Give Complaints the Attention They Deserve


I’d like to suggest a process for how to give complaints the attention they deserve.

I suggest this because complaints, at smaller organizations, tend to be given outsized attention. And that outsized attention almost always guarantees that the organization won’t grow as fast as it could, and won’t achieve as much of its mission as it could.

In my experience, here’s how complaints are usually handled:

  • Vague information.  No numbers are used, it’s always phrases like “so many” and “the front desk was bombarded with calls today” and “we had a scary number of unsubscribes.”
  • Super-emotional delivery.  Complaints are reported breathlessly, or with trepidation. 
  • Immediate escalation to leadership.  Complaints don’t get reported through normal channels and departments, they are immediately shared far and wide.

Please don’t get me wrong: I think these responses to complaints are normal and understandable. Asking for money is hard, awkward work. It takes vulnerability. And vulnerability opens us up to being wounded by complaints. 

All that said, these responses to complaints are unhelpful.

Here are my proposed guidelines for how smaller organizations handle complaints:

No vagueness allowed. Only hard numbers and actual counts, please. When someone says, “OMG so many complaints!” the appropriate response is, “Thank you, please tell me exactly how many, over what time period, and what they said.  Then we’ll figure out how to respond.”

Share context about the Complainer. Are they a donor or non-donor? A major donor? A board member who we already know doesn’t like fundraising?  Context matters; a complaint from a major donor is significantly different than a complaint from a non-donor who is on your email list.

Share context about the Campaign. When talking about complaints, the fundraising results of the piece of fundraising should also be shared. The complaint(s) and money raised are results of the same thing, and both need to be evaluated to understand the whole picture.  If you’re told that 5 complaints came in, that sounds awful. If you’re told that the 5 complaints came in along with 500 gifts, the “5 complaints” is a completely different story.

Escalate appropriately. Complaints are reported to the Fundraising department or appropriate staff person – and no one else. Then trust the process from there. 

Complaints are a fact of life for growing nonprofits as they communicate with more and more people.  Complaints are a fee, not a fine

Treat them appropriately and they come to be seen and felt as an unfortunate fee you have to pay – but a fee you willingly pay because the organization is raising so much more money and achieving more of its mission.


Steven Screen is Co-Founder of The Better Fundraising Company and lead author of its blog. With over 25 years' fundraising experience, he gets energized by helping organizations understand how they can raise more money. He’s a second-generation fundraiser, a past winner of the Direct Mail Package of the Year, and data-driven.

6 comments on “Give Complaints the Attention They Deserve

  1. Yes! I wish this was evident to more people. I try to remind folks that we don’t need to be liked by everyone, and that it’s okay for people to self-select that our organization isn’t for them. I truly don’t believe that you can engender passion for your cause by being bland or by being afraid that someone won’t like you.

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