Another Donor Complaint – So Who Cares?!

Another Donor Complaint – So Who Cares?!

The Donor cared enough to complain. And if you have any interest in raising funds for your cause, you HAVE to care!

Here’s why:

  • Take a look at the percentage of net revenue (i.e.“profit”) that comes from your existing donor pool. Unless you’ve just had an ice-bucket challenge, you are raising substantially more net revenue from your existing donor pool than you are from first time donors. You need to keep as many donors as possible.
  • Non-financial transactions like complaints are a good indicator of loyalty. (If you have a “complaints database” or record donor-initiated human interaction in donor records, you’re sitting on a gold mine!)
  • It’s generally five (or more) times more expensive to replace an existing donor with a new one, than to keep an existing donor.
  • According to research conducted by Professor Adrian Sargeant, if you can resolve the complaint to the donor’s satisfaction immediately, 82 – 94% will make a subsequent donation. Even if the donor complains and you aren’t able to resolve the problem to the donor’s satisfaction, 18 – 47% will give again. (Read this and other essential information for increasing lifetime value in Building Donor Loyalty by Adrian Sargeant and Elaine Jay)
  • Word of mouth is powerful. Apparently a dissatisfied donor will tell 10 others. BUT people who have their complaint resolved will tell 4 – 5 people about it.



Research conducted by Professor Adrian Sargeant show that of donors who have experienced a problem with a nonprofit and don’t complain, only 8 – 31% of them will ever make another donation (8% if it was a major problem – as perceived by the donor). See the percentages referenced earlier. Even if the donor complained and you weren’t able to resolve the issue, the donor is more likely to give again than those who don’t complain.

But the vast majority of dissatisfied donors won’t complain – they’ll simply shift their support to another organization with a similar mission. After all, it’s the mission the donor supports, not your organization. And they’ll tell others about their negative experience. So make it easy for donors to complain.



The larger your database of donors, the more likely their communication with your organization is transactional – solicitations, donations, receipts attached to thank you letters(!), credit card statements, bank statements.

So when a donor contacts you to complain, it’s a wonderful opportunity for human interaction.

Above all else, complaining donors want to be heard. It’s an opportunity to listen and engage the donor in conversation. Resolve the problem. Continue the conversation and find out WHY the donor first chose to support the mission through your organization.



Put yourself in a complaining donor’s shoes and track the donor touchpoints when she contacts your organization to make a complaint.

What happens if the donor phone’s in? Does she get to speak with a real live courteous attentive person? Is that person empowered to resolve the donor’s complaint? Is the donor put on hold? For how long? And does she have to endure listening to music – or perhaps even worse – a promotional recording of how your organization is making the world a better place, or squeaky voices of gift recipients thanking her for her support? And then does she get put through to voicemail? How soon does the donor get a call back?

What happens if the donor wants to complain via mail? Have you provided a direct contact address on your website for donors? Or do you direct donors to write to the organization (people listen, not organizations)? Do you provide a generic impersonal “contact@emailaddress” or “info@emailaddress” or do you encourage donors to email a real live person by first name?

What if the donor complains using social media? Who is charged with active monitoring of complaints and expressions of dissatisfaction? And do they know how to respond, or who to alert within the organization for immediate resolution?



Maybe your development/fundraising and communication staff know how to effectively handle complaints and they’re doing a great job. Congratulations.

BUT …  what if the donor arrives unannounced at reception? Or complains to program delivery staff? Or to a Board Member? Or to the Director of Finance? Or to a Database Administrator?

Do all of these people believe and support the mission of the organization? And do they understand that all donors are partners in achieving the mission? Do all volunteers and all levels of staff understand the relevance of different types of fundraising?

I once worked for an organization that did a lot of direct mail. When I first started working there, I learned that donor complaints were forwarded to the Database Administrator. Not a bad idea. But this Database Administrator had an intense personal dislike for direct mail, and if a donor complained about too much mail, she deleted the donor from the database!



Now that’s not realistic, is it?

There will always be people who complain. Besides, complaints can be an indication that your messaging is emotional enough to stir people enough to respond.

But you can anticipate complaints. You can brief volunteers and staff how to handle specific categories of complaints. That will help resolve donor complaints, provide opportunities for donors to share with you why they care, and give donors reason to continue their support.



It’s critically important to invest in Donor Services. As Roger Craver states in his excellent new book Retention Fundraising: Failing to offer the following costs the average organization about 20 percent of its donors:

  • Convenient options for reaching donor service agents (e-mail, website, live chat, phone)
  • Convenient hours of operation to reach a live operator or donor representative
  • Helpful and knowledgeable customer service support

If you want to retain and attract donors, providing superlative donor care is not an option. It’s a requirement.

So if you don’t yet have a Donor Relations team, or need to motivate more investment in Donor Relations, be sure to read Gail Perry’s excellent post about using the word “profit” to get the board’s attention.