela is a member of the Advisory Panel for Rogare, the fundraising think tank at Plymouth University’s Hartsook Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy, a CFRE, a graduate of Wheaton College (IL) and Dominican University, and holds a Doctorate in Business Administration from California Southern University. Contact Pamela at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @pjbarden.