Turning Things Around: How to Handle Upset Donors

donor cultivation Feb 24, 2023
upset donors

I’ve got a heavy topic for you today, but one worth exploring. At some point in your fundraising career, you are going to have an upset donor who is angry with the organization, leadership, or the direction that the organization is going. It’s not a pleasant experience, but with some grace and skills, you will make it though it.

Here’s the truth:

You will experience upset donors. It’s part of having a relationship – there are ups and downs. If a prospect is really upset and threatening to pull their giving or something drastic, engage your manager. It might take more than just you to smooth things over. That’s okay, just remember, they are upset because they care. If they didn’t care about your organization, they wouldn’t get upset. It’s hard to remember that when you’re being yelled at or lectured, but try to center yourself in the comfort that they care.

Stories of Managing Upset Donors

Throughout my career, I’ve had to deal with many upset donors, and you will too. Donors and prospects will feel that organizational decisions or changes in direction are wrong. And, they won’t be shy about voicing their opinions with you.

I was working for a hospital foundation that ended up merging into a large, catholic hospital system. When that merger happened, my hospital was no longer to offer all of the medical services it once did, specifically around women’s health. Some donors were calling and saying, "I will never give again." Then, we had other donors saying, "this is the best thing to happen and I’m going to double my gift." It was a tough situation, but the anger did die down eventually.

We lost a ton of donors and we gained a ton of donors. As a staff member, my role was to listen, let them know that they were heard, take their feedback to my supervisor, and work to keep the relationship intact, if possible. With my portfolio, I think I lost between 8-10 really great prospects, but the organization was going down a path that wasn’t going to be changed. When that happens, you thank your donors, let them know that you’re there if they want to talk again, and let them go. Sometimes you can’t always turn things around.

Here's another example, but a successful one! I had one job where I was raising money in 10 states. I travelled a lot and before each trip, I would send a handwritten note to new prospects saying that I was coming to town and would love to meet with them. Then a week before the trip, I would call everyone who received a note and schedule a time to meet. It was actually a really great strategy and landed me a lot of meetings.

I was headed to Boise Idaho and when I called one woman, she was very eager to meet, which was great. I fly to Boise and when get to her house, and she had laid out on her kitchen table all of the organizational communications that she had received in the past year or so, including the note she received from me the week before. She was so upset that the organization had wasted so much paper and so much postage. Apparently, she had called headquarters and told them to deduce her mailings, but nothing ever happened.

I had walked into her house super excited to meet a new prospect and gauge her interest but it was quickly clear that I was there to be read the riot act. I listened to everything she said, we talked about how she wanted to receive information, and I assured her that the change would be made. I asked her a few questions about how she came to know the organization and what inspired her to keep giving. She calmed down once she began speaking about her love of the organization. I realized that she was so upset because she cared so deeply.

After she served me tea and we chatted for an hour or so, I left and assured her again that I would take care of her request. Of course, I made the change immediately when I was back in my hotel at my computer and could access the database. When I got back to Seattle and checked the mail, she had sent a check for $5,000, which was her largest gift to date. Over the next year, I stayed in touch via phone because I was not going to send a note. I called her once or twice a month and right before the end of the fiscal year, she made a $50,000 gift. Sometimes people just need to be heard and acknowledged. By listening, reassuring her that I’d fix the excess mail, and then actually fix it, the situation was turned around.

Listening is Key

When donors or prospects have strong feelings, listen, and try not to get defensive. Work toward a solution and try to salvage the relationship, if possible. If it’s not possible, it’s time to let the prospect go. There will always be someone who is upset by the organizational direction or organizational changes, and as the organization’s representative, you’re going to hear about it. Be as graceful as possible and address the concerns as they arise.