Not All Complaints are Equal

Not all complaints are equal. 

For instance, a complaint from a non-donor who is subscribed to your email newsletter should be given less time and attention than a complaint from a beneficiary or staff member.

So, a smart organization responds differently to different complaints.

As an organization responds to a complaint, there are three main “variables”:

  • Change the level of energy put into the response
  • Change the fundraising the complainer receives in the future
  • Change the fundraising all donors receive in the future

Change the Level of Energy

You can vary how much energy you respond to a complaint with.

For instance, the complainer can receive a pre-written email that acknowledges their complaint and thanks them for submitting it… or be met for coffee and an hour-long conversation… or anywhere in between.

Don’t spend more energy than needed when responding to complaints.

Note: this principle also applies to an organization’s internal response to complaints.  A complaint can kick-start worried discussions and hijack future meetings… or it can be quickly submitted into a system and handled professionally.

Change What the Complainer Receives

You can vary the amount or selection of fundraising you send to the person who complains. 

Perhaps they only want to receive a certain type of your fundraising impacts, like your newsletters but not your appeals.  Or they’d like to receive fewer overall pieces.

Code that person’s record in your CRM appropriately and/or make notes to future list pulls, and move along.

Change What Everyone Receives

You can change all of your fundraising that every donor receives.

This is making changes like, “We can’t ever use that phrase again” or “Let’s reduce the number of mail pieces and emails we send.”

This is the most drastic approach.  It’s the approach that smaller nonprofits tend to gravitate towards because of fears that the complainer is speaking for untold numbers of people.  But it’s the approach least used by larger organizations, because they know that one complainer does not speak for anyone but themselves.

Right-Sized Response

The trick is to right-size your response. 

Our advice is to always value complaints and the person making them.  It’s important to respond warmly  because when a person complains, the response or interaction they have with the organization is often the only customized, personal interaction they’ve ever had with the organization.  The person will form a lot of their opinion about the organization based on this interaction.

And at the same time, respond to each complaint with the right amount of energy and the right level of response. Over-reaction gives recipients more power than they deserve.

In a nutshell, one person’s fundraising preferences should not drive your organization’s fundraising strategy.

Read the series:

  1. Getting Used to Complaints
  2. Outline for How to Respond to a Complaint
  3. Not All Complaints are Equal (this post)
  4. Natural, But Not Productive
  5. The Two Times Smaller Orgs Get More Complaints
  6. So. Many. Reasons. To. Complain.
  7. The Harmful Big Assumption
  8. Turning Complaints into Gifts
  9. “Friendly Fire” — Complaints from Internal Audiences
  10. Our Final Thoughts on Complaints


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.

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