Decoding Donor Nasty-grams…And How to Handle Without Losing Your Cool

Decoding Donor Nasty-grams…And How to Handle Without Losing Your Cool

We’ve all been there. You’ve just finished up a staff meeting, and everything looks on track for the (virtual) gala next week. There was a small spike in online donations last night thanks to a new social media plan your team spent weeks developing and rolling out. It’s a good day.

Then you see it. The email at the top of your inbox, from one of your organization’s most loyal donors. The subject line is in all caps. “ON MY FACEBOOK?!? This is in an invasion of privacy! Why would you ask me for money on my Facebook?!” Your donor came across one of your new targeted adds in her Facebook feed (she lives locally and follows many similar pages of organizations that share in similar missions to your organization.) She feels violated and demands to be removed from any communications – and has unfollowed your Facebook page.

If this hasn’t happened to you, how about either of the following:

“I called and made a donation and never received a receipt. You must not care about my gift.”

“I don’t like the way your organization handled XYZ. I won’t be giving again.”

These are not isolated incidents. And it can feel downright discouraging—even personal—when a donor expresses their frustration. However, we are in the business of positivity and inspiration. Positive and inspiring interactions with donors, positive and inspiring fundraising results, and uplifting, positive and inspiring effects on the populations we serve.

If you’ve ever been in a situation like the above, there is a way out; it just requires a little patience, humility, and problem-solving. Read on for our tips to ensure you come out of your next “mishap” stronger than ever, with all relationships intact.


1. First things first, if there was a mistake, fix it. Promptly. Did you accidentally address an appeal letter to your donor…and his ex-wife? Did your website crash right after you sent an email to 30,000 people? Maybe a new staff member mispronounced your largest donor’s name. We are human, and mistakes happen. Fix the issue immediately, and if appropriate, reach out to the donor to apologize and provide correct information.

2. Hear your donor out. There’s the old customer service adage, “the customer is always right.” While it may not always be true, approaching a situation from a place of empathy rather than defensiveness leads to a greater chance of resolve. Listen to what your donor is saying and validate their feelings. Chances are, they’re not mad at the organization – they’re mad at the situation. Let them share why they feel the way they do, so you can better understand how to address their concerns, now and in the future.

3. Take responsibility. If it was a simple mistake, apologize and assure them it won’t happen again (and take pains to do so. Update their constituent information in your database with an alert, add a phonetic pronunciation guide, etc.). If it’s a larger issue that relates to the whole operation, consider taking their concerns to leadership to see if anything can be done. Maybe there is an opportunity to revisit your approach to certain things. If it doesn’t make sense for your organization to make a global change, consider adjustments for this donor where appropriate. Believe it or not, while your CRM is probably incredibly powerful and efficient, there remain certain donor nuances that merit your personal, manual attention.  Don’t let technology and “best practice” get in the way of what makes the most sense!  If you know your donor prefers to be prompted with a regular call, put a note on his or her donor record (or in your personal calendar), and assign someone to do it—without fail.

4. Maintain the relationship. If you’ve consulted with leadership, other team members, and those closest to the organization, and the donors’ claims are unfounded or not able to be addressed, ask the donor for an opportunity to share more about why the organization is pursuing Strategy X over Strategy Y. If possible, talk to your donor face to face, and keep it simple. Explain in 30 seconds or less why this is the organization’s position/response, and what it will mean for your shared goals of advancing the mission.

To use our example from above: “we’ve struggled with poor participation on social media in the past, and our goal this year is to increase our followers and introduce new people to the great work we do. Our targeted Facebook ads have increased website views by 80% already, and our number of new monthly donors is increasing, allowing us to serve more people. I know it may feel like an invasion of privacy, but you’re seeing this ad because you’ve indicated online that you care about our work — which is so incredibly valuable to us. We want to encourage more people to feel the same way, so that we can serve more people/animals/etc.”

Then, if you can, offer words of encouragement to assuage their concerns. “We aren’t looking at your Facebook page, and our ad campaign ends in March. I hope you’ll still feel comfortable helping us achieve our mission alongside what we hope is a new cohort of advocates for our work.”


At the end of the day, your donors are your donors because they care about your mission. While there may be hurdles along the way, the underlying reason for your relationship is the same: you both want to make a difference. Keep that in mind when dealing with unexpected challenges, and you’ll come out on the other side with a renewed appreciation for your donors and their perspectives.

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A development executive with more than 40 years of experience, Jay launched The Angeletti Group, LLC (TAG) in 2006 – a consulting firm designed to partner with clients engaged in independent and higher education, healthcare and academic medicine, and community building initiatives. Jay received his B.A. from Lake Forest College and studied public administration and nonprofit management at the University of Connecticut.